Kamau Bell dances around the stage at Pro Arts, a little bit like a boxer in the ring, but he’s smiling. And exercising the audience and himself: “Call me an Obvious Ethnic. We all are ethnic; some of us are obvious.”
His solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve, billing itself as “Ending Racism in About an Hour,” is running next Saturday and Sunday night at the Oakland gallery off Jack London Square.
Bell complains about the euphemisms for race: “African-American is inaccurate ... and it took all the rhythm out. Can you hear James Brown sing, ‘Say it loud, I’m African-American and I’m proud’? It’s associated with words like ‘the defendant,’ ‘sickle cell anemia’ ... Black is the coolest color; think of vampires, and Johnny Cash.”
Bell later quotes Quincy Jones: “Laughter is the soul saying Yes!” A stand-up comic, who teaches a class in San Francisco on performance, Bell hA worked up his solo show over the past year, performed it for 14 weeks in San Francisco, and now brings it to the East Bay.
(It was originally booked for two weekends each at Pro Arts and the East Bay Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, but the JCC abruptly canceled both runs the day before opening last week, after laying off its programming staff, apparently for budgetary reasons. Bell’s producers, Bruce Pachtman and Lisa Marie Rollins, assisted by Ilya Tovbis, former JCC director of programming, stepped in to restore the Pro Arts booking. Tickets are again available at Brown Paper Tickets, although many who received refunds after the JCC cancelLation are still unaware of the show’s continuance.)
Bell’s solo show incorporates material from his stand-up act, but it’s “more real than stand-up, with a longer pace between punchlines. It’s an adult conversation with the audience. Not so much scatological as talking about the issues, not selling out the point for a joke. I can take that luxury in a solo act. Otherwise, you usually don’t have that until you’re famous.”
A case in point—and the perfect example—is a story Bell avers “couldn’t be done in stand-up,” with different moods and twists and turns, about meeting his girlfriend’s Sicilian grandfather, who spurns him, but getting coaxed into coming to Thanksgiving at the grandparents’ home—and bringing a sweet potato pie for dessert, thinking he would be the only black person there.
“It’s the emotional heart of the show,” Bell commented, “and that’s why you need a director for solo performance. Mine, Martha Rynberg, told me I should use it after I told it to her, just as an anecdote. Audiences respond to it emotionally right off. Stories like that never succeed in stand-up.”
In this way, Bell marks himself off from most other comedians as a humorist, with “a sense of the opposite, what you find instead of what you expect to find,” as playwright Luigi Pirandello put it. And with his sense of “responding to the crowd as in a conversation,” his routines on race take a different tack than most comedians’ one-liners or diatribes.
“The best audience is mixed across all lines,” he says. “That way everybody has to listen as individuals. Sometimes I don’t know how to deal with the material, but—whether the audience knows it or not—I’m discovering my angle in front of you. My show changes every night, and I reserve the right to make it up, to talk it out in front of you.”
The W. Kamau Bell Curve uses visuals, too. A slide show of quotes as varied as “I Come From Shock” (Muhammed Ali), “I’d rather play a maid than be one” (Hattie McDaniel) and “Oops!” (Martin Luther King) play across the screen before the show. Later, Bell shows some demographic charts from a Forbes “Ten Best Places to Live” article about Indiana, and compares them to—Oakland. “Nobody talks about the positives of Oakland.”
Bell also projects pictures, one a photo of himself as a kid, grimacing, in a torn T-shirt, imitating the Incredible Hulk. “My mother just sent it to me!” He celebrates the actor who played the Hulk as one of “The five white guys who did the most for black people.”
Bell, whose mother taught at Stanford (where she was initially denied a degree in the then-unrecognized field of African-American Literature), grew up in the Bay Area. Between weekends at Pro Arts, he’s been back East to direct a play (I [Heart] Hamas) by one of his students, Jennifer Jajeh, for the New York Fringe Festival, and will direct another show, Love, Humiliation and Karaoke this fall at San Francisco’s Stagewerx.
THE W. KAMAU BELL CURVE
8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Prism Stage, Pro Arts, 550 Second St., Oakland.