There’s a moment in Ronald “Smokey” Stevens’ one-man journey through his life, I Just Want to Tell Somebody—based on his autobiography of the same name—when he compares an episode of his life to the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.
More to the point is the sad story of Job who was put through the ringer by God and came out of it intact and happy. Smokey, his preferred moniker, had a fairly easy rise to success and an equally quick slide downhill.
Large and personable, Smokey seemed a bit ill-at-ease at first as he entered Stephen Byrd’s simple set—a table set for breakfast, some chairs, a laptop and show posters on panels—wearing a snazzy vest over an all-black shirt and trousers. (Byrd is also the show’s director.)
He used the gimmick of preparing to perform the very show he was performing for his audience in the Cabaret Theater of the Theater for the New City; but by the end of his fascinating and grueling life story he was on fire with his tale of his life in the theater and film. He grew up in the Sixties when the U.S. was in turmoil and it seemed that everyone was getting high.
Smokey’s career began with a first prize in his Washington, D.C., high school talent show and some performances at the Arena Stage. He quit school to try his luck in California but failed and returned to D.C. where he joined an all-Black repertory theater and appeared in his first commercial which he showed on a large screen. Much later he appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club as a featured musical performer. His number in the film was shown proving he was an impressive dancer and singer partnered by Jackée Harry.
In between the commercial and The Cotton Club Smokey impressed enough of the right people to get jobs in musical theater including Bubbling Brown Sugar which became his theatrical home base. This opened up his career. He met many mentors and made many friends and enemies including a colorful but sad confrontation with the legendary Cab Calloway.
He also appeared in a Bob Hope special where he danced with the terrific Vivian Reed. That led indirectly led to his being cast in the film version of The Wiz.
To illustrate the under-belly of his life, he used the device of turning himself into D-man, a twisted alter-ego speaking in a growl, who alternately tempted Smokey with drugs and chastised him for using them. Drugs, particularly cocaine and later crack, loomed large in his life and led to his downfall. Even his father contributed to Smokey’s addictions.
His singing and dancing prowess took him all over the country and to Europe where he was fired from a show under ridiculously petty circumstances leading him to put together a cabaret act which ultimately broke him financially.
Smokey’s heartfelt story, acted with impressive passion, took him from this successful career to his descent into and his recovery from addiction.
Byrd’s direction seemed focused on tempo and rhythm which suited Smokey’s temperament perfectly.
Alexander Bartenieff’s lighting was bare-boned but effective.
I Just Want to Tell Somebody (extended through January 30, 2022)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission
A fascinating but grueling story of a talented performer’s rise, fall and ultimate success.