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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,"

she says.

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

Black Comedy: The Wacky Side of Racism, Passage Theater

Company , Mill Hill Playhouse, Trenton, 609-392-0766. The one-woman

comedy continues through February 7. $15.

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