In an era when electoral maps parse blue states from red, comedian Dwayne Kennedy can feel differences that the rest of us can only see. The veteran of stand-up performs at the Rendezvous' Jewelbox Theatre tonight and tomorrow, with Hari Kondabalu opening. Kennedy has performed here three times previously, bringing his social commentary on politics, race and social norms to an audience that he finds more receptive than most.
“I like audiences [in Seattle] because they get it—you feel them laughing in the right places, at the right times. They’re smart,” Kennedy says. “Not that you have to be a rocket scientist to get what I’m doing.”
A Chicago native, Kennedy’s regional sensitivities seem a function of his upbringing in middle-America. I talked with him over the phone about the influence his hometown and other art forms have had on his craft.
This isn’t your first time performing in Seattle. What have your experiences been like as a stand-up comedian here?
The last time I was here was a few months ago. I opened for W. Kamau Bell and that was cool. And then I stayed in town and did some shows with Hari Kondabalu. I’ve found there’s some certain things an audience might not tolerate or might not even understand. Sometimes even a smart, “progressive” audience can be stifling because there are certain things that they might not accept. But as far as riffing goes, you riff according to the sensibilities of the place.
You use the word “riff” and it makes me think of music—jazz, specifically. Is that a conscious influence for you at all?
I don’t know if I pull from music. Or maybe I’m doing it and I’m not even aware of it? I like seeing where the audience will take you, though, inasmuch as coming up with material on the spot is concerned. Or sometimes you have a bit that you didn’t know that you wanted to do. That’s usually more likely to happen in an intimate setting, when the audience is a little smaller.
I really loved the bit you did about the Negro spirituals when you appeared on David Letterman back in the mid-2000s. What was it like doing comedy in the Age of Obama versus in the Age of Trump? Have you detected a difference?
I try to keep the things I do with race pretty evergreen—or ever-black, and ever-white. Things have actually stayed pretty consistent as far as the social commentary I did under Obama and the things I joke about now. I don’t respond to things that are happening in the moment so much as I respond to sort of fundamental truths—not to sound to lofty or anything.
For example, I’ve done one-nighters in Michigan, which was a red state in this last election. I have basic observations that, independent of party, are true. Like if I say “Trump is a lunatic,” people who voted for him and laugh say, “Yeah, I voted for him but you’re right, he is a nut.” At the end of the show where I said that I guess there were a few a people who wanted their money back and people who were in the lobby crying, which I thought was pretty funny.
I think a lot of people were crying on Nov. 8, 2016, so what goes around comes around, I guess. How did you know you wanted to trade in humor for a living?
I knew when I was a little kid—5, 6, 7—I used to do these bits for my family, for my aunts and uncles, and they would laugh. And as a teenager, I used to love to watch comedy on television. So I remember thinking I wanted to do it as a young kid. And as I got older I decided to give it a shot.
Do you think your upbringing in Chicago informed your political commentary? I wast just there over the weekend for a socialist political convention. You think about the Black Panthers, Harold Washington and, later, Obama—the tradition of grassroots politics is so strong there.
Absolutely. I think Chicago influenced me a lot. The politics, the racial stratification—those things inform you. Consciously and subconsciously. Chicago is a blue-collar city. That informs what you do and how you do it. It makes your language more direct and more clever—but not clever for the being clever’s sake.
Alright, I have to ask—top five, top five, top five.
Okay! I mean, Richard Pryor. Bill Cosby—the comedy part, and absolutely nothing else. Actually, nevermind Bill Cosby [laughs]. I’d say Robert Klein, who was in some ways the godfather of alternative comedy. Then I say Moms Mabley, who was like the queen of jokewriting. And then I have to go with Chris Rock. The brother is brilliant.
Dwayne Kennedy performs at the Rendezvous' Jewelbox Theatre on Friday, Aug. 11 and Saturday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. Purchase tickets here.