If I were to go out to the EMU amphitheater, grab the megaphone dressed in drag and wearing blackface, and began talking in stereotypical black dialect – using words like “how you durrin,” “ignunt” and “chirrun” – my guess is that it would not go over too well with some people. That is what Chuck Knipp (pronounced with a hard K) has been in clubs nationwide, and some people are furious about it.
Knipp’s rise to B-level celebrity status is the focus of an article in the latest Rolling Stone. He is a “fat, gay forty-five-year-old white man, a part-time nurse, who lives alone with two cats and who believes he’s on a mission from God.” Shirley Q. Liquor, one of Knipp’s stage acts, is a boozed-up black Southern mother on welfare.
The barking matches in the Shirley Q. Liquor controversy are coming from every which way. Knipp truly thinks he is doing God’s work. Some say it’s just good entertainment: “Making fun of race is like making fun of the devil. It’s liberating. When you realize you can laugh about it, that’s when you can really lift up your skirt and fly,” says RuPaul, everyone’s favorite drag queen. The opposing side cries “that is bullshit” and calls it arrogance to think racial wounds can be healed by “ridiculing poor black women.” Knipp has earned a strong fan base on one side, and protests, boycotts and comparisons to Don Imus on the other.
Knipp also plays Betty Butterfield, a white pill-popping, chain-smoking religious fanatic. No controversy there. Nobody minds when white people make fun of white people, in general, or when black people make fun of black people for that matter, and blacks can make fun of whites without much fear of backlash. But when a whitey pokes fun at blacks, society has to deal with the unsettling dilemma of deciding if it’s entertainment or racism. It is a cultural quagmire that goes back centuries. Knipp does not just tell jokes; he pushes the envelope further by wearing blackface and making the character real.
I covered a performance last year for the Emerald by Jade Esteban Estrada, a gay comedian who puts on a good show. Estrada told me afterward, “It’s one thing to tell a story, and it’s quite another to be entertaining at the same time.” This thought is where I have to give Knipp credit, because he is damn entertaining.
Whether you agree or disagree with what he is doing, no one can deny that he is good at doing it. Knipp’s impersonation of “private black speak” comes from years of being the only white person in the room – from his Ole Miss college marching band to hospitals where he was a nurse. He mimics black slang and dialect as he heard it from his black friends.
“Starting with slave songs that contained multiple meanings and cries for freedom their masters couldn’t comprehend, black slang, or private black-speak, has been a primary social identifier of black culture. For this reason, there are people who feel it’s a violation for white people to talk black,” Knipp told Rolling stone. “I just love speaking black English, and I wish more white people could or would feel comfortable enough to speak it, because it’s a beautiful, fun, rhythmic, more supple way of speaking.”
I think I would have to see a live performance to decide whose side I’m on here, but in general I feel entertainment, when done tastefully, is just that, entertainment. Imbuing social conscience into an act is something every good comedic performer does, but most important is their ability to entertain. It’s good to sometimes take a step back from emotionally charged debates and have a good laugh.
For a good perspective on blackface and racial entertainment, I recommend watching Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” It is an entertaining film.