If You Wouldn’t Mind, Sir, Please Smile For The Camera

We were invited to play The Freedom Fair on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Back Of The Yards.

It’s no secret there’s a gun violence problem in Chicago, but what no one talks about, because it makes for uncomfortable conversations, is the problem largely exists on the South Side.

In the forgotten neighborhoods, in the gang neighborhoods, in the Black Neighborhoods. Chicago is the most segregated city in America, this is no secret, we just choose to ignore it.

The sign on the fence hung over the event like an easily forgotten wish: “Put The Guns Down.” When I asked Lex to pose by the sign, it was a hot day and we were going back and forth to the car, schlepping equipment. His face took on the serious look you get when you’re putting up weights in the gym.

The first couple pictures looked heavy to me, a serious face underneath a serious sign, it felt ominous. I wanted his presence in the picture to provide levity, so I turned into a director who needed a different performance from his subject. I meant to say, “If you wouldn’t mind, sir, please smile for the camera.” But instead I said this…

“Smile, bitch.”

Lex threw his head back and laughed. Then he looked at me and said, “Do you know how lucky you are that I let you get away with using that kind of language around me?”

I do. But I can’t decide if crossing the line to get a laugh is where I’m at in my life anymore.

I watched Dave Chappelle’s special. Full Disclosure: I watched it 4 times, laughing each time, sharing links on Social Media, encouraging everyone to watch it.

Then pain started rippling through the ether. I had to step back, rethink my laughs. Is that even possible? Can you rethink your laughs? Can you take them back? I had to ask myself hard questions.

If Friends withOUT Benefits had a hit record, if people were lining up to a string of sold out shows so they could dance to our music and shower us with love, if we put on an ill-prepared friend as an opening act and she bombed, would we hang her out there, leaving her on stage alone to figure it out for herself while we sat backstage, cringing?

No. The spotlight isn’t worth the humiliation. We’d get out there, lob her a few easy set-ups to land a punchline, play a guaranteed  crowd pleaser like “Brown Eyed Girl,” turn the night around.

Lex has said this to me many times, it’s his mantra: “We need to be kinder with each other.”

Dave Chappelle is running away from bottomless pain, from the knowledge he left Daphne Dorman on stage when he could have jumped in to help. This is almost impossible to confront because 6 days after the show, Daphne killed herself, throwing herself off a building.

And yes, she was dragged mercilessly on Twitter, and yes, she was abandoned by her community, and yes, the humiliation of bombing when your real life dream comes true is so deeply tormenting it will steal your sleep, and yes, the violence flung in the direction of transgender men and women is unrelenting, and yes, doubling-down on a comedy special feels like a powerful decision for a Black Man who’s socialized to express anger instead of grief.

But no, if I saw Dave Chappelle right now I wouldn’t say, “I’m Rick James, bitch.”

I hope Daphne’s family gets help. I hope Dave Chappelle gets help. I hope we’re kinder with each other. Sorry for aiming thoughtless words in your direction, Lex.

Your smile is beautiful. I promise to find another way to earn it.