A deep swab of the nostril is rarely an auspicious beginning to a fun night out. But in the era of COVID-19, this particular imposition was not only necessary but one we also welcomed as two people who had snagged coveted tickets to a live performance of “Dave Chappelle and Friends” in the Summer of 2020. More unlikely still, we were invited to an exclusive seating section that required on-site COVID-19 testing because of its proximity to the performers.
At the height of a global pandemic, and after having spent much of 2020 quarantined in our homes, we ambled into the vast grounds of Wirrig Pavilion to spend the night watching a mystery line up of stand-up comedians with approximately three hundred other people. We strolled into a different world: sanitizers on every surface, circles on the ground to measure distance, masks. The cloudless night sky and rustling cornfield surrounded audience members as they found their socially-distanced seats while DJ Trauma spun some tunes. Although we were prevented from seeing smiles or other facial expressions behind the masks, a collective sense of excitement was palpable.
We attended the twenty-eighth show that Chappelle hosted in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Over the course of the summer months, tickets became suddenly available at random times; the performer lineup was never revealed before the show; rumors often spread. At a time when every experience is curated by relentless selfie postings, the aura of mystery and non-repeatability of these events added to the anticipation. The artists who took the Wirrig Pavilion’s stage in the summer of 2020 included Mo Amer, Erykah Badu, Michael Che, Common, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Hamm, Talib Kweli, Donnell Rawlings, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Cipha Sounds, Jon Stewart, Michelle Wolf, and many more.
The performance we experienced had a surreal quality. Partly, the show borrowed from the style of the comedy club; an emcee–Chappelle–introduced individual acts. During the show we attended, performers consistently teased some muscled individuals seated near the stage. With a football field between the stage and the last seats, this did not play like it would in a comedy club where the view enables the audience to join in the heckling. Our distance could not afford the intimacy of certain kinds of jokes, but the refreshing opportunity to be at a live show in the first place meant that there was no dearth of laughter.
Ultimately, however, the physical space resisted collapsing into the space of a club. The night air, the smell of a cut field, an occasional plane overhead; these had to fold into the logic of the event. The field lent itself to jokes that were literally about big things and big reactions. Mo Amer’s performance, characterized by exaggerated bodily motions and frantic metaphysical questions, filled the space and aired the worst and the loudest of the paranoia around the pandemic. Donnell Rawlings’s hyperbolic jab at rock music’s amplifications was similarly effective because it drew from the spatial configuration of a big, outdoor arena. Rawlings’s account of a boating expedition down the local Little Miami River—what he coined “from street to creek”—was not only hilarious, it was also an astute consideration of the coherence of the Black experience in relation to a “nature” pastime colonized by white-settler ideologies, ideologies that linger in the landscape and rivers of rural Ohio.
Dave Chappelle lived in Yellow Springs during his youth when his father was a professor at Antioch College. His mother later became an administrator for the Bolinga Black Cultural Resources Center at Wright State University. Chappelle and his wife, Elaine, moved back with their children over fifteen years ago. Yellow Springs is a town of just over 3,600, a mix of farm owners and progressive professionals. At a jazz festival in 2006 Chappelle said, “Turns out you don’t need $50 million to live around these parts, just a nice smile and a kind way about you…That’s why I came back and that’s why I’m staying.” When he first moved back to Yellow Springs, Chappelle kept a quiet existence, but his celebrity status cannot be denied. He once hosted the town’s annual New Year’s Eve ball-drop, and he holds an annual sold-out barn party (dubbed “Juke Joint”) at Whitehall Farm which benefits a local land trust.
Family and history bind Chappelle to this small town, but they do not make him immune to its politics. After weeks of uninterrupted success, a zoning inspector pointed out that the land on which the “Dave Chappelle and Friends” performances took place was meant for agricultural, not commercial, purposes. With county officials threatening to shut down the event, Team Chappelle turned to the town’s residents and performance attendees for support and advocacy. The venue’s owners filed for a contemporary use permit, and after dozens of people spoke in overwhelming support of the shows in a nearly two-hundred-person, virtual public forum before the zoning appeals board, Chappelle’s shows were allowed to continue. Those who attended the meeting spoke not only about how the performances supported the local economy but also about how enjoyable the evenings had been—how they had given people much-needed laughter and relief in the midst of a pandemic.
