THOUGH she became a household name through comedy as Little Miss Jocelyn and made history as the first black female comedian to write and star in her own television series, Jocelyn Jee Esien is very much at home in the theatre.
“Drama is what I trained to do and did before I went into comedy,” says the actress who is appearing at the Crucible Studio in the European premiere of the American comedy, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show “Stand-up was something I just fell into.
“I was working on a new play at the Theatre Royal Startford East and the director was looking for new talent for a comedy showcase. He asked me and my response was: ‘Darling I am an actress’ but he kept pushing and eventually I agreed,” she explains. “I just went out and started chatting and it took off straight away.”
She found she was in her element and loved the experience of holding an audience captive. Soon she was appearing all over London and then nationwide on the Jongleurs circuit which took her to Australia and South Africa where she made a big impact.
“I think comedy was different when I started back in 1998,” she reflects. “Comics are getting younger and it’s more calculated now. It was something I tried and I didn’t think of myself as a comic for at least a year. I don’t think I would get away today with the material I was doing when I started. There was a lot of clowning involved and it was quite physical. I was a bit naïve back then.”
Her first TV break came with 3 Non Blondes, a hidden camera comedy stunt show, which she thinks is the only previous time she has worked in Sheffield. They filmed in different parts of the country once the show got well-known and in London they ran a bigger risk of being recognised as pranksters.
It was after that she was offered her own show by the BBC and that’s when she began developing a sketch format that was different from her stand-up show.
“I realised I had to put everything into this show and go at it 150%. Whereas in stand-up it would be about things like having Nigerian parents, in Little Miss Jocelyn the characters had to be really well developed.”
Esien has managed to maintain the separate strands of her various talents, writing and performing sketch-based comedy and doing stand-up as well as straight acting. She is writing a third series of her Radio 4 sitcom, Beauty of Britain, and is planning a stand-up tour and a live version of Little Miss Jocelyn.
“I have continued doing drama though I haven’t yet fulfilled my dream of playing Lady Macbeth. It’s a play I’ve loved since doing it for GCSE and A Levels. Shakespeare changed my life.”
In One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show she plays Myra Harrison, matriarch of a respectable middle class Black family in Philadelphia whose polite Christian suburban existence is turned on its head with the arrival of their young niece and her new ideas from the rural South.
Written in the 1970s by Don Evans, it has not been seen in Britain before.
“We do feel we are bringing something to an audience for the first time,” says Esien.
In what has been described as the Cosby Show meets Restoration Comedy, Myra is a peach of a role.
“She’s something of a Hyacinth Bucket. She’s become middle-class and totally re-invented herself and changed the way she speaks and dresses. I love her though, there’s a bit of Abigail’s Party about her too which is something else I love.
“The trick is to make her as real as normal so we have been trying to rein in the temptation to go over the top.
“But they’re all fantastic characters. Everyone goes on a journey and it’s quite provocative. Some ot the things people say sound quite shocking today.”
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show starts previews at the Crucible Studio on Saturday and runs until September 24.