By Tristan Lejeune
If the events of November 8 have you quaking in your liberal boots, Woolly Mammoth has a safe space for ya in the form of Black Side of the Moon, the latest in the theatre’s long-running collaboration with Chicago’s Second City.
A comedy variety show — stand-up, sketches and songs all included — the two-act offering was designed as an exploration, and a rib-tickling send-up, of the African-American experience and black issues in modern society. But it has, needless to say, taken on a pall since Election Day, when voters moved to replace the nation’s first black president with one embraced by white nationalists.
Black Side makes no secret of how it feels about the president-elect, here referred to as a “Cheeto-colored demon.” The set includes a retro-fabulous ’70s-style billboard calling for Michelle Obama to run in 2020.
Comedy Central regular Felonious Munk, atop a soap box at the beginning of Act 2, busted out a surprisingly well-tuned impression (his full beard notwithstanding) of the current commander in chief. “How do you say,” he mused aloud in mellow Obama-ese, vocalizing the letters, not the words, “WTF, America?”
Munk is one of six black Second City comedians who will make Moon spin at Woolly all this month and next, with special performances on New Year’s Eve and Day. There’s Dave Helem, getting belly laughs with his teacher’s experience proclamation that West Chicago students “don’t have souls.” There’s BYT contributor Sonia Denis, ripping into Popeyes chicken with a grinning tagline: “Killin’ niggas since 1972!” MVP award goes to Dewayne Perkins, drawing ovations as a dancing DJ who gets all hyped up … before dropping showtune after showtune.
Together they insist — repeatedly, funnily and convincingly — that African Americans are anything but a monolith.
Among the topics adroitly confronted: Police shootings, slave auctions, black-yuppie assimilation, high school reunions, privilege and misogyny. Bill Cosby gets an interpretive dance.
I wish I could say that the show would be a treat for Donald Trump voters, too, to get a glimpse of how the blacker half lives. But perhaps safe spaces really are inherently exclusionary. Black Side would rather lick wounds and plot for the future than seek common ground. Then again, they’re not the ones who started the birther movement.
It isn’t all political, of course. In the opening sketch, a serial killer stalks the cast with a grim trade: He’ll let the rest go if they sacrifice the blackest one among them. A hysterical argument ensues essentially over who fits the most stereotypes: who only dates white women, who carries hot sauce with them at all times. One typical accusation: Your sisters are all named after cars! True, comes the reply, but Mercedes, Lexus and Dodge Neon are all at Ivy League schools.
Some of the sketches don’t land as well as others, but none are bad and very few are too long. Let’s be frank: You’re going to hear people talk about this show. They’re going to say good things, and they won’t be lying.
I could sing the old song about how lily-white most theatre can be, but when Perkins proclaims he’s so black he “once sucked a dick while watching Roots,” you’ll know the song is different this time.
Well, if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, I’ll see you on the Black Side of the Moon.