Dave Chappelle is the only artist alive who would close a comedy show by finding a ray of hope in our current political situation through a poetic recounting of the tragic murder of Emmett Till.
No reviewer’s recounting can do justice to his intricate, virtuosic storytelling, so you will have to buy a ticket to Mr. Chappelle’s show at Radio City Music Hall to find out how he pulls off this feat. As audacious as it is, this set piece is also an example of how his singular daring can be in tension with a comic’s instinct to be as funny as he or she can be. There’s no joke at the end of this bit. Instead, Mr. Chappelle says that he has had trouble sleeping since Donald Trump was elected. His new set exudes the weary tone of many following the daily bombshells in the news, with Mr. Chappelle even expressing second thoughts about his “Saturday Night Live” monologue after the election when he said he would give Mr. Trump a chance.
Mr. Chappelle hasn’t just started a three-and-a-half-week run, which ends on Aug. 24, when he’ll turn 44. He’s producing a massive cultural festival, headlining with a lineup of some of the greatest comedians of color in the country (Chris Rock, Leslie Jones, Ali Wong, Trevor Noah) along with top-shelf musical acts (Solange, Lauryn Hill, Chance the Rapper, Ice Cube). By presenting it in the sleepy month of August, he turns Radio City into the most exciting party in the city.
Mr. Chappelle has always had an instinct for showmanship, honed from doing stand-up since age 14. His new show starts theatrically, with the comedian ascending from beneath the floor of the stage under a ring of lights and over a cloud of smoke. Puffing on a cigarette, he wears what has become his customary military jacket with his last name printed over his left breast pocket. This uniform makes him look more formal and severe than he did in his earlier days.
His stage persona has changed too, with less animated physicality and a faster, raspier delivery. Mr. Chappelle’s jokes once moseyed before they exploded. They’re steadier now, quicker to start, but less likely to dart off in wild directions. And his voice doesn’t range as much, staying in a deeper register. Some of his agility and mischievousness has been replaced with an increased narrative ambition, rooted in a confidence in his ability to get a laugh so firm that he goes deep into ideas without a punch line. This strategy has risks, which he not only embraces but also luxuriates in.
As he often does, Mr. Chappelle tells of getting booed — this time it was about a show in Cleveland after making a joke about a killer at large there (along with the nearly-as-provocative admission that he’s a Warriors fan). Another time, he introduces a bit about Michael Jackson by saying it’s not going to work. (It did O.K., but not nearly as well as his jokes on the same material from his 2004 special “For What It’s Worth,” one of the best this century has produced).
Mr. Chappelle likes the high-wire act of comedy, using the tension produced by wading into polarizing, treacherous material to set up the release that laughter provides. It’s why he has long avoided taking on Rachel Dolezal (he says it’s too easy), but in one of his funniest tangents, he confesses he can’t stop thinking about her. It’s no surprise that the comedian who started the first episode of “Chappelle’s Show” with a sketch about Clayton Bigsby, a black blind man who thinks he’s white, is drawn to a white woman who identifies as black.
Mr. Chappelle asks emphatically: How far is Ms. Dolezal willing to go to become black? “Are you willing to refinance your house,” he says, pausing for laughter before finishing the sentence, “so you can invest in a mixtape that won’t pan out?”
No comedian has done more confident and nuanced work about the fluidity of race; think of his inspired “racial draft” sketch, which began with an idea from Bryan Tucker, the current co-head writer of “Saturday Night Live.” But Mr. Chappelle finds himself on more unsure footing when it comes to gender. In his recent Netflix special, he drew considerable criticism for his jokes about transgender people in which he took umbrage at having to change his “pronoun game” for what he referred to crudely as someone else’s “self-image.”
In this new show, he tells a story of a fan who expresses hurt over such material, which leads Mr. Chappelle to examine himself. What follows is both fascinating and frustrating, searching and often funny. Like his material about Emmett Till, it’s organized like an onion, with an initial response peeled away to find a different one which leads to an third and most absurd finale. Some of the biggest laughs of the show come from the transitional line he uses more than once: “But if I’m honest.”
Mr. Chappelle makes pleas for treating transgender people with respect, even praising their courage relative to Ms. Dolezal. But when he goes deeper into his feelings, he returns to the frame of race.
He finds the discussion about sensitivity toward transgender “reeks of white privilege,” and wonders pointedly why it’s easier for Caitlyn Jenner to change gender than it was for Cassius Clay to change his name?
This is one of those lines that gets not a laugh but a kind of audible nod of the head — or, to be more precise, a “hmmm” that suggests an idea has lit up the minds of audience members. Mr. Chappelle gets more of this kind of feedback than most comics. Increasingly, he searches them out, which is part of why he remains one of the most compelling figures in popular culture.
At his best, Mr. Chappelle’s proves that thoughtfulness can make a joke funnier. Making smart comedy that is argumentative and funny is not a zero sum game, but his first performance of a long residency at Radio City does occasionally makes you wonder if it is.
Source: NY Times (JASON ZINOMANAUG)
Photo Credit: Star Tribune
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