I just watched Dave Chappelle quit stand up. Out in the Comcast Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, shivering in the open air, I can’t think that this is anything else. I felt this coming just five minutes after the silver curtain had dropped dramatically, by which point the former Comedy Central star had barely gotten any jokes out. We all knew it was five minutes because, with an edge in his voice, Chappelle had ticked off the time.
The Oddball "Funny or Die" tour was supposed to be Chappelle’s big return to stand up (again). Shorty after taking the stage—to our massive applause—someone in the front interrupted to ask if he was back for real this time. He answered "Yes." We all cheered.
He had started with some Paula Deen jokes that went over well when he had to stop again. Maybe it was his gratuitous use of the N-word to a mostly White audience. Maybe it was the overpriced beer that, to my amazement, everyone seemed to keep buying. Whatever it was, there was a palpable change. The crowd got rowdier, louder, ruder. Folks started calling out random references to his past work (he informed us that if we ever see him in a Half Baked sequel, that means he's run completely out of money) and, most bizarrely, his 2006 Oprah interview.
After engaging some of the heckling politely, Chappelle had enough. "I’ve been up here a while now and I thought it was me but now I ‘m sure it’s you. There is definitely something wrong with you." he told us. In other words, "shut up and let me perform." Not many did. Finally, he gave up and took his cigarettes and his water and sat on stage.
"Times like this, I wonder where Katt Williams is." He sips his water and stares at us meaningfully. There is a hush. The jeers begin again.
When he decided he would not be doing the show, he responded to a voice in the crowd: “I’m going to have to read about this sh*t for months.”
And he will—and none of the reports will be fair. They will include bare facts; At the Hartford show, Dave Chappelle DID sit down and read an excerpt from an audience member’s book. At the Hartford show, Dave Chappelle DID give the crowd the middle finger and tell us that we sucked ("You are booing yourself. I want you to go home and look in the mirror and say 'boo,' that's how I feel about you.")
I doubt many will say the audience deserved it. I doubt they will quote Dave or say that he warned the audience. That he began to discuss a larger, historical issue: the Black entertainer and White consumption.
I’m writing this to be fair: it needs to be written, it needs to be read. It needs to be understood.
Dave Chappelle walked off stage tonight and Black people understand why.
Being in that crowd, a sea of drunk White male faces and seeing Chappelle sit there and be jeered at made me uncomfortable. Heckling isn’t uncommon for comedians but often when a comedian as famous as Chappelle puts their foot down, it is usually respected.
While the racial makeup of the crowd was incidental, the way they treated Chappelle is not. It speaks to a long complicated history: the relationship between the White audience and the Black entertainer. This is a relationship you can easily trace to early minstrel shows, to archetypes of Blacks that still define the roles we’re offered today. We have seen more Black comedians bow to racist tropes, demean themselves—albeit unintentionally—for White audiences.
Chappelle wasn’t having a meltdown. This was a Black artist shrugging the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough. This isn’t the first time Chappelle has done so and it isn’t the first time his behavior has been characterized as a meltdown.
There is a long history of asking African-Americans to endure racism silently; it’s characterized as grace, as strength. Chappelle’s Connecticut audience, made up of largely young White males, demanded a shuck and jive. Men who seemed to have missed the fine satire of the Chappelle show demanded he do characters who, out of the context of the show look more like more racist tropes, than mockery of America’s belief in them.
When he expressed shock at the fact that he’d sat there and been yelled at for so long, people yelled that they'd paid him. They felt paying for a show meant they could verbally harass him, direct him in any tone of voice, as though they’d bought him.
After his first “meltdown,” Chappelle said he left his show because he wasn't sure if he was being laughed with or at. Seeing him walk off that stage last night, I think he’d decided on the answer. They had been missing his message, they weren’t laughing with him. And I'm glad to see that in Connecticut, he had the courage to laugh back.
Lesli-Ann Lewis is a habitual line-stepper and destroyer of norms. Follow her on Twitter @lesellele.