But as the best comedy shows will do, the laughter also exposed the most vulnerable aspects of American politics. Over the summer, one of Chappelle’s regular jokes asked the audience to imagine a white boy eating ice cream at the dairy farm that sits at the other end of the cornfield that surrounds the Wirrig Pavilion. In Chappelle’s telling, the white boy looks up at his mother to say that the Black people nearby are having too much fun because they are so loud. Conjuring a scene of an ice cream outing in an Ohio farm while streets are burning, the joke mocks normalcy in the face of what has been called the double pandemic of COVID-19 and racism. The racial inequality of both upheavals surfaces. In everyday, affective contexts, the joke calls out how white people interpret Black communities as a social threat. Likewise, the superficial complaint and discomfort of a white boy who—at the very moment of his glutinous consumption—seeks to police a gathering like “Dave Chappelle and Friends,” calls out by contrast the precariousness of Black people whose sufferings have had no adequate restitution in the history of American racial politics.
When he’s at his very best, Chappelle will make you both laugh out loud and reprimand yourself for it. An overall masculine bravado is central to his brand—and to the controversies that have arisen around his performances. Notably, Michelle Wolf (who began quarantining in Yellow Springs shortly after the pandemic began) was a fixed and welcome presence at the summer shows. Incisive and cutting, unpretentious yet disarming, Wolf’s comedy reminds us of the ignorance and the silence that are the hallmarks of white privilege. Walking the line of insightful and insulting, Wolf says: “A comic’s job is not to be right or wrong. They’re supposed to be funny.” Likewise, it was no small feat to have two comedic legends—Dave Chappelle and David Letterman—on the stage in Yellow Springs to mark each other’s accomplishments. Their exchanges were like the passing of a torch from one individual comedic style to another. But more importantly, Letterman and Chappelle’s conversations performed a relinquishing of the reigns of the future of comedy out of the hands of white studio suits. Their performance revealed the ways in which production venues handcuffed to old ways remained inert and irrelevant. The real passing of the torch occurred in the improvisation of the moment, the sass and jazz of the scene—the irreverence directed at the usual centers of artistic production like Hollywood or New York, the move from a polished studio to a cornfield.
So, we write of the event to mark the fact that these performances achieved something inimitable and timely. Chappelle has been using performance to record and to create—to generate narratives of belonging across disparate racial identities and economic markers, even as those very disparities are put on display and openly mocked. “Dave Chappelle and Friends” responded to the nonsensical, metaphysical disorientation of species annihilation by offering glimpses of a normal night out, but one marked indelibly by necessary strictures that persistently reminded us that nothing, in fact, was normal.
Performance art in the time of COVID is under strain. More than ever, the creation of an artistic performance constitutes an act of recording, remembrance, and reckoning. The lengths taken to pull off a show like “Dave Chappelle and Friends” are intricate and, certainly, expensive. But entertainers need their audience and we—longing for art, enjoyment, and relief—need them. At a time when we were unmoored from the broader social contexts on which we might ground our sense of community, and while the world seems to crack at the pressure points of economic and racial conflict, Chappelle offered audiences in an Ohio cornfield a fleeting, alternate universe of belonging whereby impermanence is the condition of possibility.
Carol Mejia LaPerle is Professor and Honors Advisor for the English Department of Wright State University. She teaches and writes about renaissance rhetoric, philosophies of will, theories of affect, and constructions of race and gender in early modern culture. She is editing a forthcoming collection of essays entitled Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature. Her monograph-in-progress, Dark Will: Race, Affect, and Volition in William Shakespeare, examines philosophies of will and formations of race.
Kelli Zaytoun is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English at Wright State University. Her research and teaching focus on identity and narrative, multiethnic literature, and the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, María Lugones, and Clarice Lispector. She is currently working on a book project with University of Illinois Press on the shapeshifter trope in the works of Gloria Anzaldúa.