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Comedian Mark Kendall Seeks to Make Audiences Think About Race 

click to enlarge Mark Kendall, who performs in Richmond this week, says nothing should be off-limits as long as it’s truthful.

Mark Kendall, who performs in Richmond this week, says nothing should be off-limits as long as it’s truthful.

Despite the name, it's not a magic show.

Comedian Mark Kendall spent three years developing "The Magic Negro and Other Blackness," a one-man sketch show that has him moving between different characters as he looks at how the black male is represented in the American media.

Its starting point was the magic negro, a movie character he finds weirdly fascinating because the character's primary purpose is to make white people feel comfortable. For examples of magic negroes, he cites Uncle Remus in "Song of the South," Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile" and Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost."

"And Morgan Freeman in everything," he jokes. In his sketch comedy, the magic negro's role is to guide the audience through a conversation about race.

In college, Kendall joined a sketch comedy group and the summer before his senior year, did an internship with Comedy Central. Through a program for writers of color set up by Chris Rock, he got to shadow "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" writers, each for a week, during which he got to do writing assignments and pitch jokes.

It was "The Colbert Report" writers who originally encouraged him to try stand-up comedy as a means of becoming a better writer by hearing his jokes out loud.

After college, he returned home to Atlanta, where he started taking improvisation classes and performing with Dad's Garage, a comedy troupe of which he's now an ensemble member. While taking a solo performance class, he conceived and performed "The Magic Negro" and has presented a version of it across the U.S. and Canada the past three years.

He describes his comedy style as simple, absurd and optimistic.

"I wanted to use comedy to talk about stereotypes," Kendall says. "And then I wanted to ask audiences why I have to use comedy to talk about stereotypes in the first place."

Although no black-related topics are off limits in his show, he sticks to jokes about things that are in some way related to his own experience.

"So as long as I'm being truthful in what I'm performing I don't think anything should be off limits for me. I think audiences can pick up on that," he says.

That's not to say there aren't some topics he avoids, but that's mainly because he doesn't feel like they're his stories to tell. Other times, he'll explore something only to change it up or stop doing it altogether because of how audiences receive it. But that's pretty normal for comedians. 

Part of his humor involves playing the character of White Guilt and re-imagining Frederick Douglass as a stand-up comedian. The show is interactive, with Kendall addressing the audience, handing out race cards to spectators and teaching them how to use them.

"I enjoy how accessible comedy can be," he says. "There are people who will never have a conversation about race, but they might come see a sketch show."

His goal is to get people to laugh at the characters and situations he's creating onstage, though he's quick to acknowledge that not everyone feels comfortable laughing. In a very real sense, that's the show's starting point: Why do we laugh at the things we do?

In the years of touring, he's noticed little difference between Northern and Southern audience reactions. "The biggest differences are between white and black audiences," he explains. "Moments where white audiences get tense and quiet, I see black audiences having a release through laughter. Where white audiences are laughing because they're surprised, black audiences are laughing because they're recognizing a shared experience."

His favorite shows are when there's a healthy mix of both groups and everyone can see the other group having a different experience with the material. 

"I spend a good bit of time at the beginning to let the audience know that I'm going to talk about race and I want them to be comfortable laughing," he says. "So I do some work at the top to let them know what they should expect." 

And that's not a magic show. S

Mark Kendall's "The Magic Negro and Other Blackness" takes place Jan. 5 at Coalition Theater, 8 W. Broad St. at 8 p.m.

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