KULTURE KLASH: Bellwether of Change

By on July 5, 2016

Stand-up comedian blazes new paths towards cultural understanding.

W. Kamau Bell is ‘the black guy who goes where he is not supposed to go.’

W. Kamau Bell is ‘the black guy who goes where he is not supposed to go.’

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It may be his first trip to Wyoming, but W. Kamau Bell has already seen wilder and more remote.

Progressive political comedian Bell brings his stand-up show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour to the Center Theater Tuesday, July 12.

For his current series on CNN, United Shades of America, Bell travels to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. According to Bell, the concept for United Shades of America is “The black guy who goes where he is not supposed to go.”

“That guy is me,” Bell told The Planet.

Surprisingly, Barrow turns out to be a racially diverse place. Drawn by good pay for work on oil rigs, workers of 20 different races have gravitated to Barrow in recent years. Bell comes away seeing Barrow as a role model for communities in America.

“There is a sense of community in Barrow that is unrivaled by any other community I’ve seen in America,” Bell says in a trailer for the show. “If we really connected to Barrow instead of treating Alaska like it’s some weird American step-child we would all have better communities throughout this country.”

But it starts with comedy. Bell says he uses comedy to start a conversation in each United Shades episode about race and to delve into how our differences unite and divide us. He travels to gentrification central: Portland, Oregon. He visits retirees in Florida, goes to a maximum-security prison, and in the show’s first episode, Bell takes a trip to the Deep South to hang with the KKK.

That gives you an idea of both the courage and the fundamental humanity Bell embodies. The New Yorker called Bell’s gimmick “intersectional progressivism: he treats racial, gay, and women’s issues as inseparable.” (His late night show, Totally Biased, was nominated for both an NAACP Image Award and a GLAAD Award.) The New York Times called him “the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years.”

Bell told The Planet that he always wanted to be a comedian. “Since I found out you couldn’t be a superhero,” he clarified. He lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife and their five-year-old daughter.

Bell’s one-hour stand-up special, Semi-Prominent Negro, premiered on Showtime in April. His many creative projects include hosting the podcast Denzel Washington is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period on Earwolf. (By the way, yes he means that.)

Bell says Bell Curve is about “starting a new conversation” that doesn’t begin with “I’m not racist, but…”

“Racism is real and you need to see that you’re a part of it,” Bell said. “Awkward conversations can lead to new understanding.”

He says some of the best comments he has overheard after a show came from two white people walking out of the theater together. “That was the best comedy show,” one said. “That was the worst comedy show,” the other replied.

“The entirety of my work is about ‘your experience is just your experience,’” Bell said.

Despite his large stature—he’s 6 six feet, four inches—Bell has a disarming presence. Maybe it’s Berkeley rubbing off on him but he looks like your favorite cool uncle, or that professor you loved in college who refused to ever wear a tie.

He keeps his cool on the outside, but he says of course it can be infuriating encountering racism in his travels.

“I think that comedy helps blunt the anger,” Bell said. “Breaking it down into jokes helps you digest the anger.”

Bell starts with the premise that anger isn’t bad. He quotes one of his favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine: “Anger is a gift.”

“Anger is fuel that gets people out of bed,” Bell said.

He has a similar welcoming attitude toward the emotion of shame. “White people, what’s wrong with shame?” he asked. “It’s the beginning of trying to make it better.”

He tells a story of when his daughter recently did something wrong and felt shame about it. Instead of trying to brush away her bad feeling, Bell let her sit with it for a bit. He told her the feeling of shame was what was letting her know she didn’t want to do it again.

“Shame has helped me correct a lot of mistakes in my life,” Bell continued.

Bell says he is looking forward to performing in Jackson. “I hear that famous people live there,” he said.

The fact that the state’s African American populations hovers somewhere around 1.4 percent doesn’t trouble him.

“No matter where I travel, there are people who come up to me and say, ‘Thank God you’re here,’” he said. “It’s always fun to go places and find like-minded people.”

But you don’t have to be like-minded to attend his show. In fact, Bell encouraged people to “bring a Trump supporter.”

“We will have a good time,” he laughed. PJH

The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour happens 8 p.m Tuesday, July 12 at the Center for the Arts. Tickets start at $39. Jhcenterforthearts.org; 733-4900.

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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