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Will Hecklers Ruin Dave Chappelle's Performance Tonight?

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 31, 2013 6:30PM

Dave Chappelle in 2006. (Photo credit: Chad Buchanan/Getty Images)

Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival rolls into Tinley Park's First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre tonight under dark clouds not related to the weather. Headliner Dave Chappelle walked off the stage in Hartford, Conn. after being heckled by the audience.

According to several reports, many in the crowd wanted to remind Chappelle of his Comedy Central glory days and, when Chappelle give them so much as an "I'm Rick James, bitch," the raspberries started flying.

Chappelle reportedly lit a cigarette, read from an audience member's book, then bemoaned the fact that he'll have to hear about this incident for months. He walked off the stage to Kanye West's "New Slaves"-- and to the sound of overwhelming boos.

Conventional wisdom holds that the audience was screwed out of Chappelle's big comeback seven years after he walked away from a $50 million Comedy Central deal. Chappelle's reluctance to embrace the popular spotlight has only cemented Chappelle's Show as his definitive work, both to those who booed him in Hartford and to others with tickets for the tour's remaining dates.

Which is a shame, because Chappelle has spent the past eight years evolving. Frank Sennett wrote glowingly of a Chappelle set at House of Blues last year that was "a virtuoso display of freestyle riffing."

A Chappelle profile in the New York Times earlier this month suggested the comedian's timing is still intact:

Seeing Mr. Chappelle evolve onstage was a reminder that he didn’t leave comedy so much as return home to the live form he has practiced for a quarter-century. Mr. Chappelle might have left television, but that departure has become the wellspring of his comedy now. He only needs a microphone and a stage to lay claim to greatness.

It's too bad the Hartford audience only wanted to hear Chappelle's bits from a decade ago. Lesli-Ann Lewis, writing for Ebony, framed the tense atmosphere in terms of race:

While the racial makeup of the crowd was incidental, the way they treated Chappelle is not. It speaks to a long complicated history: the relationship between the White audience and the Black entertainer. This is a relationship you can easily trace to early minstrel shows, to archetypes of Blacks that still define the roles we’re offered today. We have seen more Black comedians bow to racist tropes, demean themselves—albeit unintentionally—for White audiences.

Chappelle wasn’t having a meltdown. This was a Black artist shrugging the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough. This isn’t the first time Chappelle has done so and it isn’t the first time his behavior has been characterized as a meltdown.

There is a long history of asking African-Americans to endure racism silently; it’s characterized as grace, as strength. Chappelle’s Connecticut audience, made up of largely young White males, demanded a shuck and jive. Men who seemed to have missed the fine satire of the Chappelle show demanded he do characters who, out of the context of the show look more like more racist tropes, than mockery of America’s belief in them.

When he expressed shock at the fact that he’d sat there and been yelled at for so long, people yelled that they'd paid him. They felt paying for a show meant they could verbally harass him, direct him in any tone of voice, as though they’d bought him.

Chappelle was defended by the fest's organizers and by comedian Patton Oswalt, who tweeted, "If you Interrupt a performer, fuck up their flow & timing, even in praise, you're Insulting Them."

Chappelle seemed to have put the Hartford incident behind him with a strong performance in Pittsburgh.

Here's hoping the only clouds hampering Chappelle's performance tonight involve rain.