MPAACT’s latest world premiere, The Master Comic, dives headfirst into controversial waters by following the downfall of a fictional world-famous comedian. Mr. Wolfe, a thinly veiled portrayal of Bill Cosby (played by a boisterous and ribald cigar-munching, sweater-vest-wearing Donn Carl Harper) had everything: an enviable career, an adoring wife, dear friends, and a talented protege. When a viral video surfaces casting a harsh light onto his sexual exploits—consensual and otherwise—the audience is privy to watching his downfall from the inside.
The premise is compelling—who wouldn’t want to consume a full platter of fully deserved schadenfreude? However, that satisfaction is inert because we know how things will end for Wolfe. Writers Aaron Todd Douglas and Yusef Williams (adapting an earlier script by Terrance T. Brown) attempt to regain this tension by exploring the intersection between authentic friendships and craven opportunism and indicting Wolfe’s circle of friends. (Full disclosure: Williams is also well known locally as Seth Thomas and is a colleague of mine at the Second City Training Center. I was unaware that he wrote under his legal name.)
Undermining the potential power of the story is that the accusations of consensual infidelity, versus drugging and rape, are flattened, not addressed distinctly, and are treated with the same weight. Actor Venice Averyheart plays Connie, Wolfe’s wife, and her arc speaks solely to that of a jilted woman. When she powerfully delivers the big impassioned monologue, it unfortunately lands as a pedestrian lover’s spat, and robs us of the existential horror of a woman wrestling with discovering that her husband is a rapist.
Kenneth Johnson plays a multilayered Doc, Wolfe’s childhood friend and a writer who pleads with Wolfe to move out of denial and closer to a mea culpa with persuasion and threats. Delysa Richards plays his assistant, Yaz, who brings bombshell revelations along with her professional skills. It is left up to our interpretation whether the eventual conclusions of these stories are betrayals of friendship or just deserts for Wolfe. The play also asks why would we want or expect anyone to be loyal to a monster.
Most interesting in Runako Jahi’s staging is the subplot involving Wolfe’s protege David, played by a charming Benjamin T. Jenkins. His unrequited desire to receive the blessing of his past-his-prime, morally flawed idol mirrors an anecdote heartbreakingly expressed by Eddie Murphy regarding his recollections of Cosby on a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. What do elders and others who hold power owe the younger generation? For the young and the powerless, is there a line between seeking mentorship and expecting a handout? The Master Comic revisits the poisonous legacy of Cosby’s “Pull up your sagging pants” respectability politics, and shows how turning a blind eye toward his blatant abuse still haunts the Black community. Despite its flaws, MMPACT’s production is thoroughly compelling, excavating the grimy bits of life that we shouldn’t look away from. v