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A blind date with Reginald D. Hunter
Everything can be funny for Reginald D. Hunter. “The only things that are off limits to me are the things that I haven't found just the right words to say yet.”
Over the last 16 years, the London-based African American comedian has made a name for himself in Britain for his characteristic fish-out-of-water commentary on a (mostly white) UK society.
On 25 September, Hunter is bringing his quick, deadpan humour to the Brussels stage for a one-night-only stop on his European tour Reginald D. Hunter in Europe: A Nigga Runs Through It.
This time punning on the 1992 film A River Runs Through It with Brad Pitt, this latest tour’s title follows in the same tradition as previous tours – variously entitled Reginald D Hunter: Pride & Prejudice... & Niggas, A Mystery Wrapped in a Nigga, and most recently In the Midst of Crackers (‘cracker’ being an offensive term in the US for white people).
While he’s not willing to give away much about the material of the new show, if its title is any indication, it is likely to be in the same vein as his past work: a glimpse of British and European life as experienced by a black American.
Being both American and black in a largely white world of the British Isles, difference has long been a key to Hunter’s success. “In a bit of extreme frankness,” he says, “British people are extremely intelligent and inquisitive, but as far as British television and entertainment go, even white British people are a little bored with white British people. When I came on, they were like, ‘Oh! Someone different!’”
But Hunter is not interested in playing into racial stereotypes or ‘performing black’ for a white audience. “If you're good and different, you stand out. My Americanness and my blackness make me stand out, but whenever I say what I say or I be what I be, I am not the American negro you recognise. So even that's different.”
A change of plans
Hunter did not originally set out to become a comedian. After growing up in the American state of Georgia, he landed in London at the age of 27 when he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
After attending school for a year, Hunter stayed on in the UK doing some children’s theatre but remaining largely unemployed. Then, he says, “It dawned on me that I was unlikely to ever play James Bond, because I don't have a British accent.”
Comedy came up on a whim one night in Birmingham, England, when Hunter made a call to the manager of a comedy club who, after some cajoling, finally agreed to let Hunter onstage.
“It was one of those nights where I was drunk and just went fuck it. I went on stage and told some jokes, and it went better than anyone expected… And I went away thinking, ‘I might be able to be pretty good at this.’ Hey, it's legal!”
Since then, Hunter has appeared on some of Britain’s most popular news and talk shows, including The Graham Norton Show, QI and Have I Got News for You, all the while continuing to run the stand-up circuit. “Britain, particularly British television, is very kind to stand-ups. It gives stand-ups a place to go, unlike American TV, were you’re either a stand-up or you have your own hit TV show.”
Once again, being an outsider has had certain advantages. “I did those shows, but I didn't know they were famous or popular and I was rather indifferent to it. And British celebrities I didn't know, so I wasn't spooked or intimidated.”
Last year, Hunter’s name appeared in the papers more than ever when he stir up quite a controversy after a performance at the annual Professional Footballers Association dinner in Britain in which he repeatedly used the N-word. A Facebook firestorm ensued about racism, the word, who can use it and how, to which Hunter responded by posting pictures of him posing with obviously smiling attendees of the event with sarcastic captions about ‘consoling’ the ‘horrified’ guests.
As a performer, Hunter likes when he sees comics pushing through the rules of what is allowed to be said. “I remember as a kid watching [Richard] Pryor, and sometimes he was on something great, and sometimes he lost his nerve and he pulled out, and you're like, ‘No stay in there! More!’”
Amongst the list of comics who he respects or who have inspired him, Hunter names Phyllis Diller, Rita Rudner and, to some extent, the recently deceased Joan Rivers.
“I'm not going out of my way to call out women,” Hunter says, “I just relate to anyone who is different. Anyone who can take a break for five minutes, stop talking about periods and how you can't get laid, and have a world view.”
It seems Hunter remains uncompromising in his defence of his language and material, as evidenced by his choice in titles for his newest tour. However, despite having shown a penchant for breaking the rules as far as what can and cannot be said, Hunter says that these days he’s less interested in driving home a political agenda.
“If I'm honest, up until recently, I did have a lot of agendas. But now I just want to be funny, and honest, and artistic, and artful. And money, I want to earn some money.”
A Brussels premiere
Despite having performed for non-native-English speaking audiences in the past, including Paris and the Netherlands, Hunter admits that this tour may present some particular challenges, as he stands up in front of unfamiliar audiences, sometimes with interpreters.
“I don't know what matters to these people. What matters to British people is slightly different than what matters to Americans or Australians. So it’s a blind date.”
His strategy for survival? “I'm not over preparing… It's like if you and I were going on a blind date, but two hours before I practiced the things I was going to say to you. They might be clever things, but at some point the sound of them would make you realise that it was inauthentic.”
But this is all part of the job, he says. “I'm an international comedian. If they speak or can understand English, I'm supposed to get them. It's just that simple.”
Now it’s my turn to answer questions. “Does any part of Brussels have soul?” he asked. I said yes and almost believed it. There is a lot of diversity, I explained.
It will be his first performance in the capitol, which he says he might have changed planes in once in the past. However, he thinks he’s already got our number: “I've been all over Europe, and whatever it is, I'm pretty sure its cosmopolitan, grey and kind of damp… It's fantastic weather for poets.”
How could he know us so well?
Reginald D. Hunter in Europe: A Nigga Runs Through It
Espace Lumen, Brussels
NTGent Arca, Ghent
Arenberg Schouwburg, Antwerp
You can see Reginald D Hunter in Brussels - absolutely free. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Monday, 22/9. The winner of a pair of tickets will be notified the same day.