Premium Comedy Night in Mitchell’s Plain

Mitchell's Plain

My second day in Cape Town, I combed through Cape Town Magazine’s website and found a listing for a comedy show in a neighborhood called Mitchell’s Plain. I followed the link at the bottom of the page and found the show’s host, Kenwyn Davids, on Facebook. Even though it was the day of the event, he kindly offered to squeeze me on stage for a few minutes.

That night, I called an Uber driver and punched in the address on my phone. A few minutes later, I got a call from the driver. I couldn’t hear him clearly, but he said he wanted to cancel the ride and didn’t want to go that far outside the city. I had never used Uber before, so I didn’t know whether this was standard.

I called another cab company and my driver arrived a few minutes later. We quickly introduced ourselves, and then passed the first few minutes in silence, making quick turns and stopping at lights. At some point he took another look at the address I had given him. “Westridge, Mitchell’s Plain,” Jason said cautiously. “Do you live there?”

“No, there’s a comedy show out there,” I told him.

He nodded.  Another few minutes passed as he took the highway out of town. I turned around and watched as the skyscrapers and city lights grew faint.

A couple more minutes passed, and the roads grew quieter. “Are you sure this is the right address? This is where the comedy show is?” Jason suddenly asked, a hint of unease in his voice.

“Yea, I think so,” I said, pulling out my phone to double check. Then, on a whim, I opened up Google and searched “Mitchell’s Plain.”

The third result read as follows: “Mitchell’s Plain worst area for crime in SA.”

I looked out the window. Here and there I saw shops, closed. The streetlights were fewer and fewer.

I clicked on the article. “According to the SAPS, there were 650 more murders last year than the previous year. There was also a 6.5% increase to 16,363 in the number of attempted murders,” said the article. I felt the bile rise up in my throat.

“Is this neighborhood safe, if I’m at a comedy show?” I asked Jason.

“Well,” he said. “It can be a dangerous neighborhood if you don’t know your way around.” He motioned toward a poorly lit road. “I was carjacked there, at gunpoint, in broad daylight,” he said. “And the police, they did nothing. They don’t like to come out here,” he said. “So we’re not going to take that road.”  I brought my knuckle up against my teeth.

“But if there are people around, and you know them, and you don’t walk around outside, then maybe it is OK,” he said.  “Do you know who you are going to see?”

Hardly. I had only exchanged Facebook messages with Kenwyn. He and I had mutual friends in the comedy circuit, but I hadn’t had time to ask anyone about the show. I explained this to Jason. “Maybe we can just drive by and check it out?” I said.

We drove awhile through mostly quiet streets. At some point Jason pulled into a gas station to check the directions again, not wanting to stop on the road. When we got to the bar, Jason stopped the car and peered out the window. We looked at each other for a second.

“Should I do this?” I asked him.

“Maybe I should come out with you.” He said.

“Jason, I just need you to be honest with me,” I said. “Do you think I should do this?”

He paused. “If I’m honest, the answer is no. I just think you don’t know enough about what’s going on here. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to go out there myself. It feels wrong for me to leave you here. It feels like I have to tell you I don’t think you should this.”

So we turned back.

We drove back to Cape Town, this time taking that road where Jason had been carjacked, which cut maybe 20 minutes off the trip. Along the way, Jason explained some of his concern to me. “I am not safe in this neighborhood either,” he told me. “Because I am a black man, and because this is a coloured neighborhood” (“coloured” carries none of the same connotations it does in America and is not offensive in South Africa.)

“They carjacked me because they knew I was not from here,” he said. “And the police are afraid to come here, because the gangs have better guns. So they did nothing.”

Jason told me more of his story. In 2007, he moved to Cape Town from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, looking for work.  In 2008, xenophobic riots resulted in the deaths of some 60 people—mostly African immigrants or people who were mistaken as such. Some of the victims were people Jason knew. He himself had narrowly escaped, he told me.

It has left him feeling unsafe in Cape Flats, where Mitchell’s Plain is. “They came all the way from here into the city center,” he said. “If I am not safe there, where can I go? How can I feel safe in this neighborhood?”

