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​The puppet guy reinvents Chester

A lot has happened in puppeteer ventriloquist Conrad Koch’s life since he took on Steve Hofmeyr in a court case that saw the singer lose lucrative endorsement contracts for his racist statements.

The ensuing angst has seen life carry on pretty much as normal for Hofmeyr, but has forced a lot of behind-the-scenes changes for Koch.

His current show, Puppet Guy, is in some ways a manifestation of this. He describes the process behind the show in his own words.

What’s going on with #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall and the resurgence of black consciousness, I think that it’s not useful for me to be the loudest voice in the room on antiracism. When you are getting an award from Ahmed Kathrada on fighting racism, then who is guiding the conversation?

Do you diss Ahmed Kathrada and not take the award? Because any black person’s life is more of an antiracist act than anything I could do. I took the award, but I also read out a list of black activists who would have been worthy recipients.

In the recent past Chester has lost his accent, went pale — the whole point was to talk about racial nonessentialism, about race as a construct, and then to talk about privilege, which is black consciousness from a white perspective.

Now I feel like I’m done with that convo and, if I didn’t make him white, I’d constantly need to reference myself and deal with the question of blackface. I could either be the more progressive white guy or be the more liberal white guy.

The new show allows me to be more playful with the audience as opposed to being the serious satirist all the time. The problem is I started being the journalist, where I’d go and interview politicians and act like these opinions mattered, which they don’t. If I’m not going to do race and politics exclusively, then what else do I do?

I’m taking the art of ventriloquism and refining it in ways I have never done before.

There are not many comedians with a master’s in anthropology that are trying to deconstruct white privilege, racism, essentialism and still be comedians, and still be in the political realm where I’m on a first-name basis with political leaders. I am pretty unique in that. Kagiso Lediga could probably fit into that category, but he is not white.

Plus, I am a ventriloquist and the rules are completely different. To be a world-class ventriloquist takes years of doing similar material over and over again to refine it so that there is emotional nuance, the timing of the set is well balanced. And because so much of my material is current, daily, political topics, I never get a chance to really refine it to that point.

Most South Africans don’t know what a ventriloquist is. Why would you understand the dynamics of how ventriloquism works? There’s only one in the country, really, and that’s the last English word you would learn.

So even if you know what it means, you don’t really know how it works.

The reason it’s called Puppet Guy is because everybody goes: “Hey, puppet guy.” The Zulus go: “Hey, popayi … guy.” So it’s about having fun with puppets.

So what do I talk about that isn’t purely politics and race? It’s playfulness, which for me is a political act. Also, in my personal life, I lose my comedy if I don’t have more fun with it.

In this show there are three puppets and a whole lot of other shenanigans. Chester does Chester stuff, bits of political material that he has written over the past while.

There’s Hillary, this ostrich whose body goes missing, that I’ve made out of a feather duster, a flipper and sunglasses on stage. It’s like deconstructed ventriloquism, a very fun character.

Then there’s this airsickness bag — Mr Bag — that I meet on a Mango flight and he chats to me.

Then there’s a thing where I do Snapchat live on stage. I get someone from the audience and I have a cellphone. I do a Snapchat with funny faces, then I make them talk. It plays via a live feed on the screen.

I’ve got this guy who comes out and admits that he’s actually a lion and he does lion stuff.

The Puppet Guy runs on September 23 and 24 at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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