The MV Comedy Fest at the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs is a ritual of laughter with roots in the history of Black culture. The acts continue over the next week and overlap with the MV African American Film Festival. If my experience is a guide, audiences can expect a rollicking good time.
During my attendance on Friday evening, July 29, the program of “clean comedy” was wonderfully conceived and staged to the music of DJ Dolla Bill. The acts included emcee Rob Stapleton and stand up comics Mark Gregory, Laura Michelle, and Rudy Rush. Each one touched on different experiences in Black life.
DJ Dolla Bill kicked off the show by rousing the audience with Old School soul music and rhythm and blues. At one point, as people danced in seats — and a few in the aisles — they crooned in harmony to a music track of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
That evening, the show overlapped with the Legacy Week gathering of alumni of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The audience was primed for an evening of laughter and were not disappointed.
After setting the mood, the DJ brought on emcee Rob Stapleton, who entertained with funny stories about relatives at family get-togethers. His imitations of kooky characters were interspersed with musical bits by the DJ. Stapleton went on to introduce the various comedians with fanfare.
Mark Gregory, the nephew of the famous comedian and social critic Dick Gregory, offered jokes with appropriate political meaning, such as encounters with police and differences in Black and white social rituals. Laura Michelle recounted a stand-off with her daughter in a mall. And Rudy Rush, the featured comedian, reflected on the comedy of aging and sexual awkwardness.
The Strand Theater, located at 11 Oak Bluffs Ave., is clean and comfortably renovated. My only suggestion would be to update the décor of framed paintings of classic movies with framed portraits of classic comedians in Black history. If this could be done, it would transform the venue into a pantheon of comedy heroes.
I would encourage images of George Walker and Bert Williams of minstrelsy, Moms Mabley of vaudeville, Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson of pioneer television, Richard Pryor for the movies, Chris Rock and other contemporary comedians. They are all part of a cultural tradition that uses laughter to speak truths and soothe the pains of racism.
The Fest was produced by Knock-Knock Productions, the brainchild of impresarios Steve and Dorothy Capers. It began in 2009 with a dream to showcase Black comedians to a diverse audience in the historic town. Steve Capers was a producer for Comedy Central, Black Entertainment Television (BET), and for corporate and university events.
The comedy line up will continue through the next week. From August 8 to 12, the Fest will stage veteran comedians Coco Brown, Chris Spencer, and James “Talent” Harris. On Saturday, August 13, Sherri Shepherd will give a special one-night performance. The closing week of August 15 to 19 will feature B-Phlat, David A. Arnold and JJ Williamson.
The M.V. Comedy Fest is part of Black Comedy Month, a national initiative to spotlight the role of humor in Black culture during August. According to the Comedy Fest website, there are events scheduled in other cities as well — but the program in Oak Bluffs is a core event.
To find out more about the 11th Annual M.V. Comedy Fest, visit marthasvineyardcomedy.com.
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”