I try to remain open to where I’m led. This counts not only for the venues I’m asked to perform in, but also what happens on the stage. I think most people assume that everything that happens during the performance is ‘planned’, but you would be amazed how much improv goes on up there. Sure, I have a planned ending, but the road to get there changes constantly. This keeps the show fresh for me, and in turn makes it more spontaneous for the audience. Sometimes what you see has never happened before, and may never happen again.
Once in a comedy club I had the owner warn me that the last variety entertainer they hosted was dragged from the stage and knifed. The full story was that a member of the crowd snatched the ventriloquist’s puppet and ‘killed’ it for being a smart-aleck. No, I didn’t make that up. The knifer then turned to the comic and said, “And you better watch yourself, I seen you egging him on”. Ah, showbiz.
A few years back I did a Thanksgiving performance for a mission church in downtown Charlotte. They asked me to come entertain the homeless families and rehabbing substance abusers. Dawn and I went and dined with them and I did my thing. We didn’t know that this show would open our eyes to a small peek at what God is doing with me.
There’s a piece I do toward the climax of my show that involves a personal item from an audience member and a lemon or orange. The piece has evolved from those days, but the method (at the time) required an audience member to hold a knife and cut open the lemon for the ‘big finish’. There was a gentleman named Robert who had quietly watched the show – laughing in the right places and generally getting into the spirit. He was about 40-42 years old, African-American and his face was care worn, but kind. (I watch everyone as the show progresses to decide who will be fun and enthusiastic for the end piece. Sometimes I choose wrong … and those can be the most creative.) I had decided early on that Robert was my ‘knife man’.
The time came around and I called Robert up to help – I explained what he had to do and gave him the knife. Robert took the knife (a switblade in those days) and got REALLY introverted all at once. I chalked it up to stage fright and tried to keep him reassured. We pulled the effect off well and we got a great round of applause. And then …
Robert was weeping as he left the stage. As this was a comedy show, that kind of put me off. In my mind, I thought I had embarrassed him in some way. I started going over my ‘script’ in my head to figure out where I had gone wrong. This soured the show for me and I felt bad that I had somehow ruined Robert’s night. (That’s right kids, I can get a standing ovation from 700 people, but if I spot ONE that isn’t enjoying themselves – guess who I remember?) Later, the hosting mission had an alter call and I saw Robert, crying openly and seemingly inconsolable. I finished up my duties for the evening and started packing up, trying to think of a way to apologize, but still not knowing what I did wrong. I felt blue.
As I finished loading the car, a lady approached us, very moved, beaming from ear to ear. “Do you have any idea of what you’ve done?” Well … no? She continued;
It seems that Robert had just been released recently from prison (and rehab). He had been, in his youth, very anti-white. He simply did not trust anyone who was white, and prison had not really dampened those feelings. He had been struggling with this in his walk with God, because he wanted to be forgiving, but old feelings die harder than Bruce Willis. When I ( a white man) invited him to be a part of my show, he immediately knew that I was going to make fun of him somehow. Hence the loss of excitement. He was just waiting to be the butt of a joke and was wondering how he was going to deal with the humiliation.
When I handed him the knife – his whole outlook changed. I don’t know if I can get across the feeling here, but – A White Man Handed Him a KNIFE and let him be the hero of the closing moment. No one of my race had ever casually handed him a ‘weapon’ in complete trust before, and it was a major breakthrough in his spirit. Now; I can’t take any credit for this, other than following God’s voice. He knew what Robert needed and I was a willing instrument in that change, without ever knowing what the real mission was.
When I get weary of this path, when I get lonely and feel discouraged, I think of Robert and the Switchblade. It renews my faith in this road in front of me.