WASHINGTON (AP) — Dave Chappelle (pic below) has built a career on pushing boundaries and challenging social conventions. But his greatest act of defiance may have come last Sunday night at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
At the end of an evening of tributes and testimonials, Chappelle came on stage to accept his Mark Twain prize for lifetime achievement in comedy.
A host of comedians and musicians paid tribute to Chappelle, 46, describing him as a uniquely gifted and passionate performer with a sort of pied piper appeal that drew other artistes into his circle.
Rapper and actor Common praised Dave Chappelle’s bravery and sociological influence.
“He’s a beacon for a lot of different progressive thought,” he said as he entered the Kennedy Center.
“He’s always been a leader in thought and culture. He said provocative things and I respect that. He brings uncomfortable things up and now we have to discuss it,” he said. “I think he’s one of the greatest, not just entertainers, but the greatest minds we have in this day and age.”
Michael Che, co-host of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live (SNL) called Chappelle, “the entertainment equivalent of what they call a five-tool player in baseball. He can perform, he can write, he can do characters. That’s why his fan-base is so wide”.
Last Sunday night’s ceremony was a homecoming for Chappelle, 46, who was raised in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland and attended Washington’s prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
“Going there was one of the great privileges of my life,” he said on the red carpet. “DC in the ’80s was turbulent and I met a bunch of young black artistes who taught me it was OK to be different. It was OK to be weird.”
Chappelle was already a well-established comedian and comedic actor when he was given his own sketch comedy show in 2003.
The show on Comedy Central, Chappelle’s Show, was an immediate hit. It combined clever parodies that often tweaked racial conventions with uniquely staged musical productions featuring hip-hop and soul artistes.
At the height of his popularity, Chappelle shocked the entertainment industry by walking away from a lucrative contract extension. He disappeared from public view and took an extended trip to Africa. He later explained that the pressures of the show’s success made him feel trapped.
Chappelle gradually returned to performing, more powerful than ever, and now releases regular stand-up specials under a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix.
The departure from his own hit show made him an inspirational symbol for artistes and comedians, particularly minorities, for his willingness to sacrifice profit to retain his independence.