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Theater Review

'What's on the Hearts of Men' on a Mission

April 11, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Malik Yoba, director (with George Faison), writer (with brother A. Rahman Yoba) and star of the musical "What's on the Hearts of Men," playing through Sunday at the Wilshire Theatre, has described himself as an "actorvist." The actor part is self-explanatory; Yoba, best known for his role in the TV series "New York Undercover," also appears in "Hearts of Men." The "-vist" part comes from his offstage devotion to social causes, most notably the Malik Yoba Fatherhood Project, serving fathers and families.

With "What's on the Hearts of Men," the Yoba brothers become theatervists, or playwrightvists, or something like that.

This boisterous, unabashedly emotional story of three confused guys (portrayed with crystal clarity by Malik Yoba, Michael LeMelle and BeBe Winans) and their struggles with the realities and stereotypes of what it means to be an African American male at the millennium is a sometimes moving, often baffling combination of musical play and sermon, theater and therapy.

This show, which stopped in New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis and Atlanta before coming to L.A., seems to be less on a theater tour than on a mission to change American society, complete with a recurring high school lecture on birth control ("two words--con dom.")

Unlike the long-running, three-woman confessional "The Vagina Monologues," currently at the Coronet Theatre, the opposite sex appears onstage in "Hearts of Men"--most notably the diminutive vocal powerhouse Stephanie Mills, who has returned from wherever she's been since "The Wiz" to portray Carmen, the relentlessly perky girl-next-door, friend and conscience to the men. This is not a male monologue, but an attempt at a conversation between the sexes.

Yet this earnest, uneven effort is at its best in those scenes when it's not too teachy and preachy. Possibly to the detriment of the intended message, these three men are at their most real, and most appealing, when they're behaving very, very badly. It's almost worth enduring the melodramatic plot twists--and scoldings from Stephanie--to get to the smart, edgy, hilarious vernacular of these emotionally wounded men when they're alone. Onstage, the Yobas' script offers plenty of instruction on how men should treat women, but they seem to write better when females are completely out of the room.

There are some gorgeous voices here, most notably Mills and Winans, belting out unmemorable songs. Unfortunately, the power of the voices was compromised by an erratic sound system, cranked up beyond the threshold of pain.

*

"What's on the Hearts of Men," Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tickets $25.50-$40.50. Today and Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232.

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