Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

In the 2012 movie Sparkle, one of the more interesting performances was by actor-comedian Mike Epps.

Epps, who will bring his stand-up act to PlayhouseSquare’s State Theatre on Saturday, played Satin, a ’60s comedian whose act caters to the expectations of his mostly white audience. Offstage, Satin is far savvier and more cynical — and dangerous — than his performances suggest.

While digging through clips of Epps in performance, I have wondered if the role was a tighter fit than it may have seemed to some audiences. Epps, after all, is not a comedian rooted in old stereotypes, or pandering to the white mainstream. His act is more stereotypically urban — the kind of urban where the sex can be careless, illicit substances freely used, money is meant to be spent instead of saved, and a Glock is underneath every jacket.

“I know you’ve seen me in the movies,” he said in one monologue, “but the money’s gone.”

Gone, he said, to pay bills like child support. “I got so many kids now, I just ride through the ’hood and wave. I don’t stop. Costs too much to stop.”

During a triumphant show in Detroit, he said, with a huge grin, “I smell gunpowder, money and cologne.”

And those are some of the milder lines in performances laced with the n-word and in which “mother” is almost always followed by two more syllables.

But is the stage Epps the real thing? I think that, like Satin, there is something cynical at work in Epps’ act, that he is giving his audience what it wants even though offstage he is much smarter and more focused than he lets himself appear.

It’s always a tricky task for comedians, whether you want the audience to think you’re being yourself, or you’re offering an amusing facade, and not all comics manage to find their place on that spectrum. More than once I’ve interviewed comics who had nothing to offer other than the facade.

Epps is there underneath the jokes. His career indicates not only a good heart — his charities include one trying to reduce repeat offenses by juveniles — but tremendous drive. The stand-up act has been turned into a series of DVDs. Sparkle is just one of the movies in which he has appeared; others include The Hangover and the upcoming Hangover Part III; two of the Resident Evil films; and two Friday sequels in which he succeeded another actor-comedian, Chris Tucker. He is a repeat host of the BET Hip Hop Music Awards.

His acting work also demonstrates his knack for role-playing. He does a capable Barack Obama impression. And last year he was tapped to play Richard Pryor in a planned movie about singer Nina Simone.

Pryor’s widow Jennifer told TMZ that Epps was also being considered for the lead role in a Pryor movie biography, that he was the rare actor capable of an “authentic portrayal” of the brilliant but tormented comedian. But is “authentic” a compliment when it comes to playing Pryor, whose struggles with drugs and just figuring out himself were epic?

Epps has had some moments of extreme behavior. Last year, for example, his enraged phone call to his daughter Bria — complete with threats of assault — made the Internet rounds, with Epps more than doubling down on Alec Baldwin’s famed telephonic rage. But what did Jennifer Pryor see in Epps that made her think he might go even farther?

You don’t really see Pryor’s depth in Epps’ comedy, which is much more gliding-the-surface than Pryor’s, and diminished by Epps’ displays of delight at his own supposed hilarity. Oh, it’s an act that continues to work for Epps, but I keep thinking that he is capable of something more, if not as a comedian then as an actor.

There was something in his eyes in Sparkle, a barely contained menace that exploded later in the movie. Sure, that was a performance, too. But it was one with great possibilities, and even a little sorrow. Epps could likely look at Satin — trapped in a crafted, successful image that was nonetheless demeaning — and think: Not me. Don’t let that be me.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or