The next morning I sent a Facebook message to Kenwyn Davids, the host of the show, explaining what my driver had told me. “lol…” he replied. “We had a couple of Swedish tourists in last night. It’s fine man.”

Maybe they saw the same ad I did, I thought. “Well now I just feel silly,” I told him. “Any chance you’ll have the show again in a couple of weeks?”

“Yes,” Kenwyn said. “ I’ll let you know. We’ll get you on then.”

Simultaneously, I messaged a white friend and a comedian from Cape Town about what had happened the night before. “You made the right call mate,” he said. “Absolutely trust your driver. That’s not a good neighborhood for you to be in.”

I told him about Kenwyn’s message. “Who knows whether those tourists knew what they were in for?” He said. “And the fact that it went OK doesn’t mean it always will,” he said.

I mentioned that Kenwyn runs the show there every two weeks. “Yes, but he lives there,” my friend explained. “It’s different for you. Plus, if you said the wrong thing about race in that neighborhood—and you might do that, as a comedian—it could get pretty ugly. I don’t know, if I were there I’d go with you, but maybe don’t bother with the show,” he said.

I sat in a café looking over these two message threads, lingering over a breakfast getting cold, wondering what I should do. I felt my Americanness in the strongest way. My upbringing, my way of thinking, my friends and the advice they give—they were useless here.

Two weeks later I sat at the bar at the Kimberly Hotel in central Cape Town, waiting for two of the other comedians doing the Mitchell’s Plain show that night. Esti, a friend and local comedian, had agreed to drive us out. “Matt’s running late,” she told me. Matt was another American, who was also booked to do the show that night. “Wanna have a drink while we wait?”

We chatted about the show and the good experiences other people had there. Esti got a text from Kenwyn. Apparently some of the main roads in Mitchell’s Plain had been closed because of protests. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” she said.

Matt arrived and we quickly hopped in the car. “It’s totally fine,” Esti told me a couple of times, seeing my nervous eyes. “This is going to be a really fun show,” she said.

Matt was also chill about it. He started telling a story about a tough neighborhoods he had been through in Chicago, and how his driver had been worried about him. He had shrugged it off and told the driver, “Chill out dude—I’m a grown-ass man.” I guess I’m a grown-ass man too,  I thought.

We took that poorly lit road and got to the bar in no time. Esti parked just outside. “You sure you’re allowed outside this time? You need permission?” Matt said, grinning. I gave a nervous laugh.

A big sign had a pistol with a red slash through it. “No guns,” it read. A security guard looked us over and waved us in.  Here we go,  I thought.

But as soon as we walked inside, I saw how paranoid I had been. The bar was like any other. The comedians were the same people I had been hanging out with at shows in the city center over the past couple of weeks. The crowd were hanging around and chatting and playing pool. The manager of the bar even came in to the comedian’s room in the back and passed around homemade Biltong, a kind of salty, dried meat.

We waited a little while until the stragglers came in and bought their tickets. My unfounded nerves now gone, I watched the comedians ahead of me to see what kinds of jokes would work. But I hardly had to worry. The crowd was super generous, going for all different kinds of styles.

The show’s host, Carl Weber, was crushing the whole night. He talked about everything from Hollywood casting calls to gang violence in Mitchell’s Plain. About halfway through the show, Carl got back up to introduce me.  His first joke had to do with the fact that one of the biggest gangs in Mitchell’s Plain is called “the Americans.”

“I promised you guys an American…who won’t stab you. Ladies and Gentleman, he told his mother, ‘I’m going to fuckin’ Mitchell’s Plain. I’m going to the fucken’ roughest part of South Africa, the roughest fuckin’ part.’ No, but he didn’t sound like that. Here’s how he sounded, [repeats the same thing in an intense, 1950’s-esque American accent.] Please welcome on stage, Ricky Altieri!”

