My first post-presidential inauguration comedy show in Pennsylvania was at an Elks Lodge. I’m accustomed to performing for a variety of monolithic audiences, but this is the first time I’ve ever walked in and felt flat out unwelcomed. And to be honest: unsafe. The side glances; the stares from folk that quickly averted their eyes when I looked at them; the way others studiously ignored me altogether. I tried not to assume the worst from the preponderance of pickup trucks in the parking lot (this is a silly stereotype), but once in the building I felt a strong “what are you doing here?” vibe. Strange since my name and photo were on the flyer and even on a Xeroxed black and white copy I’m still noticeably Black.
Could I be wrong? No. After years of doing standup comedy part of my skill set is being able to read a room. My job as a performer depends on it. Paradoxically it’s one of the reasons I don’t like being a part of a large crowd. Mob mentality is a thing. And when things take a turn for the worse there’s no reasoning with the hive mind. In the end, everybody’s sorry and nobody’s accountable.
Did this shady feeling come from every single person in the room? Better question: did it need to? When I said, “Excuse me,” to two women in order to move by them to get into a better position to go on stage, one lady gave me a dismissive side eye. Her friend didn’t look or move at all. She instead gave me her back, which visibly bristled as I touched her chair when I had to squeeze between it and the wall. And, yes, they heard me.
Honestly, I just wanted to leave. But I’m a professional. And preposterously my ego said, “You’re not gonna run me out of my own show!”
But as I watched said show get underway the tension didn’t abate. And so when I got on stage I did the only thing I could. I addressed it. After the emcee introduced me, I took the mic and said, “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume this is not a Black History Month celebration.” The audience laughed. “I walked in here like, ‘oh shit.’ Y’all are making me feel very fucking uncomfortable.” They continued laughing, perhaps at the combination of my honesty and the fragile absurdity of the situation. It was the closest thing we were gonna get to a Friday night focus group.
I felt like I was having a Bernie Mac Moment. I wanted to shout, “Really, America? Really?”
Some of you will say that this is not America. I’ll concede it’s not the America either of us wants it to be. But wishful, idealistic thinking insults my intelligence and negates my experience. A refusal to see the ugly side of human behavior doesn’t stop it from happening. In fact it ensures that it will continue.
Did the other (two white male) comics on the show see or feel this as well? I don’t know. I’m gonna go out on another limb and say no, but not out of malice. Both men are good and decent human beings who I’m sure would’ve come to my aid if needed, but privilege in any form can provide a bit of a social security blanket. As a second-generation American I have the privilege of thinking ice is just something I put in my drink and is not ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Male drivers have the luxury of parking their car anywhere they want, their main concerns being cost and convenience. Conversely, almost every woman driver I know has to be mindful of street lighting, sight lines and proximity to the sketchy white van that may or may not have puppies in it.
The bottom line is I know what I saw. I know what I felt. And it was fucked up. But I faced it. It wasn’t just about comedy. It was about humanity. It was about this increasingly desperate idea that I have — despite my pessimistic, glass-half-empty nature — that we are better than this. We have to be. Our future depends on not giving in to fruitless fear and divisively seeing only the worst in each other. That’s unsustainable and unacceptable.
So you may not want me at your lodge, but clearly you need me there. I’m coming and we’re gonna work this shit out, America. You’re not gonna run me out.