I didn’t actually mean to post two consecutive Dave Chappelle pieces, but here we are. This is my reflection on his return to Hartford, the best birthday gift that I could have gotten to kick off my twenty-eighth year.
After a solid 45 minute set of new material, Louis C.K. had the crowd cheering with riotous applause. His time was to be the last set of the 2014 Hartford Oddball Festival, but he had a trick up his trademark black cotton sleeve. He gestured up and behind him, and shouted, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, DAVE CHAPPELLE!”. The stage went dark. “No…,” I shouted in a voice electric with hysterical disbelief, eyes darting to my sister and the friends that had accompanied me for this trip. And when the lights came back on, there he was, ambling to the front of a stage he had hastily retreated from a year before.
Chappelle made headlines on the 2013 Hartford Oddball set after abandoning his set, besieged by hecklers who shouted lines from his starmaking turn on Chappelle’s Show. After warning the crowd that he would leave if they didn’t stop, he delivered on his promise, vowing to never return to Hartford. The Chappelle of a year ago didn’t stop there, making references to his hatred for that night on subsequent tour stops- in both his own voice, and in an approximation of President Obama’s.
But the Chappelle that appeared on Saturday night showed a great deal of contrition, and a touch of fear. “I thought y’all were gonna boo me the second I came out,” he shared. This was the tone of his short set- funny in his trademark laid back and observational manner, but also palpably apologetic. I wonder how much of his return was fueled by the maturity that comes with aging- he mentioned to the crowd that his birthday was in a few short hours, his forty-first. In any case, he expressed profound regret at how he had handled the anger that the crowd aroused in him, and addressed the lone heckler of this particular evening directly but sincerely.
Sincerity was the name of Chappelle’s game Saturday night, and his apology differed sharply from the celebrity apologies we’re all accustomed to seeing. Sharply divorced from the setting in which the original transgression occurred, a tearful but clearly scripted expression of regret is haltingly read. Apologies are offered to the parties involved, but rarely feel as though they’re intended for that person or group; rather, these staged opportunities are for everyone else who has seen or become aware of the story. Even when done with the seeming genuineness of a Jonah Hill after his recent homophobic slur, it always feels as though the apologizing party is doing what is supposed to be done.
In his return to the scene of the crime, Chappelle did one better than many celebrity apologizers before him. To the best of his ability, he apologized (as best he could) to the people who were affected by his outburst. He did it in the same setting as it occurred. It was refreshing in its improvisational nature; he admitted to not preparing anything, and it showed in the most endearing way. And after apologizing, he finished what he started in a way that he hasn’t after previous outbursts or departures. It would appear that Chappelle’s forty-first year is going to be a different one, and I’m curious to see if a return to the stages that so often stymie him is on its way. But in either case, it was his audience that got the gift that Saturday.