James Stephens III brings comedy, music and improv to the stage
Grand Strand audiences may think they know live entertainment. After all, we’ve seen our share of theaters come and go, while others prove to have staying power. Because we have the luxury of year-round access to quality performances in music, drama and variety entertainment, we think we’re pretty seasoned.
However, locals would be mistaken if they think they know James Stephens III. With his The Man of a Thousand Voices show at the new Asher Theatre, Stephens brings a background, vision and performance to the Grand Strand that represents a new dimension of entertainment.
Stephens’ show is equal parts stand-up comedy, impressions, music and improvisation. One minute he’s delivering a punch line about Southern culture or race relations, and the next minute he’s transformed into James Brown, Stevie Wonder or Kermit the Frog. He tells tales of his experiences on set, on stage and in the studio in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where he once shared an interview for a spot on Saturday Night Live with Will Ferrell. Playing piano on a stage he shares with his four-piece band, Stephens does a killer impression of Lionel Richie of the Commodores and blends his numbers with improvisation. This cabaret-style theater feels like a comedy club, yet the show provides all the eclectic material of a much larger auditorium.
“You can come to my show four times a year for 10 years,” said Stephens, “and you’ll get a different show every time. I’ve got 1,000 voices, and you might only hear 15 of them in one show.”
Just like his array of impressions, the range of his stories is endless. Stephens pulls from a rich trove of experiences from having worked with dozens of show biz legends. He’s toured with the Temptations, made multiple appearances on Def Comedy Jam and The Dana Carvey Show, played at Carnegie Hall, appeared onstage with Jim Carrey, and introduced Richard Pryor. He was one of a core group of characters in the Fox network program The Edge (1992–93) that included Jennifer Aniston, Julie Brown and Wayne Knight. A wall in his theater titled “My Journey” exhibits photos of Stephens with Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Charley Pride, and the band Steadman.
However, for all his high-profile celebrity relationships, Stephens has a different objective for his theater, one that’s multi-faceted and philanthropic. The Man of a Thousand Voices is a wholesome show, and Stephens’ audience is diverse; these are two fundamental characteristics that define his perception for the Asher.
“I’m just trying to convince people I’m not Eddie Murphy,” said Stephens. “You can bring your kids, you can bring your grandma, and everyone will laugh, know the music and have a good time.”
As the first black man owning a theater in the Grand Strand area, he’s interested in walking a comedic line that highlights and pokes fun at stereotypes and preconceived notions between races.
“I do that so, at the end of the show, I can bring us all together. That’s the best part of comedy,” Stephens said. “So you can laugh at yourself and then realize there’s another message beneath it.”
The Asher Theatre also has altruistic goals, all tied to Stephens’ background and desire to provide for children. A native of Dillon, Stephens was raised by his white teachers after his father was killed in a car accident. While he is grateful for the opportunities he had, Stephens is also keenly cognizant of the state’s “corridor of shame,” a term deriving from a 2013 documentary and referring to inadequate pubic schools in high-poverty rural areas. The James Stephens III Scholarship Foundation, established in the 1990s, has provided $500,000 to children over the past 30 years.
Stephens also creates art depicting a line of “Yo Mama” jokes; the drawings, graphics and books fill a room in the theater lobby and also find their way to the stage production. Proceeds from the “Yo Mama” line also benefit area children, and Stephens has raised $150,000 from the sales of the products.
“I’ve always been a doodler, and this line is a great way to reach kids with comedy,” said Stephens. “They love the jokes—they’re universal. And rather than tearing down, we use them to build up others.”
In addition to the house show, the Asher Theatre offers guest entertainment, with upcoming shows including the Willie Brown and Friends ventriloquist show; Louis Price, the former lead singer of the Temptations; and an Apollo Night contest, which will offer winners cash prizes and opportunities for broader exposure.
While entertainment is the driving force of the venture, the Asher Theatre also offers conference space and teaching facilities. Stephens’ wife, Grace, who serves as administrator for the theater, also oversees the conference center, and Stephens plans to offer music and voice lessons to children in the practice rooms.
Like any classic entertainer, Stephens said his vocation is about showing people a good time.
“I want to make them laugh, make them be silly. With having my own place, I’m helping kids, I’m doing my thing—I’m just really glad to be here.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF JAMES STEPHENS III