A one-man show that rails against the evils of racism, sexism and capitalism isn't exactly the kind of high-concept showcase that wins a comic a sitcom deal. But--laugh tracks be damned--that's what stand-up Shang Forbes angrily and energetically presents with "Ism," which opened Tuesday and runs for the next five weeks at Theatre at the Improv.
Part rant, part linguistics lecture and part beatnik cabaret, the 70-minute show turns a sharp eye toward the variety of ways in which humans mistreat each other. If Forbes sometimes sheds more heat than light on his topics, he has still created a provocative, engaging and often very funny performance piece.
On a small stage bedecked with incense and candles, Forbes held forth on his varied themes as the "isms" in question were projected on a screen behind him. In black cap, black T-shirt and jeans, the performer began each section calmly laying out his acerbic arguments, but he often worked himself into a limb-flinging frenzy. His points were also sometimes underscored by a sudden morph into character: a pot-smoking black man blaming his diarrhea on "the white devil," or the white male members of the Supreme Court revealing themselves to be beer-guzzling yahoos. During a few sections, Forbes was backed by the wickedly soulful grooves of a five-piece band, the Polyester Players.
The material was strongest when Forbes created small-scale comedic scenarios that exemplified his larger points. After speaking about sexism, the comic wondered how different the world might be if men suffered menstrual pains every time they demeaned a woman. His demonstration of a cad felled by cramps in mid-leer, then bursting into uncontrollable tears, was a highlight of the night. His discussion of bedroom biology and his depiction of a woman gamely putting up with an incompetent male lover were also very funny.
His talks on capitalism and fascism, though equally emphatic, were less successful, often meandering through setups that didn't quite find their pay-off.
"Ism" doesn't have the smoothed-over feel of many one-person shows; far from running through well-worn, scripted shtick, Forbes often seemed to be ad-libbing, allowing himself to get swept up in the emotions of his material. Though this led to a few lapses in delivery, the rough-edged, open approach generally complemented the charged topics of the piece.
In the show's most sentimental moment, Forbes celebrated feminism with a remembrance of his late mother, who encouraged his performing career with the advice, "Just try to tell the truth." In terms of that simple, laudable goal, "Ism" is a success.
* "Ism," Theatre at the Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 3. $10. (310) 289-1234.