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Comedian Talks Quitting 'Dream Job' At Second City Due To Racist Audiences

By Rachel Cromidas in News on Oct 26, 2016 8:20PM

Second City actors. Peter Kim is second from right. Photo via Facebook.

Second City actor Peter Kim reached his breaking point after an audience member shouted out a racist comment about Mexicans in the middle of a show three weeks ago.

But by the time Kim joined three other performers in quitting their jobs at the world-class North Side comedy venue this month, he had already heard far more offensive racial comments and hate speech from audience members—some of whom were kicked out by Second City, which has a policy of removing offensive audience members, and some of whom were not.

Kim, a comedian and native New Yorker who until recently was a cast member for Second City's "A Red Line Runs Through It," recently sat down with Chicagoist to discuss comedy's growing problem with racism, and how he made the tough decision to leave a dream job over it. Veteran comedians are used to hecklers—they're an annoying and at times uncomfortable reality of mixing alcohol with comedy in dark rooms. But, as Kim explains, this problem goes way beyond that:

Chicagoist: Can you help us give readers a sense of some of the hate speech you've heard and faced while performing for Second City?

Peter Kim:
We were touring this archived material, and the first line of the first scene is mine, and my line was, "I always felt different when I was young." That's the line I was supposed to say. Right after I said that, someone in the crowd yells out, "Yeah, because you're fucking Asian." I thought, this is my first experience doing this, this is crazy. And I kind of swallowed it. Because The show must go on, you put on a brave face, look off in to the lights.

Shortly after, in my monologue I say "Sometimes when people feel lost they turn to God, but not me." Then I pause, because I'm supposed to say, "I turn to Aretha Franklin, who gives me life." But before I could, the same guy said, "Yeah, because you're praying to Buddha." This was at the Victory Gardens Theater here in Chicago.

Chicagoist: That's really awful.

Peter Kim:
I dress in drag in one of my scenes. That scene was really hard, to come out every night dressed like a woman, and half the audience would scream and clap and—usually women—would say, "Get it girl, you look amazing," giving support. And pockets of the audience would either boo or be scared of it. One night these ladies were screaming and yelling and applauding for me, and one guy screamed over them, "Don't clap for him."

When you see someone's hate in their eyes sitting from row and you hear them whisper "faggot" when the lights go out and you leave the stage, that kind of stuff triggers me back to the time when I was abused physically and emotionally because of who I am.

Peter Kim, photo via Second City.

Chicagoist: Do you consider these people hecklers?

Peter Kim:
What most people don't understand is, that is not heckling. We're all comedians who have been at it 7 to 10 years, you don't get to the residents stage without being a seasoned comedian. It's not heckling, it's hate speech, that emotion and energy is real. It's not just words. I think the anonymity [of being in a crowded, dark theater] gives an asshole power and really the permission to hate out loud.

Chicagoist: How did it feel to go through that?

Peter Kim:
A lot of things add up, it's like death of a thousand cuts. But what many many people don't realize, especially people who have never faced oppression before, is that these kind of things trigger you back to an emotional state where you have to constantly explain and prove to people why you're different, and it's so difficult to do that when, A) your audience is hating you, and B) when you face that every day of your life outside of your work, and you think [the theater] going to be a safe space of artistic expression and beauty and social satire. I'm way more vulnerable on stage than I am walking around the street. on stage I'm locked in. I am so sad and mad at all the emotions at the same time. It's a loss of power and a sense of helplessness.

Chicagoist: How do Chicago audiences differ from other audiences you've encountered?

Peter Kim
: I was born and raised in New York City, lived in San Francisco for 5 years before moving here in 2012. And I've never faced this kind of blatant racism ever. Chicago is very diverse, and segregated, and it's like everybody knows their own place and everybody is OK with that. [For example,] The need for a Boystown in 2016 is so ridiculous because we should be used to being around gay people and not have to sequester them.

I thought, you would expect this in Alabama maybe, but I didn't see that in Alabama or Kentucky or Tennessee. I travelled all around the country [with Second City,] and it was the worst in Chicago.

How difficult was the decision to leave, and why did you leave?

Peter Kim
: There were a lot of reasons going into why I wanted to leave. Most of the reason is because I could not stand performing for racists. It seemed like I needed to shuck and jive for people who clearly did not like me.

The other reason for leaving for me was self-care, self preservation. I couldn't tell you how many times I looked out into the dark and we had just made a Laquan McDonald reference in a song about Rahm and how he covered [the shooting] up, and my eyes would play tricks on me and see someone standing up with a gun. I would walk out through our backstage doorway and be skittish at someone who was just standing there.

My last straw was when, three Saturdays ago, we asked a completely different lady in the front row, "What's something small that pisses you off, like getting stuck in traffic?" and this white guy behind her screams, "sitting too close to a Mexican." That was it for me.

I now have post-traumatic stress disorder from being on stage. I'm taking a step back and concentrating on writing. The climate right now is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. It's coming to a boiling point, and I knew i had to get out of it before things got too ugly. I had the same exact physical and psychological manifestation as when I was abused as a child. It felt exactly the same. It felt like I was helpless and powerless. But I put all this aside because this was the dream. I thought, I can't be knocked down by these haters. But this isn't about me, and I need to preserve myself and get out of an abusive situation while I can.

You were one of four cast members out of six who left the show, "A Red Line Runs Through It." What was that like?

Peter Kim:
This was a show that imploded. Our director, Matt Hovde, empowered us to create a show from our voice, and when we did that and showed it to the public, the critics loved it, our peers loved it, the artistic community loved it, and for the most part audiences loved it. But as much as people loved it, people also hated it. All of us left for different reasons, but kind of similar reasons. We were going through a lot of stress with the show, and I can't speak to why everyone else left but for me, I kept trying to find a way to cope.

Our show was the first time we had four women on stage. Our show was truly revolutionary because not only were there four women, two are people of color, black women, and I was one of two men and I was gay and Asian, so there was only one straight white man. When you're watching from an audience point of view that is mostly cis, male, straight and white, and on top of that, we didn't really hold any punches. We said exactly how it felt to be an oppressed member of society, and we dragged the only straight male we had through the mud, and he was happy to do it obviously, because we were trying to represent our voices. it's not an excuse for how people behave, but I think an average person coming to our show was not expecting to see this, and when they got faced with it, a lot started shouting out.

: Second City's CEO Andrew Alexander told us that he's seen more audience verbal shout-outs and racism than ever before, and he attributed some of it to the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure who has been rewarded for being overtly racist. What do you think?

Peter Kim: It isn't as cut and dry, as like, Trump is making people hate. I think people would behave this way anyway. I think what Trump is doing is giving these people that already exist in our society a platform. Racists didn't have a platform for a while, but now a mainstream, American, Republican, major party candidate is giving all these people a place to say what they want to say, and that's what's happening. But these people already existed. (Kim addresses this point more in a Chicago Magazine article that Kim published today.)

: Is there anything Second City can do to support their actors more, or combat racist audience members?

Peter Kim:
Second City has a zero tolerance policy on hate speech, and because of this show imploding, they made it very specific. There's signs on the walls now, so that's great for anyone that comes after us. Now they have a new security guard who is standing in the room, purposefully looking for this. I'm really excited for that change.

A lot of our hate speech is misogyny, and women have been trained to just take it. But none of us should have to stand for hate speech because that's not what we're here for. Do that in your Trump rallies, don't bring it into this building.