Quentin T Do Amateur Night at de Apollo

Great Beast Theater

at SweetCorn Playhouse

By Jack Helbig

On the stage and off, Michael Martin is loud and opinionated. Playing the role of producer–of this or that low-budget, non-Equity production–he can always be counted on to tell you what he thinks of his show. Even as a company’s quasi-official PR guy, a position that requires some diplomacy with the press, he’s never hesitated to ring me up and tell me exactly what I’ve gotten wrong in my reviews, in painstaking detail. Onstage he uses the same persona. He doesn’t just step onto the stage–he occupies the territory, digging in his toes, and lets fly with whatever’s on his mind, as if nothing on earth can make him stop until he’s finished. This is a good trait in a monologuist, one that lends his work a sense of life-or-death importance and makes even his more mundane material fascinating.

It’s also a trait Martin shares with a much better known blabbermouth, movie director Quentin Tarantino, the subject of his one-man show. Tarantino always tells us more than we want to hear about his life and work, packing more opinions, ego, and just plain chatter into ten minutes of speech than some filmmakers manage in a whole interview. Many directors have slept with their leading ladies, yet Tarantino makes a point of dropping Uma Thurman’s name, as if Pulp Fiction weren’t proof enough of his worth. If it happened to him and in some way elevates his prestige, he has to tell the world about it. Which may be why Martin completely disappears into Tarantino, despite this show’s ultralow-budget production on the ratty stage of the SweetCorn Playhouse, with minimal props and few light cues to speak of. Judging from the publicity photos, Martin has a special, Tarantino-esque prosthetic chin, but he opted not to wear it the night I saw him perform. The chin was not missed.

Martin has no more to work with than words and body language, but playing Tarantino he has more than enough, especially since he’s willing to push the limits of good taste much as Tarantino tests the boundaries in his slick, ultraviolent, sexually charged movies. The premise of the show alone could sink a performer less cocksure: for reasons Martin never explains, Tarantino has been invited to perform as part of the weekly amateur night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Naturally Tarantino takes over the show, turning what should have been an evening of song, dance, and comedy into a two-hour examination of his work, with special attention to his complex cultural relationship with the black community. And just as naturally, he commits every faux pas a white man can make before such an audience. Throughout the show Martin’s Tarantino speaks in Hollywood black dialect–“Yo! Sistahs ‘n’ brothers, whassup? How y’all doing tonight?”–and liberally laces his lecture with two of his favorite words, nigger and motherfucker.

Many white actors and comics–among them Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce–have wrapped themselves in black speech and counted on the cognitive dissonance of a white man jiving to carry them through shallow patches in their work. But Martin’s show uses Tarantino’s language to deconstruct him. At first his language seems sweet and whimsical, much as his use of blaxploitation cinema in Jackie Brown (casting Pam Grier as a character who was white in Elmore Leonard’s source novel, Rum Punch) seems an homage to a much-neglected genre. But as the evening wears on, Tarantino’s “aw reet”s and “y’all”s begin to sound more condescending and desperate, especially when, seeming to forget his suburban youth, he begins speaking as if he were indeed a major black director. For Martin, Tarantino is just another in a long line of cultural thieves that stretches back to Sam Phillips, Al Jolson, and Stephen Foster.

If that were all Martin had to say, his show would be worth catching, but Martin is after nothing less than a full and passionate examination of Hollywood’s deep ambivalence toward African-Americans. It celebrates strong, virile actors like Samuel L. Jackson, but it also loves nothing more than bringing them down, either literally, in gun battles, or symbolically, the way Danny Glover becomes a comic foil to Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series. As Martin points out, Tarantino may pair powerful black men with blond white women in his films, but he never shows the two of them making love or even sharing a brief moment of affection. Instead Uma Thurman goes for John Travolta and Bridget Fonda tumbles for Robert De Niro. Both are punished for flouting the racial code: Thurman nearly dies of a drug overdose and Fonda is murdered in a mall parking lot. Martin peels back the layers, beginning with Tarantino’s admitted debts to black culture but then turning to the myriad ways his films insult that culture and revealing how the film industry turns everyone, even respected black directors like John Singleton, into pawns in a larger and more subtle racist game, one that, as Cornel West might argue, reinforces our white supremacist culture.

Martin has researched his topic well. He knows Tarantino’s life, his films, and the films of his competitors and colleagues; he even includes a bibliography in the show’s program (a Tarantino-like calculation meant to illustrate Martin’s intelligence for even the least attentive patron). Onstage he works hard to convince us of things that are evident at first glance; like Tarantino, he doesn’t always believe completely what he’s so forcefully saying. But that too is a common element in Martin and Tarantino’s charm–beneath all the bluster and verbal aggression lies vulnerability–and it only adds tensile strength to an already compelling show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kris Wasko.