News Column

Dave Chappelle in Portland: Reclaiming his persona, and doing comedy on his own terms (review)

October 12, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 12--It's a sign of how complicated Dave Chappelle's public image has become that his performance Friday night at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall -- on time, in control, comfortable -- felt notable because nothing out of the ordinary really happened.

Several times during his 90-minute set, Chappelle joked that he was touring again so he could earn money to pay for a pool. But it felt like he's more interested in reclaiming his persona from the TMZs of the world -- while also giving a master class on how to do comedy on your own terms.

Chappelle knows full well that when he takes the stage, he's bringing some baggage along with him. "I've now reached the level in my career where I have to be careful about what I say," he observed Friday, after talking about the most recent attention-grabbing episode involving the comedian: an August show in Hartford, Conn., that went south when the audience wouldn't stop yelling, heckling and interrupting Chappelle.

The incident was quickly characterized in some reports as Chappelle having a "meltdown." Writing for the Ebony Website, however, Lesli-Ann Lewis said it was anything but, instead placing the interaction between Chappelle and what Lewis described as "a sea of drunk white male faces" in the larger context of the "relationship between the white audience and the black entertainer."

It's a relationship, she wrote, that can be traced to "early minstrel shows," with stereotypes that persist today. "We have seen more black comedians bow to racist tropes, demean themselves -- albeit unintentionally -- for white audiences," Lewis wrote.

For lazy tabloid sites, the Hartford show also fed into a mythology that's grown up around Chappelle, in the wake of his decision to abruptly leave "Chappelle's Show," the Comedy Central series that made Chappelle one of the hottest names in comedy. When he left the show in 2005, reports repeatedly mentioned, in aghast tones, that Chappelle had walked away from a $50 million contract.

Subsequent events fed into the Chappelle-as-wild-card media story. In 2009, there was the strange, nocturnal Chappelle appearance at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, which drew thousands of attendees who'd heard about it via social media. Last year, Chappelle made a short-notice appearance at the Newmark Theater, taking the stage at 11:30 p.m. and ending at 2:10 a.m.

The sold-out crowd at the Schnitzer Concert Hall Friday night may have been expecting some mind-blowing, off-the-wall behavior from Chappelle. Instead, what we got was an expert comedian taking ownership of who he is, and filtering his experience through his own, one-of-a-kind point of view. Which is what great comedians do.

After an amiable opening set by Portland's Nathan Brannon, we were reminded that any heckling, videotaping, photo-taking or out-of-line talking would result in the offender being ejected.

Chappelle came onstage at a little after 8 p.m. He wore a pullover with horizontal stripes and a hoodie, which was at first pulled up over his head. He was smoking a cigarette, and immediately put the crowd at ease, mentioning that it was good to be back in Portland, and dusting off a joke he told last year about how big everyone's calves are here. He slipped the hoodie off his head.

Then he launched into a funny anecdote about having recently performed in Alaska, characterizing the locals there as well-armed, animal-hunting outdoorsy types. It was the kind of story any professional comic might tell, though Chappelle always includes his own personal spin -- being out in the wilderness with gun-toting Alaskans, he joked, made him discover something he didn't know about himself: "I'm afraid of white people."

An extended, raunchy bit inspired by rapper Lil Wayne and R-rated descriptions of female body parts got some of the biggest laughs of the night, as did jokes about his marriage and family, and some back-and-forth with audience members on the topic of husbands and wives.

But the most interesting moments were when Chappelle returned to the subject of how he has been perceived, and what he has to say about it. He recounted the Hartford debacle from his perspective, mocking the audience -- "they had alligators on their sweaters" -- and hilariously imitating their effete "Boo" noises.

"The media said I melted down," he said, adding that his tour ticket sales shot up as a result. Everybody wanted to see how "I was gonna freak out in their city." Settling into the topic, Chappelle talked about what it was like going onstage in Chicago right after the Hartford show, the ensuing comical controversy involving Chappelle's jokes about Hartford, and the city's Mayor getting in a huff about it.

Chappelle also addressed his decision to walk away from "Chappelle's Show." "I never quit," he said. "I just stopped going...The thing is, I'll never hear the end of it."

In moments like these, Chappelle isn't so much doing comedy, as he is taking back his right to characterize what he's done -- and hasn't done -- with his career. He has said in the past that he wasn't comfortable with elements of the show's success, and he seemed particularly concerned that audiences -- white audiences in particular -- were just laughing at caricatures of black characters on the show, and missing the satire of racial stereotypes and attitudes that were woven into the sketches.

As with his TV show, Chappelle's performance Friday night showed his ability to lure the audience into what seems like an easy laugh, but then pivots into something more pointed, and more personal.

For example, Chappelle mentioned that when he left "Chappelle's Show," he heard from concerned friends as he was planning a trip to Africa. One friend, he said, had given him a copy of the self-help book, "The Secret."

"Sir, do you know what 'The Secret' is?" Chappelle asked an audience member. It is, Chappelle said with beaming sarcasm, all about having positive images, visualizing what you want, so what you want will come to you.

"I was reading it in Africa," he said. And then he saw "some kid laying in the gutter," who was crying out that he was hungry. Chappelle joked that he told the kid to just "visualize some food."

The crowd laughed. Chappelle smiled, and then continued, confident, in command and knowing exactly what he was doing.

-- Kristi Turnquist

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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