Comedian Tries to End Racism in an Hour

W. Kamau Bell's solo performance aims to preach to the alerted.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell enjoys comparing himself to P. Diddy on Making the Band 4, now that he’s teaching three solo performance classes in San Francisco, which is tantamount to working on three albums concurrently. “I’m like the Bay Area’s P. Diddy, except I don’t do music, and I use the word ‘bitch-ass-ness,'” he said. Still, Bell’s greatest claim to fame — besides ten years in the stand-up comedy business and seven years directing other people’s solo theater works — is his new one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Conceived last April, the show combines personal anecdotes — like Bell’s childhood belief that if you put a black person and a white person together, the baby would come out Chinese — with wry observations about the world. “Every now and then I’ll say something like ‘Look, everybody, I’m not trying to be Martin Luther King Jr.,'” Bell said. “The show’s about ending racism in an hour, but I’m not trying to go up there and be the example. I’m saying things that are true to my experiences and letting them bounce off your head.”

Marketing solo performance is a lot harder than stand-up comedy, said Bell, since the idea has to sell itself. You can’t just say, “I’m gonna do a one-person show about racism”; you have to have some kind of twist on it. In this case, the “ending racism in about an hour” part is what initially piques people’s interest, and the hook is that if you bring a friend of a different race, the friend gets in free. Bell said he’d pull a deal like that even for a one-man show about Martha Stewart. “The audience of all one group is generally a dumber audience, because they only want to hear things from their perspective. When you mix it all up, the audience gets more intelligent.” Bell insists that for comedy to really work, you have to rest assured that your audience can hang along with you. “I spent my whole career, on bills where I was the only black person, and I’d have to convince people in the audience that racism even existed,” he said. “People would people be like, ‘Come on, racism? That’s soooo late-20th century. Once I had the show, I get people who are already alerted to the thing. They’re already thinking about it before they walk in the door.” Thus, he concluded: “It’s not preaching to the converted. It’s preaching to the alerted.” Directed by Martha Rynberg and produced by Bruce Patchman and Lisa Marie Rollins, The W. Kamau Bell Curve runs Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 at Jewish Community Center of the East Bay (1414 Walnut St., Berkeley). 8 p.m., $15-$20.


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