Dave Chappelle: Black Prophetic Comedy As Resistance Art

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The recent announcement of the iconoclastic comedian Dave Chappelle returning to the stand up stage has caused serious buzz in the media. Over the last several years Dave Chappelle has become an enigmatic figure in pop culture, because of his denial of everything that we are taught to pursue: popularity, fortune, and the loss of one’s soul and identity as you clamor for these things. His elusiveness and his outright rejection of “fame” has magnified his aura and his presence to still be alluring even though he has only made sporadic appearances in the last several years. So when it was conveyed that Dave Chappelle was going to headline the “Funny or Die Oddball Comedy Tour”, his cult following was excited to hear the news of his long awaited return. But something went wrong in Hartford, Connecticut.

On August 29th Chappelle came up to perform his set like he normally would. He told a few jokes but the audience became louder and louder yelling out famous lines and quotes from his legendary “Chappelle’s Show”. After they refused to acquiesce to his request to quiet down so he could continue his set, the Hartford audience proceeded with the verbal barrage. Chappelle over the next 25 or so minutes took seat on the stool on stage addressing some of the hecklers. He even read from a book that was given to him by a member of the audience. After his set was over he walked off the stage much to the dismay of the Hartford audience. Not your typical night at the comedy club to say the least. The scene mirrored one of his famous sketches featured in the second Season of Chappelle Show, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.” Vernon, the only black board member in a meeting is prompted by his white co-worker, Frank, to “give me some skin”. What happens next goes from reasonable self-assertion to hilarious satire; Vernon tells Frank to “Shake my hand like a man!” and asks “Do I gotta give you five on the Black Hand side and all that crazy jive? That’s bull sh_t!” he does a jig and asks “…you want a little soft shoe?”. Vernon then begins to spout rap lyrics to show Frank just how “real” he is. This night in Hartford, the famous philosophical question: does life imitate art or art imitate life, begs an answer.

To the naked eye it may have come across that this episode occurring in Hartford was another chapter in the life of the tortured genius that is Dave Chappelle. He cracked under the pressure again. He was too fragile to handle the intensity of the spotlight. He prolonged his return too long and now has lost “it.” I on the other hand subscribe to the counter narrative that would suggest that Dave Chappelle gave one of his best performances that evening in the “prophetic comedic tradition.” Dave Chappelle comes from the lineage of the Black prophetic comedic tradition that includes Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, and Chris Rock. These comedians loved, displayed, and publicized their “unforgiveable Blackness” in the midst of an industry under white control that attempted to ignore, silence, and then commodify their artistry. On that fateful night, White privilege collided with the Black Liberation ethos. On that evening in Hartford, the evil creation that is “white privilege” manifested itself. White privilege perpetuates and nourishes itself by the control to which it can yield and deploy at moment’s notice. White privilege has to be made to feel safe, comfortable, and in complete control for the sake of its existence. Chappelle’s silence and defiance challenged that notion. Chappelle turned what intended to be brilliant comedic showcase into a space where a liberated Black man lived out the freedom in knowing who you are and your value in the face of everything that is constructed to deny that ideal. Chappelle didn’t let their misinterpretation be the cause of his own misrepresentation.That’s prophetic.

The predominately all white audience actually thought that Chappelle could be controlled by them simply because that’s how they wanted the night to go. Instead of embracing Chappelle as a person they only saw him as a performer and performers don’t have feelings or intellect. They only have the capacity to perform by the consumer’s request. It’s this idea that compelled Chappelle to leave his successful show at the peak of its popularity. He may have loss his show but he gained himself. He would make that exchange again without hesitation.

In another context, Dr. Otis Moss Jr. described the prophetic calling as a “Vocation of agony” and a “Dangerous assignment.” Anytime someone can muster the inner resources to refuse to be oppressed, marginalized, limited, by the definition of others, it is the ultimate expression of the prophetic. The true measure of the prophetic calling is the complete refusal to be controlled by anyone or anybody at their own expense. Not submitting to or being seduced by the glitter and gaze of White control was Chappelle’s public demonstration of resistance art.

When Chappelle left his successful show and 50 million dollar contract that accompanied it, he also left the possibility of creating his art in a way that was not conducive to his commitment to his own sanity. He also left behind the obligation to explain himself to anybody. Whether they were aware or not, the hecklers were creating an atmosphere where they expected Chappelle to explain himself. What they failed to understand is that Chappelle was not going to explain himself for their approval. The tenuous relationship between Black performative art and White expectation was alive and well in Hartford. Dave Chappelle has won these fights before. On August 29th Dave Chappelle won again.

 

Rev. Rashad D.Grove is the Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Wayne in Wayne, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He's a graduate of Genvea College and is currently a graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Empire State College studying African-American studies. You can visit the church at www.fbcwayne.org and you can follow him @thegroveness.