Last Tuesday, October 5, comedian Dave Chappelle, best known for his first series Comedy Central Chapel Show– released what he claimed to be his last “One Minute” comedy special.
Like every special Chappelle of the past five years, the comedy world has braced for what it would contain – and what its contents would set on fire. It did not disappoint. The closest contained, among other things: the defense of Harry potter author JK Rowling, who many have called an active opponent of transgender rights, ideas on how he would have handled the #MeToo movement better, an AIDS joke and a lengthy anecdote about his friendship with the transgender actress Daphne Dorman, in which he says: “She was not their tribe. She was mine. She was an actress at heart.
One of the voices that rose in response to the special was that of Portland, black transgender actress Dahlia Belle, who co-founded the Portland Queer Comedy Festival. WW presented it this year.
In a review article for The Guardian’s Stage, Belle wrote an open letter to Chappelle.
“Dear Dave,” she begins. “We are both actors. I guess that makes me a member of your tribe. I’m sure you’ve never heard of me, and I can think of at least three reasons for that: I’m black; I’m a woman; I am transgender (meaning “a trans”). “
Belle’s letter to the comedian has a personal tone and is arguably more of an opinion piece than a work of criticism on stage. But it also contains an important argument about what Chappelle is actually trying to do with it. The closest: to have the last word.
“It’s over,” said Dave Chappelle at the end of his stage. “LBGTQ, LM, NOPQYZ, it’s over. I’m not telling another joke about you until we both are sure we are laughing together. I’m telling you it’s done. I’m done talking about it.
Belle says this can’t be the end, though she admits she didn’t want to take on the emotional work such a response would require. The letter wasn’t even his idea. The Guardian first contacted his stand-up colleague Jeffery Jays, an LA-based transgender comedian. After discussing the special with a number of other stand-ups, the group asked Belle to write down the answer.
“We realized that it is essentially misogynist [hatred and bias toward Black women that targets both their gender and race] and the erasure of the experience of black trans women, ”says Belle WW during a telephone interview. “They turned to me and said, ‘No one is better equipped to handle this than you are. “”
So Belle, a longtime screenwriter and comedy columnist, let him have it. In the letter, she attacks Chappelle’s material, calling it “form” and “predictable ship lord” stuff.
“What I’ve always admired in comedy is its ability to push boundaries and challenge standards,” Belle says. “Now it’s 2021, and I think we can all agree that bitter old men who complain about progress are killing comedy. “
Belle says Chappelle’s fixation on treating transgender people like the butt of jokes is a betrayal of black trans women and Chappelle’s own legacy as a groundbreaking comedian.
“He built this sad new career by complaining that the queer community is too sensitive just because we point out the errors in his arguments. I’m not even angry. He is simply wrong, Belle said.
“He’s building a new legacy by making fun of the existence of trans people, while erasing the experience of black trans women. For him, being black and being pro-black is not something he can understand outside of his own perspective as a straight black cisgender man.
What really upset Belle was Chappelle’s use of Daphne Dorman – who died by suicide in 2019 – as an anecdote to support the last 16 minutes of her set.
“Every transgender person I know has lost someone to suicide,” Belle writes in The Guardian room. “For you to use Daphne’s tragedy as a closing tag, it was the only thing you did that made me angry enough to write a letter.”
Read Belle’s entire letter here.