The idea of the “Magic Negro” or the “Magical Negro” has been among the most enduring and offensive tropes in cinema for decades.
You know, the black character who comes in to provide sage advice or life-affirming support to a white protagonist in danger or need. Think Whoopi Goldberg’s character in “Ghost,” Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in “The Green Mile,” or Djimon Hounsou’s in “Same Kind of Different as Me.”
Comedian and writer Mark Kendall is tackling this troubling image in his new show opening this week at the Alliance Theatre: “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as told by an African American Man who also happens to be Black.” He did a version of it a couple of years ago at Dad’s Garage, but now the show has been expanded and retooled.
For Kendall, a 30-year-old Atlanta native, the timing couldn’t been more perfect. The show enters into a conversation about race and race relations, jump-started by movie juggernauts such as “Get Out,” and think pieces such as “I Am Not Your Negro,” an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Here Kendall talks about stereotypes, laughter and the possibility of change. His comments have been edited for length.
AJC: How did you get into comedy?
Kendall: When I was a freshman at Northwestern, I joined a sketch group. The summer before my senior year I did an internship with Comedy Central. Chris Rock set up this program for writers of color and you would do different writing jobs. The best part of it was I got to shadow the Daily Show writers for a week and then the Colbert Report writers for a week. So I got to go in everyday, do writing assignments, pitch jokes.
AJC: Was race always a basis for your work?
Kendall: So when I returned to Atlanta…a lot of times, in improv, I would not bring race up in my comedy because things got weird. If you’re a younger performer and you’re performing in front of a white audience with a bunch of older white dudes and you bring race into the conversation, it reads and plays differently. Either you unwittingly play a stereotype and the audience loves it, or you try to do something more layered and they don’t get it and you don’t have anyone else there to support you in subverting something. To avoid that I scrapped that point of view when I would improvise.
AJC: Did that make you feel compromised as a performer?
Kendall: I’d learned from previous attempts at approaching race, at least in the South, if you’re doing a normal comedy show and then you bring in racial commentary, audiences tend to clench up real quick. But if you can ease into it, or raise that tension and then break it immediately or do something to make them comfortable, you can kind of go further and further and further. But in these attempts to make these audiences comfortable, I said, “But why do I even have to do that?” I saw the resemblance to the Magic Negro character, because that’s all that character is doing is trying to make white people feel comfortable even though he’s like steeped in these troubling images.
AJC: Tell me more about the pivot, when you decided you didn’t have to make the audience comfortable.
Kendall: I don’t try to make them uncomfortable just for the purpose of trying to make them uncomfortable, but I do try to point out this effort that I’m making. To make you feel comfortable shouldn’t have to be the norm. Why does the character that makes me uncomfortable to perform, why does that make you feel OK?
AJC: What were the Magic Negro movies you saw growing up?
Kendall: When I was in college, “Song of the South.” Morgan Freeman’s character in “Bruce Almighty.” “Morpheus,” from the Matrix trilogy. I think that character is complicated, but at the same time, he’s this guy who’s there to guide Neo. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury character, how he just pops up and is like, “You need to do this.” It’s not that I don’t like those actors, it’s just, why does this character keep popping up?
AJC: How did you process this and decide to channel this into a show? Was it cathartic?
Kendall: Using optimism, starting a scene positive because it gives you more places to go. If you start a scene negative or angry, it’s one note. Improv teaches you to go with the second or third choice rather than the first. So I have piece about crime coming to Cobb County if MARTA goes there. If you play with assumptions that are not true, it can lead to comedic opportunities.
AJC: Have you ever performed this show to a majority-black audience?
Kendall: Yes. It’s a different tone. I remember at the Detroit show, there were certain things they were getting just a little bit faster and I could be more aggressive in the character that I was playing. There was a little bit more bite to my tone.
AJC: This is an interesting time for this show to blossom. Talk to me about your work in the context of all of the other voices we have out there, from films like “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Get Out,” that speak to race in a fresh way.
Kendall: I think movies like “Get Out” or shows like “Atlanta,” those are inspiring pieces. You’re seeing people behind the camera as writers and directors. What you’re seeing now is people taking control over their image.They are expanding what African-American television and cinema mean. They’re not beholden to any trope or expectation. They are deliberately breaking them.
AJC: There used to be a time when these conversations could stay in the black community for a long time before whites would attempt to weigh in, but now with social media, everybody wants to be “woke” to the nuances of blackness. How do you feel about that?
Kendall: Day to day, even if you’re not on stage, you’re always performing some version of blackness to deal with what they expect you to be. There are some people that don’t and then they deal with those consequences. But ideally, you want to get to the point where you’re not having to perform that anymore, rather instead, performing a closer version of yourself. The show is trying to figure out: How can I get to that part?
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