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.