Atlanta comic Mark Kendall uses humor to address representation

“When the audience knows it’s supposed to be funny, it’s less intimidating.”
Mark Kendall

Photograph by Hales Photo

Getting a cease and desist notice from Morgan Freeman may be one of the best things that’s happened to Mark Kendall. When the Atlanta native took his one-man sketch show—Morgan Freeman Presents: The Magic Negro and Other Blackness—on the road in 2015, it caught the wrong kind of celebrity attention. “It forced me to rethink the title and that led to rethinking other parts of the show,” says the 30-year-old actor behind the newly titled—and retooled—The Magic Negro and other Blackity Blackness, as told by an African-American Man who also happens to be Black.

In 2015 The Magic Negro, which tackles the depictions of black men in popular culture and the media, was one of three projects chosen for development during the Alliance Theatre’s second annual Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab. Originally created and produced by Dad’s Garage, the show is the first project from the lab to receive a full production on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage (March 24-April 15). Kendall recently spoke to us about what prompted him to write the play and how it has evolved.

Can you talk about the inspiration behind The Magic Negro?
Being a film student at Northwestern, which was not a diverse program, I was the only black male in class. We’d watch these monumental movies like Citizen Kane, clips of Birth of a Nation. The presence or the absence of black people says a lot about those times, but that was not something that was directly addressed in class. The show kind of addresses that experience, and what it means when people of color don’t have control over their own image in media.

The show’s new title is . . . long. Why the change?
On top of [the cease and desist], I wanted to elongate the title to make it super clear that it’s meant to be a comedy. I was in Canada this summer at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and I was passing out flyers to people. They’d see the “the magical negro and other blackness” and ask me, “Are you a magician? Is this a drama?” When the audience knows it’s supposed to be funny, it’s less intimidating.

How else has the show evolved since you first brought the “magical negro” concept to audiences?
In the earlier version at 7 Stages, I was mainly doing other characters, only playing myself for a brief moment. In this new version, I’m a much larger part of the show. I’m making more of an effort to talk directly to the audience about my own individual experience. My hope in doing that is that they hear me. I just want to get through to them in that time that I have and leave them thinking.

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.