The number of distinct characters solo performer Don Reed conjures in his newest autobiographical piece, "Can You Dig It?" — which focuses mostly on his childhood in the 1960s — is amazing.
There's his cool-cat father, a charming, affectionate jokester who is also a two-timing pimp, eventually getting kicked out of the family's East Oakland home.
There's his no-nonsense mother, who dreams of Paris and pronounces "again" as a-gane, for an imagined fancy effect.
There's his mischievous brother Shelley, and his two half brothers, Daryl (who prefers the pronunciation Durelle) and Tony (an effeminate, take-no-prisoners fighter, who prances around crooning, "My boyfriend's black, and there's gonna be trouble ...").
There's his sister and his father's goofy partner-in-crime, Trout Mouth. There's his stepfather, a controlling Jehovah's Witness who makes Donny brush his eyebrows every day before school because they're too thick.
There are lots more characters, each one of them so precisely and elegantly — and hilariously — depicted through body language, facial expression, vocal timbre and accent that, as they appear and reappear, you recognize them by nothing more than the distinguishing curl of a lip or the glimmer in an eye.
Best of all, there's young Don himself, afflicted with multiple twitches and tics — a stammer, a blink, something weird with his mouth. Reed is unrelenting and hysterically funny in revealing his youthful self, as well as family and friends, warts and all. You gotta love it.
During the course of the long (almost two hours) but always-engaging show, Reed follows a chronological path that emphasizes his grade school experiences but also, toward the end, skips through his college years and his early career as a stand-up comic. (He detailed those years in his previous solo shows, "East 14th" and "The Kipling Hotel.")
Along the way, he relates incidental stories (like the time Shelley got his tongue stuck to the freezer, or how his parents danced the cha-cha together) and important milestones: his first awareness of racism, the first time he was bullied (by a kid who demanded his milk money daily in exchange for Black Panther buttons), his first sexual experience, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and, touchingly, the death of his father and mother.
Ultimately this is a loving tribute to those idiosyncratic parents, and although there is no particular overarching focus to the show, it's a wonderfully entertaining evening with a master storyteller.REVIEW
Can You Dig It?
Where: Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 25
Tickets: $20 to $35
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org