September 18, 2019

The insecure narcissist

Joshua Silverstein wants your validation.

No, he’s not seeking political office. The 35-year-old actor/comedian/performance artist wants the world to tell him — and tell him often — that he’s funny and talented, that he’s not an outsider, that women find him attractive, that his brand of entertainment isn’t awful.

“I grew up not liking myself for most of my childhood,” Silverstein, an L.A. native, said during a recent interview. “It’s a work in progress. Liking myself has been something that I’ve definitely struggled with.”

Take pause before you break out the violins or dismiss Silverstein as heir to Woody Allen’s neurosis-laden throne. In his solo show, “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” playing through May 7 at the Bootleg Theater, Silverstein examines his insecurities through the skewed lens of satire, humor, self-deprecation and beat boxing. So if you don’t tell the man he’s pretty, by God, he’ll give you chapter and verse why you should. 

Accompanied by three musicians, Silverstein sings, dances and waxes poetic. A segment of his quite eclectic show celebrates the milestone of achieving 5,000 Facebook likes. In a comic performance piece titled “Yellow,” he considers the dichotomy of having light skin within the African-American community, and he later gets his audience members to join hands in prayer. 

The son of a Jewish father and an African-American mother, Silverstein embraces both cultures, even though those cultures haven’t always embraced him back. For Silverstein, finding one’s way as a biracial, clothes-loving, heterosexual male in present-day L.A. is a work in progress, as well. 

It starts with the physical. As a young man, the light-skinned, ponytail-wearing Silverstein carried the nickname “Pretty J.” Yet as many times as he has heard his personal appearance praised, Silverstein said the satisfaction is fleeting.

“My appearance and my shell were so important to me growing up, that [the notion of] ‘Tell Me I’m Pretty’ stems from, ‘If you don’t tell me what I am, then I don’t know what I am,’ ” Silverstein said. “I’m not even sure that I would have been an artist if a cute girl hadn’t walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re good at this.’  

“I think the world makes us who we are through the various experiences we’ve had, bouncing off cultures and our parents’ ideas,” he continued. “We digest all that stuff, and that spits out this personality that we take on. ‘Tell me I’m pretty’ has been like the mantra I’ve walked around with.” 

Silverstein is an only child whose mother, Beverly, was an educator, and father, David, works for Walters Wholesale. Both parents were politically active — David directs the community activism division of the transdenominational spiritual center, Agape. The quest for approval may be a universal one, but David believes his son’s upbringing may have played a particularly strong role in his need for validation.

“He questions himself and his value in the world,” David Silverstein said. “Both his mother and I supported him in being sure of who he really is so that he can step into that confidence and get out of [the] blindness of looking for people’s approval so much. At least I hope so.” 

For nearly 14 years, Joshua Silverstein has co-hosted Downbeat 720, a high school open-mic night. He has also performed the two-person show “So Fresh, So Clean” with his creative partner, Joe Hernandez-Kolski, in Los Angeles and New York. Toward the end of 2014, Silverstein was invited to create a solo show at the Greenway Court Theatre.

He started with a lot of material related to race and the economy. He intended to create a show that examined feelings of vulnerability, but his director at the time, Benjamin Davis, felt that he was taking the wrong approach. 

“The story was about me essentially complaining onstage for two hours,” Silverstein said. “In the solo show world, you have to figure out why your show is relevant. Why does an audience want to see you perform? I had essentially created a therapy session for myself. Once I got past my narcissism, my director said, ‘Go back and make this about us.’ ”

When Davis became busy with other projects, Silverstein sought out veteran director-choreographer Diana Wyenn, who had worked with many solo artists. As the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Wyenn was interested in Silverstein’s investigation of his multicultural heritage. The restructured show played brief runs at the Greenway Court Theatre and the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) before arriving at the Bootleg. 

“When Joshua came to me with this piece and shared his similar background of coming from a household that practiced more than one religion, I was interested in helping him share that story,” said Wyenn, whose late grandfather, Than Wyenn, was an actor and a drama consultant with the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. “Both of us are very proud and interested in our Jewish heritage.”

Silverstein grew up in a largely secular household, and the camps he attended and holidays he observed often fed into the pursuit of social justice. Silverstein declined to become a bar mitzvah in large part because he was afraid that if he’d had a large party, nobody would attend.

“It all played into that self-esteem factor,” he said. “I didn’t like temple. I loved Jewish girls. Still do. Being biracial or multiracial, I can see the correlation that I’ve experienced. Both Jews and African-Americans are very prideful of their history. Both are filled with the importance of education and the importance of literacy and art and culture. I find that I am a beautiful mix of two worlds, and I get to celebrate that.” 

In person, Silverstein is as cerebral and introspective as he is forthright. Not one to hold things back, he’ll confess to being a slave to fashion. (He says he’s spent more on clothing than on food.) Seemingly no event from his childhood is off limits, no matter how embarrassing. Silverstein has battled severe asthma for most of his life, and being the kid at school with the bag full of medical supplies often subjected him to bullying by his classmates.

His father maintains that the extensive amount of time his son spent around pediatricians contributed to young Joshua’s early desire to become a pediatrician. Before he turned 5, he would tell anyone who asked that when he grew up, he wanted to be a doctor and a clown. 

At one family occasion, in front of a living room full of people, David Silverstein prompted Joshua about his life’s ambitions. When Joshua replied simply, “a doctor,” his father asked, “What about being a clown?”

“He put his little hands on his hips, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Daddy, I’m already funny,’ ” he said. 

As anecdotes go, that one is positively tame compared to some of the content Silverstein reveals in “Tell Me I’m Pretty.”

“I learn more about myself and about the process if I can find my most vulnerable pieces,” Silverstein said. “If I’m writing about something that has little to do with me, I feel like it’s a cop-out, especially if I have an audience. I feel like, ‘How dare I waste their time?’ ”

“Tell Me I’m Pretty” 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through May 7 at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.