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S.F. comedian’s solo show tackles racism

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“Race doesn’t make sense,” says W. Kamau Bell in his eponymous solo show. “It’s like pretending the WWF is real.”

Race may be made up, but racism is all too real and, as Bell argues, virulent as ever.

In his show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, the San Francisco comedian is able to horrify audience members with instances of celebrity and media racism and hate speech, and make people uncomfortably question their prejudices and privilege. Yet he equally satirizes the irrationality of made-up racial divisions and keeps the audience laughing nearly the whole time.

Bell, a graduate of Chicago’s Second City Conservatory for improv, constantly incorporates new topical material and crafts it live on stage, adapting his delivery as the audience reacts. The show, which runs weekly at the SF Playhouse Studio Theater through Feb. 28, first opened to great local acclaim in 2007 and his work has earned him SF Weekly’s 2008 Bay Area Comedian of the Year honor.

The Curve uses stand-up, personal anecdotes, and projected video clips, photographs and quotations to make a convincing point: racism will not go away until we acknowledge its continuing pervasion into every aspect of American life, and until white people take responsibility for it.

“Racism is your fault,” Bell addressed whites in the diverse Jan. 16 audience (after warming them up). “Not you white people, just your friends and family.”

Though his show can seem at times confrontational, Bell delivers it with warmth, honesty, and a spirit of reconciliation. He even admits guests two-for-one if they bring a friend of a different race.

Standing 6’4″, in a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt with the face of Black Panther-era Angela Davis and a blazer, Bell rolled through jokes punctuated by delirious laughter. He seemed proud to say he was the first comedian to tell a Barack Obama joke on Comedy Central, where he appeared on Premium Blend in 2005.

He played a clip of that performance, in which he said that there would never be a black president named “Barack Obama,” because the name was too black. “What?” He mimicked an imagined white voter in the clip. ” ‘Black Osama?’ ”

Bell, who was born in East Palo Alto, shared poignant experiences, like when he first “felt black” or separate: as a six year-old being refused a kiss from an otherwise kiss-happy girl classmate in an almost all-white school. Or the story of his effort to feel comfortable and be accepted among his white fiancée’s family that used sweet potato pie as a focal point.

The one palpably tense moment came when Bell showed a picture of George W. Bush with the caption, “Does he make you embarrassed to be white?” and goaded answers from the audience. “Does he? How does this man make you feel?”

People booed and hissed. He playfully pressed, “Use your words, white people. Does he make you feel ashamed?”

Only a couple voices mumbled in the affirmative.

Bell explained that whenever a famous black person does something wrong, black people are expected to offer a statement embracing or excoriating the person, as if the person represents or misrepresents his or her “race.” The implication was that whites have the privilege of being viewed as individuals and can make and control their own image.

From the audience: “Mmmm” and “That’s true”; the mood changed from defensive to understanding.

In his show, Bell talked about accepting his male and heterosexual privilege through his close friendship with a white “East Bay lesbian,” Martha Rynberg, who directs the Curve. Bell later said Rynberg “brought a huge component” to the show’s development, for instance, in urging him to drop the word “bitch” from some of his jokes.

“You can’t do a show about ending racism that’s sexist,” he said.

Although he challenged white people to take accountability for a white-dominated culture, Bell also admonished them to take pride in their whiteness. To be allies of people of color (he prefers “Obvious Ethnics”), Bell wrote in an email, whites need to “claim their whiteness and stop pretending that they are exempt from being a member [sic] of a racial group.

“And with that, white people need to understand about racism what I finally understand about being a straight male in regards to sexism. If you’re not actively working to make things better, then you are definitely making things worse.”

The show ended with a picture of Oscar Grant III, the unarmed, black Hayward man slain by a white BART officer on New Year’s Day. He left the stage to high applause and cheering and reappeared half a minute later to invite anyone who wanted to discuss the show to the Hotel Rex across the street.

There, audience members congratulated him, while people who weren’t at the show made circles around him, listening to him talk, as if magnetically attracted.

Bell said a lot of his show is improv-based, and with only about an hour, old material has to be bumped for new things happening all the time.

“I hope what my show lacks in polish, it makes up for in relevancy,” he said. “A lot of what I do is about eliciting a response.”

“I’ve even had a moment when people broke into discussion groups,” Bell said. “I want people next to each other to be like, ‘Yes! That’s hilarious!’ or ‘I don’t agree with that, but that’s hilarious!’ I want those things to be happening at the same time.”

Bell, with a few friends and some show attendees, sat in a circle and talked about the newest material in the show, a trailer for Pauly Shore’s film “Adopted,” which documents Shore’s travel to South Africa to adopt a child.

In the trailer he repeatedly refers to his “African baby” as “it,” is shown pointing at children saying “eeny-meeny-miney-mo,” and wears a surgical mask and gloves to sit next to a child.

“I was appalled by that, I mean I was pissed off,” said Max Hori, who was in Friday night’s audience. “That’s supposed to be funny? He was totally objectifying them.”

Bell said the audio in the black box was too low to hear Shore say, “I didn’t come to Africa to tell jokes. I came here to get HIV.”

“If you defend that, you’re wrong and you should be ashamed,” Bell said.

As people discussed the nonsense and the violence of race-from the South African Chinese population’s successful lobby to be reclassified as black, to the murder of Oscar Grant-Bell leaned back in his chair, smiled and said, “This is what the show is all about.”