“This is a nightmare of a time. It really does test people’s character.” So says Dave Chappelle—comic, philosopher and social commentator—toward the beginning of his new documentary, This Time,This Place.
He’s talking about the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by the murder of George Floyd. About isolation and fear and anger, and the challenges we’re facing as individuals and a society.
The film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened August 1 at the Kennedy Center with in-person appearances by Chappelle and filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, is Chappelle’s response to that character test. And as he’s done with his standup, TV and film endeavors, in revealing his own musings he holds up a mirror to our own character.
Dave’s answer to the dread of 2020 was to double-down on community. What began as an experimental, socially distanced live show in a cornfield in his adopted home town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, turned into a series of more than 50 shows that delivered both comic and economic relief to the town of 3,700.
The film crew captures it all, on stage and off. The celebrities who come by for a short or long stay, among them: David Letterman, Sarah Silverman, Michelle Wolf, Kevin Hart, Jon Stewart, Jon Hamm, Common, Tiffany Haddish, John Mayer, Quest Love, Trevor Noah and Michael Che. Then there’s the Chappelle family and friends, the residents of Yellow Springs, and those who drove from near and far to attend.
Here are the top five takeaways from the doc:
1. Laughter is still good medicine
We already knew this, but current times are testing the hypothesis. Chappelle has made a life, and career, of finding the funny in surreal, sometimes devastating, circumstances. “I was gonna come our with some gloves and a mask on and leave my d**k out,” he proclaims on the first night of the cornfield shows. Nerves among performers and apprehension among the audience, seated in pairs in designated spots, is at least temporarily lifted. Eyes smile above masked noses and mouths. The exhale is palpable.
2. Show people who you really are
Comic Michelle Wolf, who bunked with the Chappelle family for months after Covid initially stranded her in Yellow Springs, was a regular at the gigs. Dave was aware she was going through some difficult personal reflection. His advice? Share it with the audience. When Wolf expresses fear the audience won’t come along with her, he assures her some will—and those who do will be true fans because she’s been willing to be vulnerable. The set is a hit, Wolf’s favorite of the run.
3. We’re all emerging a little rusty… and a lot grateful
Hanging backstage before his performance, Chris Rock is visibly shell-shocked about returning to the stage for the first time in more than a year. Once he gets in front of the audience, he amiably bumbles through his set, getting some big laughs for both his jokes and the jitters he lays bare. Jon Stewart breaks down in tears when he hugs his friends, and proclaims during a group meal it’s been the humanity of shared conversation he’s missed most of all.
4. Music makes everything better
About a month in to the gigs, and after a call from pal Erykah Badu, Chappelle cranks up the volume for the July Fourth show. Going forward, jam sessions became a integral part of the shows. Badu summons a rousing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover; Tiffany Haddish burns up the stage with her rendition of “Proud Mary”; John Mayer and Chappelle enlist the crowd for a version of the Footloose theme—their answer to regulators trying to shut down the performances.
5. Life imitates art imitates life
Much of the footage captures things that happen off stage—the kayak excursions down the river, the communal preparing of meals, the daily nose swabs—that inevitably find their way on stage. A clip that shows Palestinian-American comic Mo Amer discussing the origins of a Middle Eastern dish he’s cooking is sequenced with one of him on stage joking about westerners’ obsession with hummus, which in turn serves to open a conversation about racism.
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