Sunday, August 17, 2008

I Remember Bernie Mac

I Remember Bernie Mac. Where were you when you got the news? When I learned that comedian/actor Bernie Mac had died, my girlfriend Patti had called me on the 'bat-phone' at 5am on Saturday, August 9, 2008 to break the news to me. I have been in a state of semi-shock ever since. In my spirit, I've had feelings that I wanted to convey, but I couldn't gather the words for a complete thought. I am always concerned when I am found to be at a loss for words--after all, I am a bonafide wordsmith. Do ya feel me?

In 1991, I returned to the Chi-town from Atlanta with 4 kids in tow, and without a clear direction of the path I would follow for the rest of my life. I just arrived on my mom's doorstep on June 21st after narrowly escaping death from an automobile accident with an 18-wheeler that totally demolished the car I was driving; left my children and I shook up a bit, but otherwise totally unharmed standing in the rain on Interstate-65 in Kentucky. Jesus is real.

When my limited funds ran out I knew I needed a job, but did not have the wherewithall to begin the search. A friend of mine from high school, David, asked if I were interested in helping 3 people start up a comedy room every weekend(actually Thursday - Sunday) at an art gallery located in downtown Chicago on South Wabash street. My job would be as a waitress. My first thoughts were "money everyday in tips!" and I quickly agreed to do it.Ray Lambert, Mary Lindsey and James Alexander had a sound vision and great attitudes. They were open to the possibilities and our vibes melded. In anticipation of our first weekend in August 1991, comedians started hanging out as we transformed the art gallery into a comedy club by placing rented tables and chairs in the space. This club would be called All Jokes Aside.

On that first night I recall meeting many comedians including: George Wilborn, Dos, Robert Hines, Shay Shay, James Hannah, Evan, Godfrey& Alexander, Tony Sculfield, Adell Givens, Elizabeth Woods, Andre and Bernie Mac. Each of these comics were hilarious beyond belief. And even at that early stage of the game, when everyone was hungry, talented and open to the possibilities, Bernie Mac stood out as Chicago's "King" of Comedy."

The atmosphere was electric with promise and anticipation. The political climate was bleak and people in America--specifically in Chicago, Illinois needed to laugh. Bernie Mac was a comic's comedian. As I had never heard of him, or seen him perform, the others alerted me that I was definitely in for a treat. At that point Bernie had been in the game about 15 years and was regularly appearing in comedy rooms and private shows.He was the show's headliner or last featured act. And although I would have described him as well-dressed, tall, dark and handsome; he described himself as 'big-boned', gifted and as 'black as 40 midnites'. The boy was a mess. His timing was impeccable and his routines were polished; in other words-- he was funny as hell. He would step out on stage, pick up the microphone, look at the audience and say, I ain't scared of you 'mfs'. The audience would roll with laughter.He was also a gentleman and a notorious flirt. And even though it was obvious that I was a female he called me what he called everybody else--'homes'.

When I first met Bernie, before he knew I had children, I told him that my ex-husband left me because he discovered that I was a transgendered female. I swore him to secrecy. He promised to never tell anyone. The following week when I arrived at the club the comics were all looking at me strangely when I walked through the door. I returned the strange stare and they all busted out laughing at Bernie. The other comics already knew what he didn't. That I had 4 kids and was a single mom. Bernie offered up a high-five to me and said, "Good joke, homes."

There were many comedians who came through All Jokes Aside. Several were destined for stardom. Bernie Mac was one of them. I remember asking him why his mama had named him Bernie because the name reminded me of old Jewish guys. He told me his name was Bernard McCullough. The way he said it I just cracked up. "Stick to Bernie Mac," I chided--"It sounds cool."I was also intrigued by how paralleled our lives were to that point but how our paths had not crossed. We were both a product of Chicago's Englewood community. We were both 34 years old. We were both married with children (he had 1 I had 4). And we both had dreams and goals that were way bigger than our 1991 circumstances were. Bernie saw himself as an actor and successful Las Vegas act. He was not simply bound by the stand-up comedy stage. I saw myself as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist--although I had yet to begin to write. He encouraged me to dream and to dream big because it cost the same thing as small dreams.

Bernie went on to do all the things he said he would do. He developed a 'Las Vegas' act and took his show on the road. It included a jazz band led by Reggie McCants that he called "The Mac Men" and dancers he called "The Macaronis" (I think). I saw his show performed at Milt Trenier's club in Chi-town one time. I didn't understand why he had all these folks when all he really needed was a microphone and his words. The show was a creative effort and I enjoyed it. He would always yell from the stage, "Who you wit?" The answer was, "Bernie Mac." By the time folks began to understand it--Bernie was off to the next thing--movies and television.I was very proud of Bernie Mac and all of the comedians I'd met who went on to live their dreams. I appreciated the fact that I got to meet him and have conversations with him. He was smart, confident and special. He was misunderstood--the hallmark of a true genius.

On Saturday, August 16th he received a statesman's memorial service at Chicago's House of Hope. Only royalty, a politician or a 'king' would need venue that has 10K seats for his homegoing service. Mayor Richard Daley attended as did Chicagoans from all walks of life. celebrity friends turned out and spoke.Among those who put a comma in their day and attended his service were: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, Mr & Mrs. Chris Rock, BruceBruce, Juwan Howard (NBA player), Samual L. Jackson, George Wallace, Ali LeRoi, Don Cheadle (Ocean's Eleven), Kelita Smith (TV wife, Wanda), Jeremy Suarez (TV nephew, Jordan), and Ramonski Love, just to name a few.

"Bernie, 50 is very young but you packed a helluva lot of stuff in your 50 years. Now I have just two questions: 1) Can any good thing come out of Chicago's Englewood community?; and 2) WHO YOU WIT?

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