Hackney actress stars in Don Evans production

Jocelyn Jee Esien

Jocelyn Jee Esien - Credit: Archant

Jocelyn Jee Esien is having a ball playing a “70s Hyacinth Bucket” in the late Don Evans’ little known comedy of manners One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

Jocelyn Jee Esien

Jocelyn Jee Esien - Credit: Archant

By all accounts the Hackney-based actress and comedienne, famed for sketch shows Little Miss Jocelyn and Three Non Blondes, is eating up the larger than life role of social climber Myra Harrison, a Mrs Malaprop of middle-class surburban Philadelphia.

She says Eclipse Theatre Company’s revival, which arrives at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre this month, is a romp of a farce which owes a debt to Restoration comedy in its themes of class, sex and the clash of city versus country.

The plot opens as the comfortable life of upwardly mobile Baptist preacher Rev Avery Harrison is disrupted by the arrival from the rural south of Beverly, the only daughter of his recently deceased brother.

Also in tow is her appointed protector Caleb, a street-wise fast living guy.

“It’s a lot of fun on stage and we are totally enjoying ourselves. We are being very obvious and unashamed that these are stock characters.

“Like Regency theatre it’s raucous with asides and talking straight to the audience about exactly what you are thinking – and often the audience is shouting back agreeing!”

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Jee Esien is gleeful that Myra’s carefully preserved social facade slips during the drama, including an hilarious post-coital scene after, ahem, re-connecting with husband Avery.

“She’s a Hyacinth Bucket character who comes a little undone, by love and sex. She goes on this amazing journey of change through contact with all these colourful characters.”

African-American playwright Evans, who died in 2003, was a contemporary of August Wilson and a leader of the Black Arts movement of the 70s, yet has never before been staged this side of the Atlantic.

Director Dawn Walton frames the play as a live TV sit-com recording of the 70s, complete with canned applause, cameras, and contemporary soundtrack.

“I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of him and didn’t even know plays like this existed.

“It’s full of fantastic parts for women and lots of comic monologues so it feels very modern.”

The original actor playing Avery and Myra’s preppy privately educated college son Felix went on to be a lead writer on The Cosby Show, which echoed the play’s focus on a middle-class black family.

“You can suddenly see where that show and others like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came from,” says Jee Esien.

“All the characters are there it’s just that this came first.”

Jee Esien herself is something of a trailblazer, as the first black woman to be given her own comedy sketch show.

Brought up in Hackney, she studied at Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green and jokes that it became cool and trendy as soon as she moved out of London.

“I’m back in Hackney now because something called me back, perhaps it was the police sirens going past continuously but I missed the noise and I feel at home there.

“It’s changed a lot but some things are still the same.”

She originally trained as an actress, but took to stand-up like a duck to water when a friend putting on a sketch show asked her to do five minutes: “I was up there for 57!”

She adds: “I used to fight against that thing of being the first black female, because I never felt it was just me – there were other people who opened the door before me, but now I am trying to embrace it a bit more.

“Until we have more – more women in stand up, more black women doing comedy, even just more black people on TV – they will always talk about it.”

n One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show runs at the Tricycle in Kilburn until February 9.