News & Politics » Our Town

Comic Relief

African immigrants look back in laughter.

by

comment

"Good Evening Africa," the African arts showcase that convenes once a month at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in Edgewater, was about to hold its first stand-up comedy night. The African hosts--immigrants from Zimbabwe, Congo, Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan--were going to trade jokes with four members of Second City's all-African-American Words improv ensemble.

"It is supposed to be a humorous evening," explained emcee Cyril Ibe, a Nigerian journalist who came to the United States in 1980. "An evening of jokes, like we'd tell them at home, without thinking of Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock or those great American performers. Whenever we gather in this country we're constantly telling and retelling stories about our adjustment to American life, and it's always very funny."

Ibe founded "Good Evening Africa" a year ago to provide a stage for the artists he interviews on Afriscope Radio, a cultural program airing Sundays at 8 PM on WLUW (88.7 FM). There are more than 100,000 African expatriates in Chicago. Many, such as the "lost boys" of Sudan, fled war. Others attracted the wrath of dictators back home for practicing free speech. The first night Ibe presented a guitarist from Congo, a flutist from Nigeria, a novelist from Ghana, and an African-American poet born in Chicago. Every showcase since has featured a different art form--one month it was poetry, one month storytelling, another month music.

Ibe had invited the Words ensemble, which regularly does outreach performances across the city, because he likes to mix Africans and African-Americans on the same bill. Ensemble director Dionna Griffin was intrigued by the chance to match wits--she's always considered African storytelling the ancestor of African-American stand-up. "That is a direct link to the African tradition, where it was the community sharing stories, sharing histories, and adding on to that," she says. "In America we just put a different name on it."

Minutes before showtime Ibe set up a microphone on the restaurant's step-high stage. The wall behind him was hung with woven baskets, masks, paintings of misty waterfalls. It was ten o'clock, long past dinnertime, so the lights were faint and most of the tables had been abandoned.

The room was divided into continent-based cliques. A dozen or so Africans pulled up chairs at the foot of the stage. Meanwhile the Words ensemble--Vaughn Wilson, Marz Timms, Keith Smitherman, and Adriohn Richardson--sat at a table near the kitchen. When Ibe was done fiddling with the mike stand, Griffin stood up to introduce her actors.

"We had a mishap and will not be having the outreach," she said. "Instead we have some experts."

Richardson introduced himself as "Beauregard Wright, mathematician supreme. Anything with numbers, I'll be glad to help you. I'll do your taxes--"

He stopped cold and glared at a chortling African. "Why are you laughing?" he demanded, in a tone of wounded dignity.

The man laughed even harder.

Wilson, playing a bombastic pharmacist, stormed into the audience, flailing gangly arms, shouting in the Africans' faces. "You've heard of Dr. Phil? I am Dr. Pill! Just take a pill. It solves all your problems! My favorite TV shows are the commercials--the Tylenols, the Bayer aspirins, anything involving pills. I get high on those. They should win all sorts of Clios! Does anyone have any questions?"

One of the Africans asked when the situation in Iraq would be settled.

"When we start taking aspirin, and get the pain out!" Wilson bellowed.

The Africans giggled.

When it was the Africans' turn, Kabuika Kamunga carried a bowl of water to the stage and set it on a chair. She said she was going to tell a story about her life after fleeing Congo (then known as Zaire) because her family had spoken against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. "I am a refugee," she said. Her voice was musical and melancholy, and she smiled vaguely.

"I stand in front of the United States immigration officer," she went on. "His lips are pinched. 'Are you fearing for your life back home?' he asks me. That INS officer is actually human. I had always thought of immigration officers as cold, like steel. They are like robots. They follow the rules like machines and break the rules only to arrest you or verbally abuse you. I told him no.

"'Were you prohibited from wearing pants?' No. 'Did you have to swim across the Congo River fighting crocodiles?' No. 'Then why are you here?' 'I want my freedom. I want to live in a country where there is no superstition. I want to be able to sweep the floor at night and not have anyone tell me, "You are attracting the bad spirits." I want to walk over a tombstone and not have a bad man grab my ankles. In America I want to be able to cut my nails at night and still be alive in the morning.'"

Kamunga turned stiffly, pretended to toss three coins into the bowl, then walked off, smirking.

Ibe strolled back to the mike. "You want to live in a country with no superstition?" he called to Kamunga. "Friday the 13th is coming. What are you going to do? Go back to the Congo?" He turned to the audience and glided on with his patter. "Next we have a young man--he was formerly a refugee, a displaced person in the Angolan civil war. Please welcome Guerra Freitas."

Freitas's life hasn't been filled with funny stories. He lost his wife and child in the war and couldn't even bury them for fear of land mines. After coming to America, this former teacher and aid worker for CARE International campaigned against mines and established SHAREcircle, which funds relief efforts in Angola. Yet Freitas found a joke in his grim past.

"In Angola we had Cubans by the thousands," he said. "We called them cousins. They always told us that everything was better in Cuba. A friend of mine invited a Cuban to his house for dinner. He told the Cuban to go easy on the peppers, but the Cuban said, 'No, in Cuba we have big peppers. Habanero peppers.' By the time he realized how hot they were, tears were coming from his eyes. My friend said, 'What is wrong?' The Cuban said, 'Whenever I think about Comrade Che Guevara, I cry.'"

The Second City troupe, who were now sitting at a table to the side of the stage, ate the story up. "You my dawg!" a deep voice shouted.

Then the Africans and the African-Americans stood onstage together, and the New World taught the old world the improv game of freeze, in which two actors start a scene, then a third jumps in and takes things in a new direction. Ibe and Griffin found themselves paired as a couple on a blind date.

"How was your day?" Ibe asked politely. "What did you do earlier in the day? Did you go to school?"

"You're still too uptight," Griffin responded. "You need to loosen up, even though it's a blind date."

After a few more moments the bashful Ibe retreated from the stage. "I am for radio, not for freeze," he said, chuckling.

Kamunga stood onstage in front of Wilson, who played a farmer, kneeling on the ground, raising his arms to the sky. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Prayin' for rain!"

"Perhaps you should water your plants," she said, so matter-of-factly the whole room cracked up.

"That was so much fun," Kamunga bubbled afterward. "Maybe we do things like that in Africa, but in a more personal setting. I can't wait to do more of that. It kind of breaks through the structure I have of my tribe, the Luba. We are the largest tribe in Congo. When they are in public they are very stern. In public Americans are more outgoing. It would take a little more knowing to make jokes. It's really nice. It kind of puts you outside of yourself."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment