THAT Jocelyn Jee Esien has been eyed with suspicion by some of those people who have recognised her on the streets of Sheffield comes as no surprise to the chirpy comic.
After all, the last time she brought her talents to the city it was playing pranks on innocent folk for her previous show 3 Non Blondes.
“We were filming hidden camera stunts in the centre,” she confirms.
“Most of the group stunts where we could be as crazy as we wanted to be we took it to places like this. I don’t know why but they always seemed to get a good reception. In London we would have got arrested.
“I haven’t bumped into anyone who remembered ‘Were you that one in a dodgy wig?’ but a lot of younger people have stopped me and done photographs – for some reason they all think I’m still filming.”
The real reason Jocelyn is in town is for One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, the Crucible Studio play that returns her to acting.
She plays larger-than-life mother Myra in the story of a middle class black family in 1970s Philadelphia whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of sassy southern cousin Beverley.
Upon the death of her father, Beverley is placed under the guardianship of his business partner, the streetwise Caleb. But Beverley is no child and she soon has plans to get hold of both the business and Caleb.
“We’re trying to remain in character as much as possible,” says Jocelyn, momentarily slipping back into the Philadelphia accent over a lunchtime chat.
“We’re all playing with the accent. A lot of the characters are from the south so there’s a mixture.
“We’ve had a dialect coach come in. The main thing is practising it so you don’t just feel like you’re putting on an accent when you do the play.
“You’re trying to make it part of your character.”
Then Jocelyn should be well used to slipping in and out of performing ‘masks’ having entertained millions of BBC viewers on her sketch shows as well as during her stint on The Lenny Henry Show.
But she hasn’t been on a theatre stage for two years and is made up to be finally appearing at Sheffield’s famous theatre.
“I don’t do a lot of theatre but I try to dip into it as much as I can just because that’s what I trained to do and that’s where I’m happiest, live theatre.
“I totally love TV and film, and I love writing and creating work but when I fell in love with acting it was all about the stage.
“That’s why I also try to incorporate it in my show; with hidden camera stunts it’s the closest you can get to live theatre because you have one go at it and you’re in the moment.
“We’d film 90 per cent of the other stuff in front of a live audience because I prefer it that way, having that rapport and conversation with the audience.
“With everything I pick there’s got to be something that makes it feel like it’s not work, even though it is work.
“This play is a comedy, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t know how we’re going to cope with it because there are so many laughs throughout – every single character has got amazing lines.”
One Monkey runs September 10-24 before emarking on a UK tour after which Jocelyn will be “juggling a lot of things”.
She’s been commissioned to write a new sitcom for TV, a BBC Radio 4 play and is also planning her first stand-up tour in five years as well as maybe taking Little Miss Jocelyn on the road.
A piece of Sheffield could even figure in a routine following her encounters here.
“I went to Greggs today,” she grins. “I was smiling and the woman was wondering why. I said ‘Did you just call me duck?’
“I’ve never been called ‘duck’ before, I quite like that.”
‘I’m not monkeying around – I want to do this’
ONE Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is the latest offering from Eclipse Theatre with Sheffield Theatres.
They previously brought the football-themed There’s Only One Wayne Matthews to the Studio, starring Isaac Ssebandeke.
He also stars in this as Felix, Beverley’s cousin who wants to break out of his preppy boy image and find himself a woman.
The character was a theatre predecessor to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Carlton.
The fast-paced script, penned by American playwright and Blacks Arts catalyst Don Evans, is a combination of US TV sitcom The Cosby Show and Restoration Comedy. Audiences will experience the sights and sounds of a live television recording, with the set built to replicate a live television show with real TV lights and On Air lights.
Jocelyn was approached early on by Eclipse artistic director Dawn Walton – who used to watch ‘try-outs’ of Jocelyn’s TV shows.
“I’d put on live shows for audiences, most of whom I didn’t know but some were family and friends – kind of like try-out nights.
“She would come to some and we thought we’d always like to work together.
“I’d seen most of Eclipse’s plays as well.
“I’ve always liked what they’re doing. They always seem to push the envelope.
“Whatever you see Eclipse do you’re not going to see anyone else do.
“I’d never heard of this play, which is always quite exciting for me – to not know a play but yet to compare it to lots of other plays.
“It’s a farce and it’s so funny. I love my part. Myra gets to be flamboyant. And outrageous.
“I read the whole play and said immediately ‘I want to do this.’ It’s a hoot.
“But we’re trying to keep it as real as possible.
“It’s got to hit that nerve because they are just normal people, it’s about race and Philadelphia and it’s the 1970s.”
Fast forward into 2011
DON Evans’ play is set during a tricky social transitional period in America’s history but even 40 years on many of the issues still resonate.
“There are so many links, the more we’re going through it,” says the ever-smiling Jocelyn.
“Don was writing for women and lots of women in this are feminists.
“All the issues, especially for black women, they’re the same issues people are discussing today – like inter-racial relationships.
“They’re all still there and as we’re reading through you can just imagine…
“It’s very much today, the same kind of social issues.”
Directed by Dawn Walton, One Monkey also stars Roger Griffiths as preacher and father Avery. On TV he played Everton in Lenny Henry’s Chef! as well as appearing in Desmond’s, Doctor Who, Rock & Chips, Holby City, EastEnders and Dubplate Drama – alongside Isaac who is also a veteran of Holby and Skins.
Daniel Francis, whose TV credits include Eternal Law and Law and Order, plays Caleb, while Ayesha Antoine (Holby, Skins, Doctor Who, Kerching, Grange Hill) is Beverley.