Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins at the Marsh By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 10, 2006

“Daddy-ooo! I know you didn’t disappear on me again ... How was that impression? You’re always movin’ and groovin’, slidin’ and glidin’ ...” 

So The Kid spins it out in W. Allen Taylor’s one-man show, Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins ... In Seach of My Father at The Marsh in Berkeley. Just one of a gallery of real and unreal characters out of his and his absent father’s past that Taylor plays with gusto, The Kid is an alter ego (and counterpoint) for both the man looking for his father and the elusive pioneer Black D.J. who sired him, then slipped out of his life. 

Taylor puts on The Kid like a glove, the way he plays the other characters. As he reminds his own listeners while signing off during his stint on the air (in college, before discovering who and what his father was), “It’s been real ... reminding you everybody’s got a Thang—make sure you’re doing yours!” Even playing himself, he’s fueled by a mixture of long tamped-down anger and disappointment, sparked by the sardonic self-consciousness of a professional actor and director knowing he’s doing it—for real. 

The Kid, a recent addition to this slow-cooking stew, comes out with the raucous gibing of an anger that Taylor says he has always held in or soft-pedaled. In slouch hat and shades, The Kid deliberately spins wax of his own time, past Bill Hawkins’ prime, or tunes by contemporaries he didn’t dig, like Monk. And he dances outrageously to the sounds—as Taylor does playing himself—of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Al Green, Aretha and others. It’s funny and disconcerting. 

On opening night, younger spectators in the packed audience, some of them Taylor’s students from the College of Marin, laughed uproariously at his scarecrow stance with splayed arms and legs, alternating with serpentine gyrations as if in front of a mirror. 

Taylor’s father, the Walkin’ Talkin’ of the title, was the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, clearly an influence on Alan Freed, the white Cleveland D.J. later credited with launching rock ’n’ roll’s popular reign. Playing jazz and R&B, sometimes from the front window of his record store, Hawkins was also one of the first on the air to use rhyming slang for patter, a style that influenced others like comedian Lord Buckley, and provided the bridge between the hip-talk of the streets and clubs (and its origins in toasting and other Afro-Caribbean and American vernacular forms) and the nouvelle jive of hip-hop.  

Taylor only learned who his father was upon his graduation from college—three months after Hawkins’ death. His parents had agreed that the married Hawkins would be in the shadow, and that Taylor’s mother (recently divorced from a Baptist minister at the time of his birth) would withhold knowledge of Taylor’s paternity from him until later, too late for Taylor to know his father, whom he met only once as an adult, not knowing his real identity. “I guess we thought we still had time,” he intones his own mother’s lament. 

Taylor started putting the show together in the late ’90s. There was an NPR program featuring his story in 1999. At the same time, his investigations continued and old friends of his father and new material kept popping up, including a recording, the first he’d heard, of his father on the air, which is played during the show. Offstage, Taylor says he often speculates whether he listened to his father, unaware, as a boy turning the dial to the local black station. 

The search is documented in the show, first as a boyhood search for a substitute father, then looking for Bill Hawkins himself—what could be found of him. Taylor excels at slipping in and out of the characters he’s met, such as the m.c. and singing club owner who partied with his father (“He introduced me to my first wife—I never forgave him for that!”) and who was one of his pallbearers; the old fan who tells Taylor as he D.J.s for a party that he looks like Bill Hawkins, unaware of his relationship; and the dignified older woman, who hosted gospel shows as a colleague of Hawkins, politely disapproving the R&B he played and the rhyming slang he reeled out. 

These portraits are montaged well in the second half of the performance—their words slipping in and out of each other as the shadowy figure of Hawkins emerges from them. It also gives Taylor a chance to act, less fettered with exposition. His own on-stage persona is engaging, and Gloria Weinstock’s direction cuts a clear path through the profusion of anecdote and explanation. But as a piece still-growing and not yet free of its original status as therapeutic, Walkin’ Talkin’ remains a fascinating and exhausting jumble. 

Allen Taylor’s got the material and the juice to make his piece stand out in a theatrical landscape crammed with personalized solo shows like castoff furniture crammed in a Salvation Army showroom. And when, as he’s faithfully promised, he’s honed down his abundant and personally gamey material to just the right succession of what Diderot called “pregnant moments” (like the one in which his mother cold-cocks his father with a high-heeled shoe), then the journey to that crystallization will be looked back on as part of a revelation even more interesting and enjoyable than it is right now, in its present, still-shifting form.