Dave Chappelle: "It was brave of you to come tonight."
June 15, 2016
Last night, Adrian and I went to see Dave Chappelle at the Aztec Theater here in San Antonio. It was a 10 p.m. show, and the air was still hot and thick with humidity as we walked the few downtown blocks to the theater. The San Fernando Cathedral was lit up, 1700s stone and arches shining gold, and a few notes of live music, their source invisible, overcame the shrill drone of roadwork on Commerce.
A line snaked around the building, in front of a corner store with printouts of known shoplifters taped to the door. I smelled booze and cigarette smoke, and everyone's faces shone with sweat and anticipation. At the door, anyone who brought a cell phone had to drop it into a pouch that would be locked and secured--Dave Chappelle had made it clear: he wanted no cell phones in the theater. Anyone caught using one during the show would be kicked out, no exceptions and no refunds. Adrian had read the emails, so we left our phones in the car, and as a security guard ran a metal detector wand down Adrian's pant legs, another one joked to me, "Feels good to be cell phone free, doesn't it?"
The theater was built in the 1920s and almost demolished in the 80s, then rescued and listed on the National Historic Registry. I'd never been there before and wasn't sure if I found it beautiful or tacky or both with all of the gold columns and duplicated murals and sculptures from ancient Mexican temples. The seats were small and packed close together, the stage lit purple with a DJ spinning in the corner. All around us, people were talking and drinking and laughing, finding their seats, dancing a little. It was refreshing to look around and not see a sea of chins pressed to chests, faces lit by a screen.
Adrian said, "This is the longest any of these people have gone without their phones in years."
I raised an eyebrow. "Including us, you mean?"
He nodded. "Yup."
"I bet we've got a lot of twitchy hands in here," I said.
"I keep feeling phantom vibrations in my pocket," Adrian confessed.
I smiled, settling into my seat. But in the not-so-back-of-my-mind, a morbid thought surfaced: What if something happens in here and we can't call for help? Fragments of scenes we've all seen too many times crackled against one another: flashing red-and-blue lights, ambulances, news crews, tear-streaked faces shocked in bright camera lights. I imagined that nightclub in Orlando, no different to any of the gay bars I used to frequent with friends in Austin, the confused terror, the disbelief, the bodies falling, the frantic text messages sent to parents and partners and friends, one last desperate I love you.
Adrian handed me my plastic cup of wine. "I'll go get us another drink," he said, as I took the last sip.
The opening act came on just after he'd left. It was a comedian in a black t-shirt and jeans who introduced himself as Mo and pronounced "San Antonio" like a Latino. Then he said, "Mo is actually short for Mohammed--surprise, today's the day!" He waved his arms overhead as the theater burst into scattered, shocked laughter.
His set was hilarious, far funnier than I expected an opening act to be. He talked about being born in Palestine and relocating to Houston with his family when he was still young, where he dropped the pseudo-English accent he'd picked up in school and became fluent in Spanish instead. Good thing about moving to Texas, he said, is he can camouflage as Mexican. Brown is brown, right? He took his nine-year-old nephew to Walmart, he said, and when the nephew ran off, he couldn't call out for him because his name is, of all things, Osama. Instead, Mo yelled, "Sammy! Sammy!" To which his nephew exploded, shouting, "My NAME is OSAMA!" Here, Mo crouched down, as if placating a mob of gun-toting hicks. "No, no, no se preocupen, nomas aqui con my sobrinito! Ha ha." His set touched on immigration, Trump, his Ph.D. uncle who calls the FBI the "Fibbie," and his performances for troops in Afghanistan, where, if anyone tried to kidnap him, guess what? His name is Mohammed, "Surprise, I'm one of you!" His accent switched from Palestinian to Mexican to Alabaman to the perfect "accentless" white American. My cheeks hurt from laughing. Needed laughter, relieved laughter, guilty pleasure laughter of laughing at things that are not normally laughable.
When Dave Chappelle took the stage after a second opening act, he quieted everyone down to say something.
"I just want to thank you all for coming out tonight, despite the recent horrific events in Orlando. It's brave and I respect you for that."
He repeated the same thing at the end of the show (which was hilarious and irreverent, with a touch of outrage at current events), along with an invitation. "You know what? Let's just take all this energy, all this connectedness, all this whatever-it-is-we're-all-feeling-together, and let's make history and all go somewhere together! Where we going?" he asked the DJ, who answered him. "Alright, you call 'em," Chappelle said. "Call 'em and let 'em know we're coming. And leave your damn cell phones behind," he added, "because who cares about taking a picture when you can be making a memory!"
The theater erupted in applause, and I joked to Adrian, "So, we keeping this party going?" It was after midnight on a Tuesday. We both knew we were heading home.
Outside, half a dozen people stood on the street (God help them if a car came), holding out their phones and taking photos of the theater marquee.
"Well, that didn't last long," I quipped.
In the car, despite the reverberations of laughter in my chest, I felt quiet and sad. Dave Chappelle had called us "brave" for coming out to see him. Twice. When did simply living our lives become an act of courage? Of defiance? Of activism? How long before we consider visiting a movie theater, a church, a club, and decide to stay home instead? How long before one of us, you or me, is directly impacted by this game of Russian Roulette? How long before the next Orlando eclipses this one and we sigh the same sighs, enter the debate from the same angles, watch the same coverage, only this time choose not to learn the victims' names because what's the point--there will be more, and our hearts don't have space for such sorrow, again and again.
I believe, as many do, that our country is bullheadedly plowing down the wrong direction in regard to guns. I also believe we've stopped listening to one another, stopped seeing one another, stopped wanting to see one another. It's easier to categorize things--people--as "good and evil," "good guys and bad guys." But we're not children. We should know by now that the world is not that simple. Out of respect for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who lost their lives, their friends, and their innocence--and for those who love them--I urge us all to set aside the platitudes and easy reaches, the arguments gone wilted with overuse, and seek to better understand one another instead. As I said, the world is not simple. A solution will not come quickly. But if it comes at all, it will start--it has to--with love. Which may be, in these strange times, the ultimate radical act.