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Review: `Black Comedy’
This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 27, 1999.
All rights reserved.
The multi-talented and many-voiced Nancy Giles is setting
audiences laughing with her one-woman show "Black Comedy: The
Wacky Side of Racism," presented by Passage Theater, and now playing
at Mill Hill Playhouse through Sunday, February 7. Giles also wrote
the show, which is directed by Ellie Covan. And while it draws largely
on Giles’s personal experiences as a student at Oberlin College and
as an actress, the skits cut deeper, holding up a mirror to our society
and its stereotypes.
Here is black comedy squared. Black comedy, black humor, is tied to
theater of the absurd, and the episodes Giles dramatizes, playing
several roles, are bitterly painful, unfair, and absurd. And then,
Giles is black.
From the moment Giles appears as a giant shadow behind a scrim —
black on white — then comes on stage, until she leaves it more
than an hour later, she beguiles the audience (mostly white on opening
night). With her 6-foot-1-inch body, clad in black pants and jacket
and long striped top, her sparkling and intense eyes, her expressive
face, her active hands, and her thick mop of hair, this fine actress
projects many moods. She moves naturally about the stage, sometimes
jerking her body, leapfrogging, doing a bump and grind, grabbing her
breasts to dramatize her words. And she sings.
Most of her skits carry the bitter sting of racism. Giles gets racism
from all sides, from whites consoling her with a second place, or
with a tie in a contest with a white girl with long blonde hair that
she flips, from the black "brothers" who want her to move
down to their house and be one of them and join the black prom. Even
she, herself, is racist when she wonders, at Oberlin, why a black
girl is "hanging with" a white girl. A skit of Giles as a
waitress at McDonald’s implies that even an Hispanic uses her badly.
As a professional black actress she’s been required to "talk black"
— to play parts speaking in a black vernacular — to say to
a waitress serving an order, "I be having those," when what
she wants to say is "Those are mine." As she comments acerbically,
"If I were playing a cop, would I say `You be under arrest’?"
She is caustic, too, about the few roles available to a black actor,
roles that "are always subservient to white people," roles
for crack addicts, welfare mothers, drug counselors, and nurses. As
a nurse, Giles claims her big line was, "I’ll get the stool softener."
Giles, whose skin is light brown, has also been passed over for roles
because she’s "not black enough." "Black enough for
what?" she asks.
Several of the dramatized episodes come from her experiences at Oberlin
College. In one, she is given novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker
to study. She looks them over. "Rape, incest." More black
stereotypes she recounts scornfully.
Sometimes she speaks with mainstream grammar in her own easy voice.
She scorns black English, Ebonics. She refuses to take a "black"
name: she likes Nancy. She doesn’t like the term "African-American"
("really kidnapped Americans"), likes "Afro-American"
("because of the hair"), and likes "black." She pillories
race-identifying theme music. And then she asks whether her attitude
makes her "an Uncle Tom? Or an Aunt Jemima?"
Giles is a trained comedian; her comic timing is flawless, her sense
of humor homes in on absurdity. She spent three years with Chicago’s
Second City comedy troupe, three seasons as Frankie in TV’s "China
Beach," and co-hosted "Fox After Breakfast." She has appeared
in the movies "Big," "Working Girl," and "True
Crime," and it’s her voice in commercials for Lifetime and the
New York Times. This show is, she says, "about what it means to
be in this business and what `blackness’ means to me. I want to make
people laugh, but I also want to provoke thought and discussion about
race and race relations."
Giles was no deprived child. Born in St. Albans, Queens, and graduated
from Oberlin College, she believes the best way to treat racism is
with education and aspiration. "The best antidote to racism is
to out-achieve it," Giles says. But overcoming racism is not just
personal. "Reach for something, not to escape your neighborhood,
but because every good thing you do enriches your community,"
The show opened on Friday, January 15, in celebration of Martin Luther
King Jr.’s birthday. King’s "I have a dream" speech still
resonates throughout our society. So will "Black Comedy,"
an excellent show, which uses laughter to puncture the often silent
racism of Giles’s experience, laughter that shows, as Shakespeare
wrote in "Hamlet," the "very age and body of the time,
his form and pressure." Nancy Giles would make everyone see her
as one Oberlin man once did: "I don’t see you as black, I see
you as Nancy."
— Joan Crespi
Company , Mill Hill Playhouse, Trenton, 609-392-0766. The one-woman
comedy continues through February 7. $15.
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