Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Charlie Brown Black
Pillsbury House and Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Mikell Sapp
Photo by Bruce Wilcox
Mikell Sapp first appeared on stage in the Twin Cities at Pillsbury House and Theatre in 2011's Broke-ology. The production drew acclaim for the play and launched Sapp's career as a bright, talented actor who can successfully take on a remarkable range of roles, as demonstrated by his work since then at Pillsbury House as well as at Mixed Blood, Children's Theatre Company, History Theatre, Penumbra, Park Square, Theater Mu, and the Guthrie. Along the way, in 2015, he was named Emerging Artist of the Year by the Ivey Awards. Not too bad for a ten year run, right?

Well, yes and no. In Charlie Brown Black, the one-man show written and performed by Sapp, he owns up to his success and his achievements but also shares the disappointments, frustrations, fears, losses and hopes, both personal and professional, that have riddled his life. Some of these go back to childhood, like a recurrent sting from being called "ugly" at the age of ten by a snotty girl on the playground. Others are rooted in the ongoing barriers that face Black actors, and other actors of color, in having the same range of opportunities as their white peers. And then, moments of triumph, such as winning that coveted Ivey Award at a time when he had no idea what it meant.

Charlie Brown Black premiered last week at Pillsbury House, back where it all started for the undeniably talented Sapp. It is both genial and frank as it gives the audience an intimate tour of his biography and his psyche. Veteran playwright and director Talvin Wilks, who directed Sapp in Penumbra's The Ballad of Emmett Till, takes on the role of directing Sapp in, basically, sharing his inner demons and upbeat stage persona with us for about ninety minutes. The stage looks ready, as designed by Christopher Heilman, to feature a stand-up comic, and indeed, the play starts off with Sapp racing onto the stage like the host of a late night TV show, thanking the crowd for its enthusiastic welcome, and our star kicking off with a joke about how he now knows how Kevin Hart feels–and then checks to make sure we didn't all actually think that he was Kevin Hart.

Such gentle jokes, somewhat self-deprecating but not in a way that would cause anyone to worry about Sapp's state of mind, liberally spring forth though his narration of his life thus far, from small-town childhood in Phenix City, Alabama, where he garnered a reputation as "the actor," and especially as "the funny guy actor" at Russel County High School. Attempts at sports proved to him that acting was indeed the right path. His high school legacy includes the title role in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which accounts for the name Sapp chose for this look back at his life. He shares stories of his devotion to his mother and to the football star big brother he idolized, and the beginnings of a recurring theme, the modest success he has had over the years with "the ladies," lugubriously pronounced to let us know exactly what kind of ladies he has in mind.

Although ... again and again, Sapp returns to what he views as his number one Achilles heel: the burden of being, at heart, a good guy. So, while he might proclaim interest in "the ladies," what he really is after is love. He describes his efforts to overcome being typecast as a nice guy, a funny guy, to earn serious dramatic roles. And while he comes across as a well adjusted young Black man, he is open about sharing the insecurities and regrets that make his life thus far less than he aspires to be, and about expressing anger about the racism that makes his life's journey more difficult than it should be.

The show varies greatly in tone. Some segments are couched as pure comedy, such as a series about his lack of preparation for moving from the warmth of Alabama to frigid Minnesota, paired with slides that show him, teeth chattering, on a snowy landscape. Others use humor to deliver meaningful insights into forces that molded his growth as a man and as an actor, such as his account of his days as an acting student at Alabama State University. And then he delivers a wrenching account of losing one of his most beloved family members, impressing with his blunt honesty and awareness of the toll that took, and continues to take, on his life. How does an actor gather the inner resources to deliver such a personal and painful account for five performances a week? Talk about guts, and commitment to his chosen art form!

Sapp delivers the text of Charlie Brown Black as if it is not a learned script–in fact, he refers, but never reads from, notes set upon an unobtrusive music stand, center stage–but him just talking with us, sometimes riffing on a string of jokes, other times drawing a confession out of his heart as if he has never dared share it before. The shifting moods are accentuated very nicely by Merritt Rodriguez' lighting design, and the narrative–especially in its lighthearted moments–are nicely accompanied by Kathy Maxell and Antonio Richardson's work on video design and video-photo content, respectively.

While many of the experiences Sapp has lived through, feelings he carries with him, and observations of the world around him offer opportunities to identify with his Charlie Brown Black life, the story is uniquely his. When he concludes by telling us of the way he feels about the character Franklin, the African-American boy introduced into the Peanuts comic strips by its creator, Charles Shulz, in 1968 as a response to the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the implications of what he says for the challenges we still face at erasing systemic racism are applied to the broad canvas of society; the feelings he evocatively expresses are singularly his.

Charlie Brown Black continues through June 12, 2022, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit

Playwright: Mikell Sapp; Director: Talvin Wilks; Assistant Director: Carlyle Brown; Set Design: Christopher Heilman; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Light Design: Merritt Rodriguez; Writing Consultant: JuCoby Johnson; Production & Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Technical Coordinator: Katie Deutsch; Producing Directors: Signe V. Harriday and No?l Raymond

Cast: Mikell Sapp as himself