Like a safe haven rising from the ashes of a forgotten warzone, the Bronzeville Coffee House shines with friendliness on the corner of an otherwise darkened and derelict street. Its windows are rimmed with glowing blue lights, its interior looks warm and welcoming, and upon stepping inside, the visitor is immediately taken aback by the chic, almost posh interior–images that simply do not jive with the outside environment. Painted in soft pastels and rich, bright colors, the walls are hung with large modernist paintings that often showcase African-Americans. Luminous conical lamps descend from the ceiling on slim steel poles, lending the cafÃ© a softly dimmed atmosphere. On either side of the doorway, two rows of tables extend into the depths of the room, stopping only when they press up against the bar or when they come within a few meters of the opposite wall.
There, in the space created by the absent tables, on the bare floor directly in front of the bar, stands the comedian. He is black, and gestures wildly with his hands, making funny faces to entice the audience into his story. But despite all his adamancy and grand efforts, the response is tepid at best. Light laughter rings through the air at a few poignant points, but for the most part his own chuckles serve as the primary reply to his jokes. When he exits the stage, polite mandatory applause accompanies his departure, and the host for the night does not even mention his name one last time before eagerly introducing the next comedian.
The next one is far funnier. His name is Hannibal and he uses the wide width of the stage to his advantage, stalking predatorily like his namesake, and making meaningful hand motions that punctuate his punch lines. The audience–mostly composed of African-Americans, but also a few Caucasians, all of which are predominantly young adults–laughs appreciatively at the slave jokes, the porn jibes, and the witty anecdotes about racists. His performance is entertaining and memorable, and he leaves the stage to the sound of commending claps.
Bounding up from the back of the room yet again, the host introduces the next set of artists, each time giving their background, their achievements and their current aspirations. Through the course of the night, many talented comedians grace the stage, including VH1’s “Miss Rap Supreme” contestant Lady Twist and acclaimed local artist Meechie Hall, who will soon be trying out for a coveted spot on the “Def Jam” tour. Most of the jokes have to do with segregation–an apt subject for the comedians to take on, especially since the only white individuals who attended the event were lumped together at a single table lining the stage in front of the African-American viewers. Pornography is also a popular topic, especially among the male performers, inspiring lewd and at times downright disgusting jokes that still manage to wring a positive response from the listeners. For the most part the audience is relaxed, enjoying the entertainment as they occasionally sip their drinks, only once in a while raising their arms for joyous, raucous applause or hooting loudly in praise of a nicely delivered joke.
Meechie Hall, headliner and final performer of the night, rattles off a supposedly-unrehearsed spiel that is more inventive than any of the preceding acts put together. Making light of police brutality, adulterous women, the periodic degeneration of African-American culture and his own weed addiction, he is well-received by the audience, inciting loud applause and delighted laughter. The line that wins him the best response pokes fun at African-Americans who think that they have a “heritage to keep up” by successively raising their children to be “underachievers so that they can look up to [them].” Pointing out the “cultural crisis” the African-American population seems to be experiencing also wins him hearty laughter, especially when he relates his own misadventures as a youth “desperately trying to succeed in the world of guns, streets, and drugs” only to be constantly thwarted by his grandmother. When at last he hops from the stage, the applause rings cheerily even after he exits the door.
The host takes over the microphone, and it is then that the true purpose of the night is learned. “Last Laugh Entertainment was created to be a dream place on the South Side of Chicago where [audiences] could be guinea pigs for new comedians,” he said. Further into his speech, his name is revealed to be Brian, founder of Vocalo.org–a listener-produced radio station spearheaded by the Surdna Foundation that broadcasts on 89.5 FM. Having just returned from his own European comedy tour, he announces that the long hiatus of the Last Laugh Entertainment Night–which had not been held since Halloween 2007–was at an end, and a monthly performance could be expected from now on.
Barely ten minutes after the closing comments, nearly every patron of the event has filed quietly through the doorway to the streets outsides. Only a few comedians, their congratulators, and a weary cafÃ© worker remain. Finally, as the last person leaves and the door closes behind them, the lights inside dim down, and the streets all around look as dark, deserted, and desolate as before. It fast becomes apparent that though the show was decent–with its comedians’ sometimes less-than-admirable grasp on their trade, long-winded jokes, and, for the most part, bland behavior–the memory of the few good laughs gained within the cafÃ© sadly pale in comparison to the memory of the tasty caramel latte that the clerk offered. Still, it must be said that for local amateurs fighting the stigmas of their backgrounds, their efforts to carve a path to greatness for themselves is valiant, and, in time, may even be rewarded.