So the stage was set. I stepped up and just got into it. I tried out a couple of local jokes about struggling with Afrikaans and to understand Cape Town culture. I stuck with a few old jokes about race and class. I told a few silly wordplay jokes and some vulgar stuff. And I just had a blast. The audience was so generous and giving, and afterwards a bunch of people came over to chat and say nice things about the show.

We left shortly after the last act and Esti drove me back to the city center. Part of me felt guilty and stupid, for having been afraid of what I didn’t know— for having been afraid to tell jokes to people, just because of where they lived. Part of me felt delighted, for having shared laughs with a South African crowd that I otherwise would never have spoken to. Part of me felt, too, that I had really captured the spirit of this fellowship: to do comedy in places where I wasn’t immediately comfortable, for people I didn’t know, with jokes that tried to bridge cultural differences.

And the last part of me felt that my conflicting emotions were overblown. I didn’t need to twist this into some narrative of white guilt, or some narrative about the triumph of comedy over class differences. What happened was really quite simple. I did a comedy show, shared some laughs, and made some friends.

I posted on Facebook thanking Kenwyn for a great gig, and then I went to sleep.




“Oozing White Privilege”

Cape Town Comedy Ceiling

During my first week in town I turned up for a Wednesday night show in Observatory, a bustling student neighborhood just outside Cape Town. I had been in touch with the show’s host, Gino, but I didn’t know whether I’d be performing.

“You here for the comedy?” The guy at the door asked. I started to pull out some money for him.

“Yea,” I said. “Do you know where Gino is?”

“He’s outside. Wait, are you on tonight?”

I explained that I’m a comedian from the States.

“Oh, well then you’re definitely not paying,” he said, putting away the pen he was going to use to mark my wrist. “I’m Phil, by the way.” He extended his hand.

We got to chatting about comedy in New York and in South Africa. We talked about how difficult it can be to get started on the New York ladder. About how a South African wouldn’t have much of an advantage, because New York gets people from all over. About how promoters and venue owners sometimes take advantage of desperate newcomers, by forcing them to bring their own guests and charging them to perform.

“I’ll die before I see that happen in my town,” Phil says, shaking his head. “Uggh. It makes sense though, the way they do this. Cause it’s becoming cool to be a comedian. So people want to do it, and they take advantage.”

We talk a little about Trevor Noah. His name on at the tip of everyone’s tongue around here—he’s right up there with Oscar Pistorius or Jacob Zuma. We talk about how quickly he climbed the ladder in the States and started living a life even American comedians can’t dream of.

Inevitably, he asked, “So how long are you in Cape Town?” The subtext of this question felt a little like, what are you doing here?

I’ve gotten good at this part. I’ve got a short answer, a long answer, and a short answer that prompts a question that prompts the long answer. I gave that last reply to Phil, and he asked for the longer version.

“So this is going to sound like the plot of a bad movie,” I begin. “Basically, a multi-millionaire left an endowment for university graduates to pursue a cross-cultural project…”

After I had finished my spiel, Phil said, “Dude. That’s amazing.” Then, after a pause: “You are just oozing white privilege right now.” We both laughed.  Out of nervousness I laughed too long.

“I’m joking, dude,” he said.

“But it’s true,” I replied.

Phil shrugged, as if to say that old thing about how true jokes are the best kind.

Still, in general, my back story doesn’t go over too badly here. Many South Africans are tired of wide-eyed Westerners who come to do non-profit work. “I was just about ready to explain why we don’t need your help,” one person at a bar told me. “I was just lining up my stop trying to save the world speech. But you’re just here to tell jokes in danky bars,” she said. “Which is strange, but I guess that’s fine.”

Phil went over to the bar to try to get people inside before the show. I walked outside and found Gino, who offered me a bro-ish handshake, which I awkwardly accepted. That’s my way with comedians. They are so deeply informal, and I struggle to match their ease. My effort is generally enough. They see that I’m trying.  “Wanna do a quick 5 tonight?” Gino said.  He introduced me to the comedian running the line-up, and he took down my name and wrote me in. It was as simple as that.

