Finding the Missing link between funny and passé

“I am done with being your little black puppet. If it had got any worse, I would have ended up being a journalist at Naspers.”

Conrad Koch and his famous puppet have had a coming-out party. At his latest show, which has just concluded at the Joburg Theatre, the smartmouth Chester Missing – previously black or coloured – revealed himself to be white, with a backstory to match.

For the academically inclined Koch, a trained anthropologist, the decision is layered and speaks to the idea of representation in the first place as well as journeying into the very heart of racial essentialism, while still being damn funny.

The introduction of a certain drunken ostrich puppet to the show allowed Koch to cut loose and just have fun. Technical innovations had him turning audience members into live puppets, with raucous jokes that sailed dangerously close to the edge. Without the burden of delivering material while being accused of trading in “blackface”, he was the most relaxed he has been on stage for a while. But is he pandering to his critics?

Why make your puppet white?


There are a number of reasons. The narrative of Chester the black puppet speaking back to me – the middle-class male, heterosexual, white ventriloquist – is complete. I don’t have anything more to say with that satirical set-up. I was invoking a blackface image in order to speak back to it. The joke was never at Chester’s identity. The joke was the power relationship between him and me: a metaphor.

Do you think you avoided the tired comic gimmick of playing with stereotypes?

The point was specifically about speaking back to the stereotypes and questioning them and breaking them down. So the reason to end it is I’ve done all the jokes. Now, when I do the joke of Mmusi Maimane as Helen Zille’s puppet, a lot of people in the ANC are doing that joke and it’s becoming racist.

Every time I walked on stage I had to be self-reflective, painfully so. I’m totally about speaking back to privilege. But because what I was appropriating was so painful, I had to spend a lot of time on it.

It got tired?

It was about to get tired. If Chester stayed black, it would naturalise it.

You would end up becoming the thing you were trying to subvert?

Yes. It had to have a narrative curve. You’ve got a story: there was a black puppet; he questions the apartheid legacy and reflexively lambasts me for blackface. In this next show he turns it around and he comes out as white. The next set of material will be a white puppet talking about whiteness. Making him white allows for a whole new set of conversations.

What else sparked the decision?

What I find when I travel overseas is that Western audiences don’t get the racial metaphor. To some degree in New York, and even more so in Montreal, the problems of a black puppet oppressed by a white ventriloquist don’t have the same emotional punch as in South Africa because it’s a Eurocentric environment. That conversation requires black audiences. If I’m going to take this act internationally, I have to do it within a white conversation.

Is that to sell tickets or to help audiences be more racially aware?

Well, we do have to be appealing. There is a tipping point where you’re giving them too much of what they want. You have to speak back to power but in a way that power keeps listening.

Is there a danger of this becoming too high-concept? Are you going to lose the audience?

No, because Chester’s the same guy with pink skin, and impersonating Helen Zille is frickin’ hilarious. Issues of white privilege aren’t suddenly going to stop being relevant.

Do comedy. Have fun with it. Chester being white allows me to feel less like I am juggling the family silver every time I perform.

Have you done it on your own terms?

Definitely. That’s why I take the piss. In the video [about the backstory], I brutally hold him down and spray-paint him because: What do you think happened? How do you think he became brown? The seriousness with which people take this puppet is wonderfully hilarious.

Of course, Chester was never actually black. He’s me. He’s Conrad Koch. If anyone is wondering: he is a puppet. Changing him removes the question of blackface as a simplistic dig at my work, and as a basic go-to question for uncreative journalists, and sends up the idea that a puppet can have a race.

Chester’s race comes back to racial essentialism. He was black and uncertain of his identity, hence his name, Missing. It’s me saying there isn’t such a thing as biological race on the one hand, but on the other hand the burden of history and the implications of it are real. Those two statements are what Chester was saying.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

Related stories

The blackface election looms

Like blackface, the US election is a stupid inversion of the ‘usual’ trope of being the superpower that offers lessons on governance and rights to Africa

Oh Shucks, an accidental blackface hero

Leon Schuster is having a few movies of his removed from Showmax and Phumlani Pikoli figures: what better time to reflect on this bruh than now?

Strip away the blackface that causes so much pain

Canada’s leader, seen as an antidote America’s Donald Trump, is accused of concealing prejudice

​The puppet guy reinvents Chester

Ventriloquist Conrad Koch lets loose the silly side of his act, a playfulness that is itself political.

Rows, racism and couples’ comings and goings in celeb world

Zoe Saldana’s off the hook but racist provocations aren’t, Thusi does battle with SABC and ‘Battle Africa’, and hottest new lovebirds cuddle up.

The Bantu Hour – Back with a difference

Though it's not rooted in political satire, The Bantu Hour is like a much-needed facelift to a sagging SABC local late night talk show scene.
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Under cover of Covid, Uganda targets LGBTQ+ shelter

Pandemic rules were used to justify a violent raid on a homeless shelter in Uganda, but a group of victims is pursuing a criminal case against the perpetrators

JJ Rawlings left an indelible mark on Ghana’s history

The air force pilot and former president used extreme measures, including a coup, enforced ‘discipline’ through executions, ‘disappearances’ and floggings, but reintroduced democracy

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…