Comic W. Kamau Bell, host of ‘Shades of America,’ to talk politics, race and fatherhood
Author and socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s "United Shades of America," is coming to Oak Park for a stand-up show and book discussion. (John Nowak / CNN)
The subtitle of "The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell" by the socio-political comic reads as, "Tales of a 6’4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian." But Bell, host of CNN’s "United Shades of America," says that two of those identifiers are most significant to him.
"For me, being a black man is the first one," said Bell. "If you wake me from a dead sleep and say, ‘Who are you?’ I’d say ‘a black guy’ and then I’d say ‘a dad.’
Bell, who will be at The Arts Center of Oak Park on May 4 for a stand-up show and discussion sponsored by The Book Table, said that his 5- and 2-year-old daughters have had a profound effect on his career. Bell travels all over the country for his show, which begins its second season on April 30, but he tries not to be away for too long and to be fully present when he is home.
"That’s probably changed me more as far as the work I do than Trump," Bell said. "My kids make me work harder. Trump just makes me know the work needs to be done. Having kids either makes you a better person or it immediately makes you a worse one, and I’m trying to go the better route."
Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies did inspire many episodes of "United Shades of America."
"The news gives you the homework assignment if you’re listening," Bell said. "Every group Trump targeted was a group we tried to make an episode about."
Season 2 includes a sit down with white nationalist Richard Spencer for an episode on immigrants and refugees, and an episode addressing violent crime in Chicago. Bell has lived in Hyde Park and graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools High School, but said his friends who heard he was visiting the city were worried about his safety and joked that he might have to join a gang.
"Having grown up in Chicago, that sort of narrative of Chicago has been around for a long time," he said. "It’s huge, so the idea that it’s one thing is ridiculous. It’s not a pizza, it’s a TV dinner."
Bell’s favorite episode of the second season is devoted to the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline that took place at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
"I really feel like we were pretty lucky to be invited to film at Standing Rock," Bell said. "We talk to a couple on the Pine Ridge Reservation whose son had just been murdered and they let us in to talk about it. I’m really excited about people getting to see that. Standing Rock as it was then is a moment in time that is now gone. I really feel like it’s a time capsule episode."
The first season of "United Shades of America" was a challenge, since Bell said the producers had a hard time finding sources with the pitch "Do you want to talk to a black comedian from CNN?" But he said that his experience as a comedian makes it easier to talk to strangers and diffuse tense situations, like when he visited Chicago blues club Kingston Mines for a gathering of South Side gang members turned rappers.
"I can walk into a room with a bunch of musicians who don’t really know each other and slowly work into that and get them talking," he said.
He said his comedy background was also an asset for his book, which will be released on May 2 and will be given to all attendees of the Oak Park event.
"Stand-up comedians are by nature trapped in our heads," he said. "We’re always thinking. The book is a way to let those thoughts go and not try to distill them into jokes."
Whether it’s talking with members of a Chicago gang or the Ku Klux Klan, which he did for the first episode of "United Shades of America," Bell isn’t afraid to take risks to explore the country’s diverse subcultures.
"They’re all risks, but they’re all monitored risks," Bell said. "I’ll sit down and talk to the Klan, but I might not free climb a mountain. Well I’ll climb a mountain, but we’ll do it with all the restraints. As a black man in America, life is full of risks."
Information: 708-386-9800; www.wkamaubell.com or www.booktable.net
An Evening with W. Kamau Bell
When: 7 p.m. May 4
Where: The Arts Center of Oak Park, 200 N. Oak Park Ave.