When comedian W. Kamau Bell moved his family from New York to Berkeley a few years ago, he settled within walking distance of the UC Berkeley campus.
He says, “I was shocked to see how few black students there were here.”
That is much the same conclusion that the UC Berkeley student curators of Cal Performances came to when putting together the fourth in the series of Front Row performances.
Funded through a multi-year grant from The Wallace Foundation, Front Row tests a theory that if 18- to 22-year-olds get the chance to envision and produce their own shows, they and the young audiences they attract will connect better with what’s on stage, both now and after graduation.
The group of 10 students reached out to Bell, perhaps best known for his “United Shades of America,” a documentary series about to enter its fourth season on CNN. Together, they put together a panel of black comics — including Roy Wood Jr. from “The Daily Show,” Natasha Rothwell of HBO’s “Insecure” and Punkie Johnson, best known for her work at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood — for the upcoming Front Row show.
The issue of being black on the Berkeley campus tops the agenda for “Front Row with W. Kamau Bell and Friends,” which takes place at Zellerbach Hall at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6. The show will explore African American identities and delve into why blacks are one of the least represented communities in the UC Berkeley population.
Bell would like this gathering to be similar to the transition that took place when Trevor Noah took over for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” in 2015.
“The very first night ‘The Daily Show’ with Trevor Noah aired, Trevor Noah was on it, Roy Wood Jr. was on it and the guest was Kevin Hart,” Bell says. “And I tweeted, `Is this the first time there have been three black people on ‘The Daily Show?’ For me, it was three times the blackness of any of ‘The Daily Shows.’
“In that moment, Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. could have a back-and-forth moment that becomes very different than Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah having a back-and-forth or Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore. Because it’s two black people from very different black perspectives talking, so neither one of them has to carry the weight of the black perspective.”
And none of the four people on stage at Zellerbach Hall on Wednesday will have to carry the black perspective alone, either. The subject they will tackle is serious, to be sure. Their core mission is making people laugh. That won’t change that night.
“Chris Rock says comedians always say funny things,” Bell says. “We will be on stage in front of people. If you hand a guitar player a guitar, something is going to happen. If you hand us all microphones and an audience, the natural inclination will be to be funny. That doesn’t mean we’re going to sell out the point, but it means that’s what we do.”
Bell, an activist whose roles include being the ACLU’s ambassador for racial justice, knows Wood a bit, has been a longtime correspondent on Twitter with Rothwell, even though the two have never met in person, and knows Johnson by reputation. Bell says one of the beauties of bringing comedians together to address an issue is that they don’t have to be longtime colleagues to click on stage.
“We are all black comedians in showbiz, so there is a shorthand we already know,” Bell says. “If you put us backstage a half hour before we go on, we will figure out where we need to go and where we don’t need to go. There is a lot of shorthand that we would have already, because we are in this business even though we are in very different versions of it. I’m in the news department, Roy Wood Jr. is in the comedy department, Natasha is in the HBO department, and Punkie is in the comedy club department. But we have all spent time in each other’s departments.”
Bell, who recently moved from Berkeley with his wife and three daughters to a house with a little more room in Oakland, never went to school at UC Berkeley, but he did work at Ned’s Berkeley Bookstore near Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue before it went out of business in 2013. And he and his family lived near Berkeley High School, just west of the campus.
“I know that Oakland is gentrifying more every time I blink my eyes, but I still see it as a hub of blackness,” Bell says. He doesn’t see that in Berkeley. “I would doubt that the average high school student in Oakland feels the connection to immediately say ‘Cal,’”he says. “Maybe black students don’t come here because, if you take a visitor on campus, there is nothing here that says it’s friendly to black students.
“I’m not talking about safety. But you don’t see black fraternities around campus. You don’t see the things that, if you were to step onto Morehouse’s campus, not that I’m comparing Berkeley to Morehouse, you can say, ‘This is good for black people.’ You have to decide as a campus how important this is to you.”
Dianne Chung, one of the curators who worked to bring Bell to campus, says the issue is important to the group of student curators, which includes persons of color, but no African Americans. She says bringing Bell in to moderate was important, “because we wanted to continue the momentum of identifying the struggles of representation in media and entertainment.”
That momentum picked up a year ago when the Student Curators of Cal Performances brought in another comic, Margaret Cho, for Front Row as they sought to explore Asian American identities on campus. The group’s makeup changes from year to year, but the underlying mission is the same — to learn to create public events and to take public action through the arts.
Last year’s student group was happy with their result, and this year’s curators are traveling on a similar path by bringing in Bell and the other Front Row guests.
“The hope for this event is to provide a safe space for the black individuals on campus to speak with W. Kamau Bell and his guests and feel heard in a society that often brings them down, rather than raises them up, in all facets of society — economically, systematically, politically,” Chung says. “The interactive sequence that Front Row includes between the guests of the night and the students will hopefully allow the black students on campus to take control of the conversation, rather than the other majority populations on campus.”
Bell says the mission of the performance isn’t for the comics to serve as university recruiters. The goal is to start a conversation for Berkeley students already enrolled, a task Bell relishes.
“What I want to come out of this is the same thing I sort of want with everything I do,” he says. “It’s people having better conversations on the way out than they had on the way in. If you leave, and it makes you talk about something that you weren’t talking about before, or if you have slightly different information about a subject that you thought you knew, then mission accomplished.
“I don’t think you can ask for more than that, that it sticks with people. It is on us on stage to have an interesting conversation and for me as the person in the middle of it to lead things in an interesting direction and to scratch the things I think are unnecessary.”
The Student Curators of Cal Performances group was new to Bell when it reached out to him. He didn’t know what to expect when he first met the crew, but he was quickly in their camp.
“I went into that meeting feeling, ‘What’s happening here?’” Bell says. “There were a lot of people of color in the group. And what they were saying is that, even though they weren’t black students, they felt that there is a discussion to be had about blackness on campus.
“Which is really sometimes a more effective way to hold the discussion than to have the black students say, `We need this.’ When black students do that, it’s very easy to paint them into a corner. Berkeley’s reputation is as a place of inclusion, so you have to care. You have to care institutionally, and you have to find a way to make this a place that is friendlier to African American students. I’m sure black students apply, but it’s about how you create an environment where more apply and that you have a campus that supports them.”
Bell points out that Berkeley isn’t alone in its lack of black faces.
“Mainstream comedy clubs are still predominantly white male spaces,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have people of color and women in there, but if there is more than one woman comic, it’s like, `We got another lady on the show!’”
This story was first published by UC Berkeley on March 1, 2019 and is reprinted with permission.