A controversial blackface show scheduled to be performed in a Boston nightclub later this month was cancelled last week after facing opposition from national, community and student groups including Harvard’s Black Students Association (BSA).
In the act, titled “Shirley Q Liquor,” a white man named Chuck Knipp dresses in drag and blackface. His standup comedy routine caricatures several minority groups, focusing on blacks, and black lesbians in particular.
Knipp was scheduled to perform at the Boston Machine on Oct. 18.
Opposition to Knipp’s act began in New York three weeks ago, according to Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Sue Hyde.
“A black gay man in the bar that night became upset about the content of the show and left minutes into it, and contacted some organizations in the New York area that are run by and for [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] people of color,” Hyde said.
Advocacy groups organized a street demonstration the next day that shut down the bar for the evening.
Following the demonstration, Knipp posted dates for engagements in Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh on his website, prompting activists in New York to contact similar groups in these areas.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was among the organizations that disseminated information about the act to student groups.
When the news reached the BSA, members contacted the rest of the Boston Black Students Network, a loose coalition of college and university organizations.
BSA President Charles M. Moore ’04 then prepared a formal letter of opposition and circulated it briefly before sending it last Tuesday to the owner of the Boston Machine, Henry Vara.
“We just wanted to get the letter out to the owner,” Moore said. “Had they not cancelled the act we probably would have pursued faculty and more broad-reaching support from the University and Boston.”
In his letter to Vara, Moore wrote that the concerned student groups considered the act “no different from historical forms of blackface, minstrel shows, and other acts featuring disparaging characterizations of black people.”
It went on to say that if the club were to allow Knipp to perform it would effectively be sanctioning racist sentiment.
Other groups including Gay and Lesbian Labor Activist Network, Boston NOW, and the City of Boston Mayoral Liaison to the LGBT Comunity, also let Vara know they opposed the act through phone calls and visits to the club. Cambridge City Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 was among the individuals to voice their opposition.
Boston Machine management told the complainants that the club had not realized the act was offensive and took action when that concern was brought to its attention.
“We had a lot of calls from student groups and other groups,” said Operations Manager of the Boston Machine Bob Pitko. “Shortly thereafter we started to rethink the whole show. We just felt there’s enough racism in Boston and we didn’t want to facilitate that kind of show.”
Knipp’s website is topped by a banner with a giant animated pair of lips and the words “How you durrin.” Images labelled as those of black or Pakistani men and woman have been modified to make noses, mouths, and breasts appear outlandishly large.
Pointedly ungrammatical text mocking various minorities’ accents or dialects and playing on various physical and cultural stereotypes runs alongside.
One horoscope tells black women, “it is not the other people who are possessed. It is you. For best results: bathe. If you would just bathe once every few days, you would discover people would stop making those terrible faces at you.”
A mock news item reads,“Curtis Jackson has won a “undisclosed amount” (so you KNOW that’s good!) from the Breathe-Right® nasal strips people. Curtis claim his civil rights was violated because the popular nose-tape did not come in a size large enough to encompass his cavernous nostrils.”
Other fictional vignettes on the website mock gay and lesbian people—usually minorities—and the poor.
The BSA plans to take part in the continuing effort to protest Shirley Q Liquor, and make sure the act is cancelled wherever possible.
“From here we’re essentially going to try to do the same thing in all the sites where he’ll be performing this year,” Moore said. “Our intention is to inform others so that they can decide what they want to do, form their own opinion and pursue their own actions.”