Che Burnley first decided to get into comedy because he kept getting mistaken for Reginald D Hunter. “I had dreads at the time and looked a lot like Reg,” he says. “And I thought to myself ‘I’m getting mistaken for him anyway….’”
Che has never looked back and following several years of travelling to Edinburgh to study comedy and interviewing comedians for Radio City, he took the plunge. “During one of the festivals, I met an Irish guy who said ‘We’ve got the Scottish showcase, we have an Irish showcase, why isn’t there a black showcase?’” he says.
The idea percolated in Che’s brain and in 2017 he launched the Black Comedy showcase: with black bingo, a vegan meat raffle and a “token” white act, the show was an ambitious mix of progressive politics, transgressive humour and regressive music-hall tradition. The Edinburgh shows were a sell-out and, as Che has lived in Liverpool for over 25 years, home was the next obvious location.
Daliso Chaponda and Desiree Burch headlined (Hunter was slated to appear in 2020, but the pandemic scuppered the show) alongside comedians from Liverpool. Following an enforced lay-off, the Alternative Black Cabaret Showcase is back at the Royal Court with an all-female line-up including a comedian from the city, social media smash Sarah Levine.
“Sarah is gonna be as big as she is loud,” says Che. “She’s so, so good. She’s just started out and she’s so comfortable. She talks about sex, she talks about the fact she’s got two kids, the fact that she’s single. She’s got a Scouse sense of humour and is from the next generation of Liverpool comedians.”
When pushed on the sort of comedy people might expect at the Showcase, Che is keen to stress that, first and foremost, it’s about laughing. “People connect more when they’ve got more in common with the people that they see,” he says. “So in Liverpool, you’ll get jokes about purple bins and what a shit pub the Penny Farthing was.”
He says he’s noticed black people don’t come to comedy gigs as much. Why? “Because if you do get black comedians, they tend to be from London — white comedians do this so much — and they go ‘you know when you’re on the tube…?’” He laughs. “And people go, ‘No, because we haven’t got the tube! There isn’t a fucking branch line to Liverpool!’ Over here there is a black circuit, but it’s primarily in London and there are mainly people from London or people who’ve had to move there. And they stay down there. Now I’m trying to bring them back up here.”
Che says the city needs more black comedians, but stops himself. “I say black but I’m mixed-race Caribbean,” he says. “We need more Asian comedians, Chinese comedians from Liverpool; different people with loads of different stories. I’m trying to think of all the black comedians who are actually Liverpudlian and I think it is Sarah, right? Seriously, that is it. And then if Sarah wants to make a name for herself, she’s gonna have to get into London. Why can’t we do that in Liverpool?”
This all-female showcase coincides with International Women’s Day, but Che says it’s not easy to book BAME comedians of any gender — or race. “It’s not hard to find male comedians. They think they’re funny,” he says, saying that’s not always the case with women. The focus is on making the cabaret an inclusive space. “And then people start to freak out about how you define black, which I define as anybody who won’t get into America. So if you’re gonna have trouble at the airport security, you’re on my show.”
Boisterous, Liverpool’s only theatre company dedicated to BAME communities, is helping stage the Showcase, and Che says theatre isn’t necessarily a space where non-white people are comfortable.
“You can’t be what you can’t see and so you don’t believe that that pathway is open to you,” he says, talking about the importance of representation. “But then you keep getting told ‘it’s not our fault; we’ve left the door open for you’. Yeah, you left the door open but you’ve also left the alarm on!”
Over time the Showcase has transitioned from being styled as ‘comedy’ to ‘cabaret’. Che says that reflects the kind of acts he wants to stage. “In white comedy, it’s like a smorgasbord of alternative comedy, political comedy, observational and surrealist comedy. It’s not like that in black comedy, you have to be Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock, but one thing that I want to do with this show is to find a black Vic and Bob.”
Why leave it there? “True,” he says thoughtfully. “I don’t just want to find black comedians. I want to find black ventriloquists, black magicians!
Che looks like he’s had a brainwave. “Wonder if there’s a black knife thrower…”
• The Alternative Black Cabaret Showcase featuring Erika Ehler, Sarah Levine and Dana Alexander with MC Che Burnley is at the Royal Court Studio tomorrow night at 7.30.