I hung around outside with the other comedians for a few minutes, checking back inside to see if the room had filled up, seeming awkward and not caring as much as I once would have. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of showing up without friends and with a funny accent and a strange back story, so the suspicious glances and who-is-that? vibes bounce off me a little more easily than they used to.  Occasionally I remember that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when I’m alone in a new country and about to perform, and then I do. But then I get distracted and I stop worrying about it.

A few minutes later the comedians head inside. Phil has made his way around the bar and the windowless room with red paint and heavy artificial lighting has filled up nicely. The first thing I notice, about the crowds and the comedians, is the diversity. My last shows had been in Ireland, in front of crowds whiter than printer paper. And even in Cape Town, the more expensive coffee shops and tourist destinations recommended in the New York Times (where I’d spent some time earlier in the week) are disproportionately white—apart, uncomfortably enough, from the staff, who are mostly black.

But the comedy room was different. It was a mix of internationals and locals, as I learned from the host’s questions to the crowd.

I wasn’t sure where in the line-up I would fall, because no one had mentioned that to me. “We just call everyone up, one by one,” one comedian explained. But I was happy not to be called early on.  By watching from the back, I could get a sense for what worked here and what didn’t. In particular, I wanted to see how the race jokes would play—or whether they were off-limits for white people or foreigners.

That fear turned out to be misguided. Most of the comedians—regardless of skin color—dealt with race in their jokes. They were freer about it, less worried about offending people than American and European comedians. And the crowd laughed generously, at the comedians, themselves, and each other.

Of course, on paper, I can’t do the comedy justice. To describe the humor would be to suck the joy out of it. But I felt like I was witnessing the kind of open discussion and acknowledgement of racial issues that America sorely lacks. It wasn’t happening in a fancy political forum or university classroom. It was happening in dank bar at a comedy show, with a mix of people that probably otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room, listening to one guy after another talk about race and class and laughing about it. Laughing about our sordid past, its painful legacy, and the little racist things that we see every day and can be so hard to talk about.

Despite this, I was nervous about my own political jokes. I had seen white Afrikaners have no trouble, but the only foreigner, a British comedian, had struggled a bit with some darker material.

Of course, though, I had to tell them. The freedom of having a fellowship is that I don’t have to worry whether it’ll get me booked again. And hey, if they don’t like me, I’ll leave the country in a month anyway.

I walked up stage and soon felt quite comfortable. Stages are stages, microphones are microphones, and stand-up is stand up, even on a different continent.

The lighting was intense, as it often is, but I tried to squint and make out the faces of my first South African audience. I never get over the excitement of a punchline, especially in a new place. I love that moment when you hit that twist, and an audience breaks out in smiling eyes and a range of laughters, from bellows to shrill notes.

My absurdist jokes played the same as they did in Europe: maybe nonsense is the same everywhere. My political jokes about empire and colonization played similarly to the way they did in Ireland, as opposed to the way they played in Britain. The South African crowd didn’t go so much for the bits about the colonization of America, but they loved my joke about imperial white people.

These comedy sets go quickly when they’re fun, and this one went very quickly. I sat in the dark again, in the back, and gave some high fives to some of the other comedians. The easiest way to feel comfortable in a comedy room is to have a good set.

After the show, the comedians invited me to hang around out back. We talked for a while, about how difficult it is to get stage time, about trying to make ends meet at a comedian, about jokes that make us laugh so hard we want to piss ourselves. We talked about getting the wrong gifts at Christmas as kids, wondered how the hell Mitch Hedberg managed to make his material work, and good shows we’d had in other cities.

I took a cab back home and went outside to the balcony. Cape Town goes to bed early. A few lights flicker here and there, and in the distance I can make out the silhouette of Table Mountain. It’s a city with its own rhythm, a place totally foreign to me. I shivered for a second, thinking about how far I was from home, how few people I knew here, and how long it would be before I would be back.

But I calmed down as I thought again about the show. In Cape Town, as everywhere, comedians are trying to figure their shit out, tell good jokes, get laughs, and feel understood. And I’m trying to do those things, too.

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