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Daniel Beaty, a man of character(s)

THEATER

He's alone on the stage, but the 32-year-old performer's play, 'Emergency,' conjures up a cast of dozens (and not all of them male).

April 20, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

In two recent one-woman shows at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, Carrie Fisher and Joan Rivers seized the opportunity to turn the stage into a therapist's couch, spilling both the secret and not-so-secret details of their lives, loves, addictions and cosmetic surgeries.

So would it not follow that Daniel Beaty, whose one-man show "Emergency" opens today at the Geffen, would head down the same cathartic path -- especially since the 32-year-old performer can top any of Rivers' facial reinventions with a childhood saga that includes a father in jail, a brother hooked on crack cocaine and a mom too busy trying to support five children to have enough time to say "I love you"?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, April 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
'Emergency': An article in Sunday's Calendar section about performer Daniel Beaty said his one-man show "Emergency" opened Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse. The show opens Wednesday. The article also referred to a recent Geffen presentation starring Joan Rivers as a "one-woman show"; there were several other performers in Rivers' show.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 27, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Joan Rivers: An article last Sunday about Daniel Beaty's one-man show "Emergency" referred to a recent Geffen Playhouse presentation starring Joan Rivers as a "one-woman show"; there were several performers in Rivers' show.

No way, says Beaty, who portrays more than 40 characters in "Emergency," but never himself. "I wanted to write a play; I didn't want to write a self-indulgent story of my life," he says. "I've had plenty of drama in my life, which I talk about openly, but I use it to infuse my characters."

Surrounded by a cross-section of humanity including a homeless man, a TV reporter, a female reality show host and a Southern grandmother, Beaty's show tells the story of two African American brothers, one straight and one gay, whose lives are thrown into turmoil when a slave ship rises out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty.

After several years of workshop performances, the show, under the title "Emergence-SEE!" and directed by Kenny Leon, premiered at New York's Public Theater in 2006, winning the 2007 Obie Award for outstanding writing and performance.

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood offered that production a mixed review, calling Beaty's central characters "compassionate and precise" but adding, "The notion of a phantom slave ship is provocative and funny, but many in the audience may still feel that on some level they've been there, done that and bought the T-shirt."

For the Geffen, both the play's title and director have changed. At the helm is Charles Randolph-Wright, who met Beaty, a 1998 Yale graduate, while the actor was completing his MFA degree at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Randolph-Wright -- who wrote "Blue" and "Cuttin' Up," presented at Pasadena Playhouse, and staged "The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" at Coast Playhouse -- says that, along with simplifying the play's title, he and Beaty have worked on strengthening the story and human relationships within the play.

"One of my favorite pieces is Lily Tomlin's 'The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.' What's amazing about that play is it was play, even though she was playing all the characters," Randolph-Wright says. Of Beaty's play, he adds: "It's uncompromising; some of it could be considered coming from an angry place, but it's not a bitter place."

Beaty also has written a six-character play called "Resurrection," examining the state of black men in America, that he says is slated for performances at various regional theaters. As Beaty describes it, each man represents a different generation, all taken by surprise by a magical occurrence.

Puppy love

The actor, singer, writer, composer, motivational speaker and award-winning slam poet who has performed at the Kennedy Center and the White House is not the sort to wallow in his painful past.

"Get out your little violin," he cracks, before he'll tell you the tear-jerker story of Daphne, the German shepherd puppy his mom once gave him in a little Easter basket, named after a character on "Scooby-Doo" because "I thought Daphne was beautiful. I remember consciously understanding what love was through that puppy," he recalls.

"I spent the first years of my life being so unhappy that, if I never have another unhappy day, that's fine with me," Beaty says, clearly reveling in a sunny L.A. day that had begun with an audition for a sitcom pilot. "A lot of artists feel like they have to create out of drama and pain; I'm interested in creating as much joy as possible."

For that reason, Beaty doesn't read reviews: "I'm hypersensitive, and they hurt my feelings!" he says, with a loud laugh. Besides, even without critical input, Beaty is pretty clear on his own message: "We are all connected."

"I thought it would be really fun to see one person become a little girl, a grandmother, a 400-year-old chief, a Republican, a liberal, gay and straight. . . . There is an energy that connects us all."

That being said, though Beaty chooses to portray individuals of different ages, economic backgrounds and sexual orientation in "Emergency," all of them are black.

"Black American culture, like every other culture, is extremely diverse," he says. "I am very interested in giving voice to characters we have not seen before, and new voice to characters we think we have seen before.

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