The place: Los Angeles. The time: Now and memories of the early 1970s when black culture was at its peak. The city plans to create new bigger and commercial venues, like Walgreen’s and Star Bucks, squeezing out the mom and pop stores that have been a reliable mainstay. This also means that newsstand owner Lester Jones has to get out. The weather-beaten old man has hustled at the same spot for over 30 years. Lester is more than the cranky man who sells the latest issues of “KING” and “Life & Style” magazines, he’s the last original piece on a block who became a victim of gentrification. The conglomerates are taking over and Lester’s newsstand is the last obstacle in the way of progress.

Kim Blackwell in one of her many roles from 'Lady K is on the Mic'

He’s seen people come and go, businesses prosper and fail and watched the city grow from a friendly community to the enormous, looking-out-for-me facade. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times wants to interview him on how Los Angeles has changed in the last 30 years. Lester adjusts his fedora hat, takes a seat and shares his volumes of spectacular stories with the young writer. So many people have come through Lester’s newsstand and each with their own story. Like the soul train dancer who takes to heart the 1960s anthem “Black is Beautiful’ and imitates an actress she saw in an Afro Sheen commercial saying that she’s ‘beautiful, viable and undeniable‘. She tries to teach the much older Lester what it means to be black and proud. Lester rolls his eyes at the young girl probably thinking, ‘She thinks this is something new?’ Lester remembers attending the Wattstax concert in August 1972 at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, as a commemoration of the Watts riots in 1965, sponsored by Stax Records, the label that gave us Isaac Hayes, the Dramatics and other Stax recording artists. For the price of $1, people grooved and swayed to Kim Weston, the Bar-Kays, and listened to the Reverend Jesse Jackson preach his famous ‘I Am Somebody’ speech and watched 100,000 black fists wave with pride in the air. Director Mel Stuart filmed the festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe.

There’s DeeDee who runs the neighborhood talent agency who speaks about a mile a second in seducing prospective clients with somewhat lucrative gigs. One woman stops in stating that she was in the play “Medea” but DeeDee mistakes it name for the Tyler Perry character instead of the Greek playwright Euripides. She further suggests that if playwright August Wilson reworked “Fences”, trim down the drama, added more comedy, changed the name he would have a bonafide hit. DeeDee would revolutionize the theater industry, if she had her way.

Blackwell posing as her lead role Lester Jones

Every neighborhood has their own fixtures on the block and Lester’s is no exception. There’s Rick who hustles his bootleg copies of movies which are still in the theaters, Carlos who works in a hardware store but has dreams of running his own art gallery, the neighborhood kid who destroyed the family home and is now stays at a shelter and the flip side of adolescence is 13-year-old Kayla on punishment for talking back to her mama. Obviously the girl wasn’t thinking right. Kayla wants to be “America’s Next Top Model” so she can add some hair to her short head and be accepted as beautiful.

Blackwell effortlessly morphs into her numerous characters. From a Mexican store worker to a Russian make-up artist on hip-hop videos to the complexities of a teenager going through her own strife. In between all of that, Blackwell steps aside and recites the most innovative and inspiring poetry that sticks to you long after the show is over. She spits out cool lines like: “Remember when Black people used to be cool/ When Everybody Plays the Fool/Was the Main Ingredient and there was only one Cuba Gooding?/And it wasn’t Junior…” Under the brilliant direction of Rich Embardo, the man to seek out in perfecting a solo show, Blackwell is simply amazing to watch giving each character their own distinct vibe and quirk.

As the Soul Train dancer worshipping the mantra 'Black is Beautiful'

Most importantly, these are the people that we grew up with, their down home appeal connects with the audience. Man, woman, teenage girl, scared teen boy, Blackwell ahs gifts across the creative spectrum. And her show is an excellent introduction to the Los Angeles theater community.

“Lady K is on the Mic” plays at the Underground Annex Theater, 1308 N. Wilton Place, Hollywood, Wednesday nights until August 15. For more reservations cal (323) 960-7822 or visit www.plays411.com/ladyk

Photo by Alisa Sherrod

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