To promote his one-man comedy show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, now running as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival at PS 122, stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell is making a special offer: "Bring a friend of a different race and get in 2 for 1."
Bell hopes that this bring-a-friend-for-free discount will help fill the theater with New York audiences who might not have heard of the San Francisco Bay Area comedian yet. "Although, I have selfish reasons for that, too," Bell says. "It guarantees me a better crowd. You can't end racism unless everyone is in the room at the same time."
Yet to end racism, you have to discuss racism. And to discuss racism, you have to talk about race. And once the conversation turns to race, a lot of (white) people automatically worry about sounding racist. Or, as George Costanza would say, "I really don't think we should be talking about this."
Bell uses comedy, therefore, to broach a subject most people are simply too afraid to talk about. You might be thinking, The election of Barack Obama, our first black president, ushered in the era of "post-racial" America, right? Wrong. Bell utilizes a sharp mix of stand-up comedy, Powerpoint, audio and video clips, and theatrical solo theater to illustrate the ways racism just keeps making a comeback. "This show isn't about post-racial America," Bell says. "It's about racial America."
Even so, the idea of "ending racism in an hour" probably sounds like a joke. That's because it is. Well, sort of.
"Obviously, my claim of ending racism in about an hour is tongue in cheek," Bell admits, "but what I am serious about is using humor to attempt to advance the discussion of racism in this country. I may not always be successful in this, but I am trying. One of my biggest rewards is that people often tell me that they think about my show for a long time afterward, and that it leads to discussions with other people. I believe those talks are how you actually begin to end racism. Even if people disagree with parts of the show, I hope we can at least have civil discussions about it -- discussions that elevate us above many of the comments on my YouTube page."
Would you believe that in South Africa, "Chinese is the new black"; that the 2010 census is the shortest and simplest since the first census in 1790, when questions focused only on the number of "free people" and slaves in each household; or that as recently as 2000, Arab and Polish people alike were listed side-by-side as "White" on census forms? Bell wants audiences to understand that while "post-racial" is meaningless and racism is rampant, race itself remains poorly defined. (He prefers the term "obvious ethnic," rather than other more politically correct terms, to describe any non-white people.)
The show has evolved since its beginnings in 2007, when Bell began writing in response to his frustration with the media and its coverage of "celebrity racism." Remember Michael Richards, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Don Imus, to name a few? But the 2008 election of Barack Obama, rather than end the debate, only took it to a new level. (Bell is actually credited with telling the very first Obama joke in 2005 -- except he predicted that Barack Obama would never be elected president, because his name is just too black.)
"Over the years, the material of the show has been turned over three or four times," Bell says. "The show has moved past the celebrity racism and now has a very political attack. When I wrote the show initially, Barack Obama was a just a senator who some thought could make a good vice president for Hillary -- if he was lucky. So obviously, the discussion of race and racism has changed significantly since 2007. The show reflects that, and tries to stay ahead of it.
"The show is built on ideas," Bell adds. "Some of those ideas are built on jokes. Jokes are often good truth delivery systems. Check out Malcolm X. He's my hero. He managed to be extremely truthful and hilarious at the same time. I don't feel that comedy has any responsibility to teach or enlighten. The only responsibility comedians have is to be funny, regularly. I choose to use my sense of humor to talk about race."
Bell has performed The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour for the past three years, including sold-out shows in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. soloNOVA producers saw The W. Kamau Bell Curve last year at the New York International Fringe Festival, and encouraged Bell to apply for the soloNOVA Arts Festival.
"We scouted a lot more heavily this year," says soloNOVA artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling. "We saw every solo show in the Fringe Festival, as well as the Frigid Festival... Partnering with other festivals has been key to identifying the best of the best. I knew immediately I wanted Kamau in the festival. His intelligence, humor, and timing far surpass a lot of comics out there. I see racism every day, all over the world, and to be able to talk about it with a humorous lens is key to continuing the fight against it."
soloNOVA, produced by terraNOVA Collective, "celebrates innovative individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form, and uniquely invigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling."
'The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour' performs May 14, 16 & 20 at 9 p.m. and May 22 at 4 p.m. at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, which runs through May 22. For more info about soloNOVA and to purchase tickets, visit the soloNOVA website.
Bell will also perform as part of the comedy night lineup at soloNOVA's "Ones at Eleven" series on Saturday, May 15 at 11 p.m.
-- Daniel Lehman