The full name of Mark Kendall’s one-man show, “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black,” is a lot to take in. Which makes it a lot like the performance it adorns. In a series of sketches, Kendall recreates the African-American archetypes we seem to see in every film or TV show, from the weed-smoking gangsta to the title character who guides us through this racial house of mirrors.
“It’s a one-person sketch show that looks at different images of black men that come from the media,” Kendall says, “and it uses comedy to try and explore and poke fun at them as well. And a lot of times in movies, books, there will be this ‘magic negro’ character; this old man who’s guiding the white male protagonist along. It’s a likable character, but not a very well-developed one. It’s an archetype that pops up a lot in American media. It’s left over from that image of the benevolent slave who wants to do anything to please his master.”
Kendall chose the Magic Negro as the connecting character in this collection of sketches because whether we like it or not, he typically provides a certain amount of comfort to a white audience.
“I feel like he’s an interesting character to use in the context of a comedy show because I feel like a lot of white people like that character,” Kendall says. “That character makes white audiences feel comfortable. So I wanted to use him as the host of sorts of this comedy show. The Magic Negro comes in between sketches and makes the audience feel comfortable as we’re talking about potentially uncomfortable situations.”
At least, that’s how the character spends most of the show. By the end, Kendall hopes that the audience isn’t as happy to see the Magic Negro.
“Hopefully by the end of the show, the audience wonders why that character would make them feel comfortable in the first place,” he says.
Kendall created the show, which can range from a half-hour to a full hour, because he felt that the images we see of African-American men in the media don’t seem much like who he is, or in fact like anyone else who looks like him.
“I wrote the show trying to explore these images that I didn’t feel like were representational, yet they often informed the perceptions that people had,” he says. “And in using comedy to explore these archetypes, what I found was that different audience members would laugh at different things. And I do want to make them laugh; it’s a comedy show. But I also want to question the audience like, ‘Why are you laughing at certain things and not others?’ And the answers are always different, wherever I go with the show. That’s a fun part performing it.” —Vincent Harris