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THE BLACKER THE BERRY THE SWEETER THE JUICE

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In this one-man show, so many aspects of Mario Burrell are on display that it's never quite clear who the central character is. Is it the sweet-voiced, appealing young man of obvious talents whose bio includes the Broadway company of Rent, and several regional theatre, TV, and movie credits? Is it the privileged son of a major black publicist, whose clients and associates included Sidney Poitier and Diana Ross? Is it the product of a West Valley upbringing and a fine education, which garnered a bachelor's degree and a masters in fine arts for Burrell? Or is it the struggling black artist who consistently faces belittling discrimination in the casting office because he's not black enough, too well-spoken, not "street" enough, not tall enough, not short enough, not ethnic enough?

And is Burrell's experience special enough? Is there an artist of any shape, color, or ethnicity who has not met with similar discriminatory judgments at the hands of those with the power over numberless candidates for limited opportunities?

Burrell, under Jemal McNeil's direction, presents a difficult mix of gentle but sometimes cloying sentimentality with racially oriented standup. He bookends his show with memories of his father, including a terrific rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the song his father sang to lull him to sleep, a performance of which later won Burrell the Rent role. In between, there are characterizations of black stereotypes: a televangelist who channels characters from The Lion King; an unlikely, trash-talking kindergarten teacher who pays for poor kids' college educations; a $20-a-trick hustler who has delusions of stardom; an old Southern farmer with light-skinned sexual preferences ("…they make prettier babies"). There are obvious references to white guys who can't dance, and tall black boys who are assumed to be hoopsters. Burrell has a good ear and a huge amount of charm, but, though the black-directed material got its share of cackles and hoots from a partisan audience on opening night, one has to wonder if these equal-opportunity-racist portraits belong in a purported autobiography.

"The Blacker the Berry The Sweeter the Juice," presented by Mario Burrell at the Zephyr Theatre, 7458 Melrose Ave., L.A. Mon. 8 pm Jan. 3-Feb. 7. $12. (323) 960-7792.

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