Stand-up comedian Michelle Tomko got serious with her one-woman act: Yo Eleven! One Woman Many Voices. The play explored the lives of people living in her home community of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ms. Tomko, who also wrote the piece, portrayed eleven different characters in the span of an hour and 45 minutes. The show premiered before a live audience at Dante Hall in November of 2019. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Stockton University sponsored. The Atlantic City Arts Council rebroadcast the performance as part of 48 Blocks Atlantic City 2020 via Zoom on December 21st.
The promotional material for Yo Eleven! explained the meaning of the show’s title:
The reason bettors yell “Yo eleven” at the craps table is so the croupier doesn’t confuse the word eleven with the similarly sounding word seven. In the same vein, this collection of stories is titled Yo Eleven! to ensure that the often forgotten community of Atlantic City is not confused with the similar sounding casino openings & closings, celebrity appearances, state takeovers, and quarterly numbers that dominate most of the articles written about “America’s playground.”
During the introduction, Ms. Tomko described herself as a student of restorative journalism. This approach to the craft emphasizes “second act stories.” It explores what happens after a tragedy. Reporting becomes more than “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Ms. Tomko’s theatrical background led her to craft a performance inspired by this method. She based the show on the premise that “everyone has a story.”
Her desire to research “unsung heroes” presented a challenge. She discovered that many such people preferred to remain “unsung.”
Undaunted, Ms. Tomko persisted with her research. She found people interested in participating. Their stories became part of Yo Eleven!
Ms. Tomko portrayed an eclectic range of eleven characters. Her subjects illustrated Atlantic City’s diversity. They included a retired Fire Chief, a chef and a yoga instructor among others.
Heidi Mae directed the performance. A couch and a chair occupied stage right. At rise, a table set on stage left. Later in the show a bench replaced it. The center contained a clothes rack upon which various costumes hung. This set allowed Ms. Tomko to change on stage. It also ensured nothing would distract the audience from she and her narrative.
Ms. Tomko gave each character its own unique voice. Ray-Ray, the convict, spoke with a tough, deep tone at first. Later, she revealed his vulnerable side when he said, “God has changed all my angles.”
She delivered a realistic portrayal of Maddie, the millennial. Speaking in a high-pitched voice, Ms. Tomko included disfluencies in her dialog. The interspersing of expressions such as “um,” “ya know” and “uh” created the sense that a real person was speaking in a café.
The performer captured her characters’ appearances and mannerisms. This brought them to life for the audience. In keeping with Ray-Ray’s request, “If you’re going to play me: hoodie, hat on backwards and sunglasses” she did just that. When portraying Gina, she sat with her feet up on the couch and held a cup with both hands. These portrayals created the illusion that the audience was hearing these stories at the time the characters first told them.
The playwright worked a diversity of topics into the show. Her characters discussed various subjects that included raising families, working in the entertainment industry and running a local business. They delved into social issues such as Atlantic City’s LGBTQ community, race relations and changes in fashion trends. The subjects of drug and alcohol abuse entered into the conversations.
“Street Priest” emerged as Ms. Tomko’s most memorable character. This Roman Catholic clergyman ran a half-way house for men about to be released from prison. He imparted some trenchant observations on life. A bishop once told him: “Some people are so heavenly bound, they ain’t no earthly good.” “Street Priest” also noted that, “Your past mistakes don’t have to define you.”
The clergyman came up with an original interpretation of a popular swear word. Turning its letters into an acronym, he changed its meaning to: “Faith Unity Charity Kindness.”
Ms. Tomko applied her comedy writing skills to her script. During their meeting at an eatery, both she and the Fire Chief offered to pay for each other’s meals. Once he declared himself a Trump supporter, she said, “It was at this point I decided to stop fighting over the bill.” Ms. Tomko colorfully described a business owner as someone who, “Sounds like Scarlett O’Hara doing an impression of Queen Victoria.” When explaining her dislike of yoga, she used the pigeon pose to both show and explain her reasons.
A resident of Atlantic City, Ms. Tomko originally hails from Cleveland. While those born and raised in Atlantic City view it as a “badge of honor,” they’ve welcomed Ms. Tomko. “We’re a team in this community,” the yoga instructor told her. “You’re on our team.”
At the beginning of her performance, Ms. Tomko declared that “AC is one of the coolest places.” Her subjects agreed. “I feel rich living here,” Gina said. “Food choices. Friendships. Things to do.” Michael, the chef, observed, “The experience doesn’t end at the end of the plate. It ends where your heart is in the community.”
In response to negative news reports, The Fire Chief’s son keeps telling him to “get out of” Atlantic City. He’s not moving. “There’s good stories (in Atlantic City), too,” he says. Through her creative interpretation of eleven residents, Ms. Tomko showed just how true that is.