Putting together race and comedy can and sometimes is a recipe for disaster (side note: I think Hitler needs to be retired as comedy fodder, having heard a few too many of them last night), but in The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, on now at PS 122 as part of the SoloNOVA Festival, W. Kamau Bell not only makes his points funny but uses media clips, storytelling and crowd work to get people thinking about race, and laughing.
I saw it on Sunday at 6, during a gorgeous day, so the theater wasn’t full. I walked in and showing on the screen were Bell’s thoughts on some modern films, like why Jake Gyllenhaal was cast in Prince of Persia. Bell then comes out and shares some thoughts on race and racism, and the difference between the two. Bell is noted for telling the first joke about Barack Obama back in 2005, a clip he shows.
At one point, after seeing some horrific clips where John Stossel and others basically defended the government staying out of racism in the workplace, those of us who are white were led to chant, “Say it loud, I’m white and I’m proud.” Yes, it was funny, but it was also a very surreal and disturbing feeling (speaking for myself) to say that, let alone think it, but I believe Bell’s point was that being proud of who you are doesn’t only belong to the crazy white people, and that white people who don't want to be associated with racist white people need to also recognize that being white in and of itself isn't something to be ashamed of. That was my takeaway, anyway.
Bell also took us through the 2010 census, which by now we’ve probably all seen (even, um, those of us who got a notice on our door because we sent ours in way late), but he also talked us through the very earliest version of the census which made this country’s priorities at the time quite clear.
He talked only briefly about his own life, showing a photo of his parents, one of the few he has, and sharing a story of realizing he was black, and thus different from his white schoolmates, at the age of six. I wish there had been a little more personal detail because Bell is a compelling performer and one who, by his own admission, thinks about race and racism all the time. I’d have loved to hear a little bit more about how those thoughts evolved into the show (which has been running in various venues and evolving for the last few years), but I do realize he only has “about an hour.” He also talked about interracial marriage, the issue and, briefly, his own and the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision and shared this quote from Mildred Loving, which I hadn't seen before (taken from About.com) and tied it in to Prop 8 - a minor mention but one of many seemingly disparate issues that Bell weaves into the show in a seamless way, so you don't quite realize how much information and how many ideas he packs into the small amount of time.
I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.
Perhaps the most powerful moments, for me, were when he shared YouTube comments he received on some of his videos. On one level it’s easy to dismiss them, and I would think someone who’s so out there would be immune to that, but he revealed that they gave him pause (I’m not going to repeat them because I didn’t have my notebook out and the visual element is really what made it strong).
I liked the show because while yes it was a one-man show, Bell encouraged some degree of audience participation and truly seemed invested not in having us all think exactly the same way he does about these topics he brings up but in simply thinking about them rather than brushing them aside or pretending that we are, in a phrase he wisely mocks, “post-racial.” He showed a hilarious clip of some news commentator saying that when he looks at President Obama (and I’m paraphrasing) that he forgets that he’s black. “You know who doesn’t forget that Obama is black? Black people!” roars Bell.
To bring this back to, you know, me (jk, kindof), the other day I was having cupcakes with my friend Twanna (aka Funky Brown Chick) and she mentioned something about the blog Angry Asian Man and I said I knew it and then I was like, “Wait, I mean…” and she was like, “Disgracian?” and I said yes and maybe you had to be there but it was this "all Asian blogs look alike" moment that I was thinking about during the show because we can and do laugh about it. There was this other part of the show where Bell reveals two things never to ask a black person (you should see the show for that) but it also reminded me of when I felt like a complete idiot and both Googled and asked Twanna if black people should wear sunscreen, because I honestly wasn’t sure and felt very, for lack of a better word, white, and thus ignorant, about it. And she very kindly assured me I wasn’t an idiot. Both of those examples were moments where we could talk, but also laugh, about race, and I think sometimes that’s something that only happens amongst close friends and, well, I’m sure plenty of people don’t have a chance to actually engage or think or, most importantly, laugh about race and Bell gives people a space to do that while also talking about historical racism and present-day racism and, best of all, laughing, while we do so.
I'm clearly not a theater reviewer or comedy blogger (anymore) and don't aspire to be, so this review is perhaps a little disjointed but I encourage those in NYC to check out the show tonight, tomorrow or Friday.
And I went solo, but there really is a deal that if you bring a person of another race, tickets are 2 for the price of 1! Use the promo code "solo241" when buying tickets here.
Here's a clip from a previous incarnation of the show (from what I know, it's constantly being updated, so Arizona gets some play in this version). See more videos here.
Official show details via PS 122 - an extended version can be found here
THE W. KAMAU BELL CURVE: ENDING RACISM IN ABOUT AN HOUR
JUNE 2, 3 at 8PM,
JUNE 4 at 6PM
Written & Performed by W. Kamau Bell
Directed by Paul Stein
Black President or not, racism continues to make a comeback. And W. Kamau Bell is here to make (non)sense of it all. Irreverent and thoughtful, The W. Kamau Bell Curve skewers pop culture, news pundits and the man himself, Barack Obama. According to Comedy Central, Kamau told the very first Obama joke way back in 2005
"Smart, stylish, and very much in the mold of politically outspoken comedians like Dave Chappelle and Margaret Cho."- San Francisco Weekly (though he was more excited that they called him "handsome.")
"W. Kamau Bell is the most important guy doing comedy right now. Do yourself a favor and go see him. He's got the most astute, hilarious and completely righteous material going and he's going to be a legend in his own lifetime like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Think Bill Hicks but slightly taller." - Margaret Cho