The Blacker the Berry

The Blacker the Berry, the Sweeter the Juice
a kate west review
written by and starring Mario Burrell, directed by Jemal McNeil
at the Zephyr Theatre,
7458 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, CA 90046
contact or call
(323) 960-7792
Running January 2 –
February 14, 2005

Mario Burrell, vibrant local talent, Broadway veteran (“Rent”) and former Groundlings student (famous improv troupe – see, tells his own tale in “The Blacker the
Berry, the Sweeter the Juice.” Playing to full houses at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood, Mario relates his life in show business while reflecting on his father, Walter Burrell (prominent journalist and publicist), who inspired him to celebrate his black heritage.

It is a sweetly-told love ballad, encompassing all the wrongs and rights that Hollywood has dealt him as a black actor and emphasizing his ability to stay strong, holding on to the memory of his beloved father. His father’s passing away had a profound on him obviously, but it also gave him the strength of integrity to remain true to himself.

Mario plays about eight different characters, all wildly different, and he completely immerses himself in each. One standout character is an older woman Mario presumably met while teaching at the Los Angeles Unified School District whose down-to-earth personality really shines through in his delightful version. She does not put up with fools and runs her classroom in a very real no-nonsense, but absolutely loving way. Her homespun sayings are highly entertaining and Mario delivers each with crowd-pleasing expertise. He also impersonates a street punk with acting aspirations, a clueless director who asks him to “be blacker” (Kelli Kirkland makes a special as the “Fried Chicken Fairy” to help him achieve that blackness) and many other delightful characters, each having had a vivid impact on his life.

Director Jemal McNeil paces Mario fairly well, although that particular evening there seemed to be some minor technical glitches and Mario had to overcome some initial nervousness. The house was packed to the rafters, however, which is truly commendable for a one-man show. Los Angeles audiences can be fickle, after all. Mario’s sincere and still-raw emotion over his father and his obvious love of theater and for playing fascinating characters makes this a poignant performance. He has a real sweetness in his stage presence and is immediately likeable. While the show could have been a bit longer and we would have liked to hear more about his father, it is a nice piece of nostalgia and audiences leave gratified to have shared some common emotions.

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