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Life

Black Comedy Confronts Race

Humour and politics can become awkward friends during Black History Month.

By Wayde Compton 15 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Looking at old black and white photographs of Carter G. Woodson, the guy who invented Negro History Week in 1926, it's hard to locate a flicker of humour in his features. That's understandable. In terms of the long march towards equality, ancestors such as Woodson did the heavy lifting. And due to their work, we of later generations can take for granted legacies (including BC's Black History Month) that continue to chip away at the white status quo.

Black North Americans have had many reasons to be wary of the mixture of comedy and politics. The informal name given to segregation in America -- Jim Crow -- was, after all, derived from the name of a clownish black caricature common in white-authored minstrel shows. So in Woodson's time, the call for black inclusion was serious business. But today, in light of the mixed success of integration (no pun intended), black representational terrain seems less like a battleground and more like the shifting floor at a funhouse.

Four months ago, Alexis Mazurin, the CBC Radio journalist and comedian, died, and in the midst of my disbelief and sadness, I found myself curiously forced to consider, of all things, the nature of Black History Month in Vancouver. While it's not accurate to say I was a close friend of Alexis, I'd met him and knew his work. I'd followed his radio career and I'd followed the rowdy and controversial live-comedy group he belonged to, the Hot Sauce Posse. When I heard on September 5 that Alexis had had a heart attack in the Nevada desert at the annual Burning Man Festival, I was stunned. The heart attack put him into a coma from which he never recovered and he died October 20 at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver. He was 27.

I can count the number of times I met Alexis in person on one hand and three of my memories of him come from successive Black History Month events. I first met Alexis at the now-closed Big Al's Cajun and Soul Food Restaurant on First Avenue in Vancouver, during a Black History Month opening ceremony. Another year, he called me up seeking contact information for a radio show he was putting together in February, on which he wanted to feature some former residents of the old black community of Hogan's Alley. And I saw Alexis and the Hot Sauce Posse perform at The Railway Club during The Month -- an event nominally celebrating Black History which, in typical Alexis and crew fashion, stirred the ideological pot more than it called on anybody's sense of unity.

Pure contradictions

Recalling him this way -- through Black History Month events -- feels ironic because Alexis seemed uncomfortable with the very concept and wary of pro-black stridency, in general. The one in-depth conversation I ever had with him was about how little patience he had for the "blacker than thou" pressures he felt from certain Afrocentric circles. This skepticism was reflected in his comedy. He joked about being as Russian as he was black -- a Black Russian. He joked about his own unrepentant record of dating "outside the race" -- and wondered if a mulatto, by definition, ever can date "within" his race. Alexis, like any thinking person, was troubled by notions of purity and was quick to look for contradictions in their structures.

It wasn't that Alexis didn't identify as black; he did. He practiced capoeira, the African-Brazilian martial art, a form afforded high cultural status amongst Afrocentrists. But Alexis seemed ambivalent about black activism, as such. This is what I learned about him from the first conversation we had, though it was a discussion that trailed off as the event itself got going. Despite his stated reticence that night, most of the other times I spoke to him were in some way linked to Black History Month. He may have had misgivings, but Alexis did participate. Whatever he thought of intentional ethnicity, he believed the call was worth an involved response. And if the call itself wasn't to his liking, he switched up the tune. The edgy comedy he and the Hot Sauce Posse created was the synthesis of all this racial pressure and subjective subversion.

Hot Sauce Posse

The Hot Sauce Posse was a mix of CBC-orbiting personalities and other local performers, including Alexis, Tetsuro Shigematsu, J.J. Lee, Charlie Cho, Sumi Nam, Amy Tang, Philip Gurney and Bahareh Pourgol. It was Vancouver-based, ethnically mixed and demographically top-heavy with Asians. Who had ever heard of a Canadian comedy group like this? They were not multicultural in a state-sanctioned sense, but more like a video of Visible Minorities Gone Wild.

The Hot Sauce Posse was decidedly "blue," in the way we used to call Redd Foxx records blue, with four-letter words and racial epithets a-flyin'. The first I heard of the group was in 2002, when Charlie Cho slipped me a flyer for their show at Nic's Garage during the Vancouver Fringe Festival. The flyer featured two racial caricatures, a bucktoothed cartoon "Oriental," complete with conical hat and bayonet-fitted rifle, and the immortal image of Little Black Sambo, ever poised to bite into his slice of August ham, like Tantalus. Their show was called "Gooks and Spooks." How could I not go?

Sitting in that garage-cum-theatre, I was shocked and stunned. The Hot Sauce Posse in action was like an afroasiatic Kids in the Hall, but rawer -- more "slack," as the Caribbeans say. Each sketch was shot through with racial and sexual irreverence. Before my eyes, the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng argued over the logistics of one of them patronizing a prostitute. A "Chigger" (you figure it out) fronted in hip hop dialect to his black friend about pimping his own grandmother, until she finally figured out what he was saying and cussed him out in Chinglish. Two Maxim-buying yobs, black and white, coolly concluded that their lives would be better if they were gay -- Alexis and Gurney simulated it "doggy style," all the while dispassionately debating the pros and cons of their defection.

Laughter and fear

The audience laughed and squirmed all through the show. I saw a woman with her hands over her eyes, watching through her fingers like one does a horror movie. The audience seemed tense and uncertain if it was okay to laugh, so when the gags were too funny to deny, the laughter came out in bursts -- you could hear the pent-up release, the nervousness that the laughter was shattering.

