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KJ Whitehead, tug of war between laughter, justice
by Ada Cheng
2018-10-03

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When KJ Whitehead showed up for this interview in mid-September, they were rocking a more feminine attire and look, wearing a piece of clothing their mother bought for them.

This was a long time coming for their relationship: Their parents were gradually coming to terms with their radical act of shedding vestiges of the so-called appropriate manhood or Black masculinity for that matter, important for their family full of football players.

This they denounce or want to redefine. Whitehead is forever changing, growing and evolving—in person, in appearance, and in the standup comedy they have been doing since September 2013.

As the queen of radical comedy, Whitehead got into comedy because "I had something to say. I figure the best way to get it out there was to make people laugh while saying it." But the long answer was because they grew up in the Southside watching the original Kings of Comedy like Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, Cedric The Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley. The presence and the success of these Black comedians was the source of inspiration for them.

Having performed on stage for five years, they want to broaden the scope of standup comedy as well as to challenge and stretch it. They said, "Growing up I realized didn't really fit as a Black man in my own community. And I found that queer people and trans people were often the butt of the jokes. I never saw them as jokes or myself as a joke. I saw them as people. I figure instead of looking for this representation that I want, which is out there now thankfully, I will be that representation. That's why lately I have been going about doing radical comedy. I have found a way to take the harsh things I want to say, put it out there, make it a joke and make people laugh."

For Whitehead, the journey in comedy and in their personal identity can be both tumultuous and revolutionary. With regards to whether comedy was the vehicle to convey the social justice messages they wanted to convey, they stated, "I think comedy may not be the best vehicle, but it is one vehicle. I talk a lot of Brown and Black liberation. Other people can use storytelling or other art forms to convey messages. It may not be the best art form, but I believe it can be one for me."

They want to re-envision what comedy can be. "The one thing I struggle with is that people come to comedy to escape the trouble outside. However, if the particular performer you are watching is a queer person, a trans person or a trans person of color, they can't escape that. We are limited by the expectation what comedy should be. I think we will have more fun if we think about what comedy can be," they stated. Going beyond "what is" has been what Whitehead is striving for.

Whitehead faces challenges navigating in both predominantly White space and predominantly Black space since they often don't fit in depending on the "norm" of the context. Performing in each sometimes becomes a game of survival in the space in between.

In the predominantly white space, they confront the racism against them as a Black person while also having to experience the transphobia against them as a trans queer person of color. While in a predominant Black space, a space with which they are familiar, they confront the homophobia and transphobia against them.

The main issue comes from having to justify one's presence and existence even before one starts the comedy routine. They risk being challenged, not simply based on comedy materials, but based on others' assumption of their very right to existence.

The art, then, gets pushed to the background because their presence becomes jarring to some people.

Whitehead is no stranger to being attacked on stage, to the point where they don't know if they want to do stand up comedy or be themselves at all. "It's like I have to come out multiple times during the set. That's part of it. One is obviously I am Black. And then I have to explain to the audience why I look like Dennis Rodman. Transgender is different from homosexuality. People aren't ready for that yet. A lot of folks in the queer community feel that they can't be racist. Part of being an ally is to know that you can be problematic. And then on the South Side with mostly Black audiences, they don't often come across people like me. It's all around," he stated.

It took a long time for their art to be recognized. As Whitehead said, "I am known now. People have seen me. They know me. So they can hear me now. They wouldn't say anything to me to interrupt me."

Compromises do have to be made at times for safety concern. They balance their principles with concern for safety, "I put a disclaimer on my website. I am pro Black Lives Matter, pro liberation, pro women, pro trans right, against police brutality. These views are reflected in my materials. Don't book me if you don't feel comfortable. Watch my videos. I am willing to work with people."

Whitehead has been pondering what's next as they continue to work on their craft. While Chicago is home, the dreams may lie somewhere else.

At this point, everything is possible.

Note: This writer met KJ Whitehead the first time they told a story at Am I Man Enough?: A Storytelling/Podcasting Show, one of the storytelling shows I produce, at The Pride Art Center early this year. Check out KJ Whitehead's work at iamkjwhitehead.net/.


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