Sitting on the lawn at the First Niagara Pavilion, listening to a plethora of poorly chosen dance music, I believed that I was not going to see Dave Chappelle perform last Friday night.
The interim music break, coupled with a disc jockey’s failed attempts at winning over fans’ attention, seemed a forced feature of a headliner refusing to take the stage. I had heard about his performance the previous night in Hartford, Conn. — at which Chappelle stormed off the stage amid jeers and heckling — and I was versed in Chappelle’s reasons for leaving his television show in the midst of filming a third season. All this I knew, and I sympathized with a comedian who was receiving constant flak and derision.
But Chappelle did take the stage — cigarette in hand, engulfed in a sea of applause. He looked tired, stoic and a little disinterested, but that did nothing to calm down the cries of adoring fans.
Their cheers raised a crucial question — one that might determine the outcome of the evening. Did this crowd want Dave Chappelle, the brilliant satirist and gifted comedian, or did they want the black guy who inadvertently perpetuated racial stereotypes to an audience that laughed at him, and not with him?
Well, as he began his show with a mixture of both sentimentality and humor, it seemed that the crowd would take any form of Chappelle that was available. In the end, they were just glad to see him return.
And unlike in Hartford, where a mostly white and male crowd heckled the former television star, asking him to perform more of a minstrel show than a comedic routine, Pittsburgh enjoyed his bits, including commentary on the fall of Paula Deen’s career and the murder case of the South African Olympian, Oscar Pistorius.
Occasionally, Chappelle would stop, seemingly musing over the vast crowd support. When told he was the greatest comedian who ever lived, he chuckled and said, “I don’t know, there are a lot of great comedians.” And when the fans said they had missed him, he reciprocated and said he missed them, too.
But it was clear that being in front of the audience again was a little hard for Chappelle. For a man who is ostensibly over-confident, Chappelle made sure to show that he was human through it all — just an artist who wanted to be taken seriously. He discussed at length what the moral of his stand-up should be, even talking briefly about trying to instill hope in the audience.
And although he discussed Paula Deen and her use of the N-word, as well as noting that Pittsburgh at least managed to draw a few black people to watch him perform, he also poked fun at himself being just a “black” entertainer. Chappelle told the audience that his mother is of mixed descent and that his wife is Filipino. Never failing to find the humor in things, Chappelle then riffed on how that combination had led to Puerto Rican-looking kids.
With family on his mind, Chappelle talked less about what people may have expected and wanted from him and instead told stories about being a father and a husband. To finish the set, he celebrated his wife’s birthday on stage, complete with an entourage of his family and friends to blow out the candles on a cake. Whether still angry about last night or not, Chappelle was performing the way he wanted to.
And none of this is to say that Dave Chappelle has become overly sentimental and rusty throughout his absence. On the contrary, Chappelle’s social commentary was just as informed and scathing as ever. He still discussed the humors of being black and how that inexorably plays a role in his life, and he was not afraid to talk about why he was gone and how he always knew he would return to the stage.
As a witness to this event, I can attest that it was truly an honor to be in attendance. Chappelle is a social commentator extraordinaire, and that night he shined as a comedian, not just as a black entertainer. He was performing on his own terms, discussing things he believed were noteworthy and excelling in each bit he did.
When the crowd was growing antsy and rumblings about his boycotting the rest of the tour started to circulate, I felt that I would respect his decision if he decided to not perform that night — I would certainly have understood his reasoning. But instead, the legend took the stage, putting last night and his previous exploits behind him, as he got back down to the basics — performing comedy.