I am reminded of the debates about the origins of laughter, itself. Neuropsychology says that laughter is essentially related to fear. It's a sort of balked warning shout, a relative of the animalistic urge to bear one's teeth. Laughter is a cousin of the "fight or flight" instinct. A joke is, essentially, a transgressive presentation of a contrived mistake, a transparent social miscue. We laugh when our expectations are thwarted in a turn of phrase that skips across the surface of understood social propriety. In the middle of a social paradox, a little bit scared and little bit boggled, we laugh instead of attacking or running away.

So comedy, at its heart, is supposed to scare the crap out of you. And what is scarier than race? Contrary to the fact that laughter is supposed to be a substitute for flight, the last time I saw Alexis and the Hot Sauce Posse perform at the Railway Club for Black History Month, people did run. Some of the audience walked out.

This is because the Posse did a karaoke version of comedy, where they took turns "covering" famous routines. In one scene, the token white Posse member, Philip Gurney, performed Chris Rock's auto-epithetical "I Love Black People, but I Hate Niggers" monologue word-for-word. (This was a Black History Month event, I remind you.) While black people are given a pass for using the N-bomb, to whites it is verboten, even, it seems, when the white person is actually quoting a black person, and has said so -- which was the genius of the piece, the hilarious contradiction and the social comment.

Offending colours

Nevertheless, back-channel arguments about the event rippled through my e-mail browser for weeks afterward. I tried my best to argue that the butt of the sketch's humour was clearly, if you peel back the layers, the goofiness of wiggerism. It was about how an epithet changes according to the space, place, speaker and context. It was about how afrophilia and afrophobia become harder to distinguish as the years go by, as African-American culture goes global and white youths internalize black abjection. (The sketch could have been titled "Archie Bunker's Grandson Plays Chris Rock.")

What was also lost on the offended audience members of colour, I think, was that Alexis was there on the stage, too, overseeing Gurney's character as he put his Caucasoid foot in his Ebonic mouth. Knowing Alexis, he was the one who, when they were jamming on the idea earlier, laughed the loudest, and said, "Oh yeah, let's do it." This is how he celebrated Black History: by messing with your head. Alexis observed The Month by satirizing its orthodoxies.

The Hot Sauce Posse was in an uncertain state before Alexis's heart attack, and since his death, it seems unlikely to continue as a group. But while they were going strong, I had hopes that they might have become the same sort of harbinger for Canada that Richard Pryor's explosive record That Nigger's Crazy (1974) was for the USA -- in other words, a signal that the nation's resident minorities are officially and irrevocably uppity en masse. Pryor's recent death, just a couple of months after Alexis's, is a strange cross-border rhyme.

In my academic work, I was studying Alexis and the Hot Sauce Posse's work for signals about our nation, just as early fans of Pryor might have sensed his prophetic qualities regarding their republic. Black Power and its signs pop up throughout Pryor's oeuvre, from a marginal reference to the Black Panthers in Live and Smokin' (1971) to his respectful hailing of Huey P. Newton himself, an audience member at the filming of Live in Concert (1979). As an adjunct to the stiflingly serious Movement, Pryor represented the popular culture's response to the fall of official racism: blacks announced themselves as out of control in every sense. The resultant revelry after that lifting of expressive repression can still be heard in the vocal explosion of hip hop culture today.

'Anti-model-minorities'

In Canada, the land of cooler heads prevailing, official 1970s Liberal Party-defined multiculturalism might have given us a similar go-ahead for comedic minority shit-disturbing. But it took until the 1990s and Thomas King's Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour to get us some of that taboo-smashing, racial self-examination that only humour can deliver. I think that having the Hot Sauce Posse to deal with, as a nation, might have been seismic. Call it hyperbole if you will, but I see a direct line between 1990s queer media infiltration (via Scott Thompson and the Kids in the Hall) and the legalization of same-sex marriage a decade later. If you buy that, what do you think might also have been in store for us if a bunch of anti-model-minorities like these guys had been unleashed upon our unsuspecting racial and sexual national consciousness?

What I particularly admired about Alexis and the Hot Sauce Posse's style was the way that, like Pryor and Lenny Bruce before them, they practiced a comedy that verged on Antonin Artaud's concept of Theatre of Cruelty -- a performance that assaulted the audience, that provoked them as a way of making plain their personal stake in the events taking place on the stage; as a way of reminding them that a seat in the crowd is not a bubble which protects you from the world. Bruce sometimes harangued his audience to the point of frenzy. Pryor made you unsure at times if you were supposed to laugh, weep, or walk out.

I believe Alexis was after this effect, too and he wanted his audience -- black, white, Asian, all -- to feel disconfirmed in their notions of ethnicity and self. He wanted them to feel as up in the air as he did, as exposed as a racialized individual in this world sometimes feels; open and implicated. His contribution to black history might not be a capital-letter sort, a sort that flies the red, black and green. But I will miss the leveling humour that Alexis offered; the laughs that any serious-as-cancer activism needs to keep it from drifting into Robespierre territory. That's one crucial service that prurient, scatological, mischievous line-crossers can provide. A movement needs both activists and satirists; the latter keep the former honest.

That first conversation I had with Alexis, in which he expressed his uncertainty about Black History Month, was interrupted, so I never got to hear what exactly the nature of his concern was. The host of the event got the show on the road and, as chance would have it, over the next few years, Alexis and I never wound up in a similarly deep conversation. But as a fan, I heard his comedy as the latter half of that discussion. And though I'll miss him making me laugh, I won't forget how spectacularly his points were made.

Wayde Compton is the author of two books of poetry, 49th Parallel Psalm and Performance Bond, and the editor of the anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. He deejays sound-poetry with Jason de Couto in The Contact Zone Crew, and is a co-founding member of the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the public memory of Vancouver's original black community. He lives in Vancouver and teaches English composition and literature at Coquitlam College.  [Tyee]

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