Bell in the Bay
Sinatra artist-in-residence W. Kamau Bell takes on racism, politics, and fatherhood in a sold-out performance.
Navigating topics from the 2016 election and free speech to Donald Trump, Berkeley protests, and life as a father, comedian W. Kamau Bell kicked off his Sinatra Chair residency at Santa Clara University on Nov. 7 with lots of laughs and plenty to think about.
In the sold-out performance in Mayer Theatre, titled “Private School Negro,” Bell riffed on the current administration’s current and former cast of characters including Steve Bannon (“Darth Vader without his mask”) and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose unwavering, straight-faced defense of President Trump won Bell’s mock admiration. “We all need a friend like Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Bell said.
In addition to jokes, Bell discussed more serious subjects including the impact his Emmy Award–winning CNN show United Shades of America has had on him. On the show, Bell travels the country interviewing people from different walks of life. His goal is to put his opinions on hold in these conversations and instead focus on listening.
“I get to meet people that have interesting stories,” Bell said. “It’s really helping me see the world and this country in a way I didn’t see it before.”
Bell mentioned one episode in which he visited San Quentin prison. During the visit, he learned about the cultural divides and de facto segregation in the prison yard. He also met several fascinating inmates, including Rahsaan Thomas, a convicted murderer who was the sports editor of the San Quentin News, an inmate-run newspaper with a distribution of 13,000. Bell also talked to Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll, a convicted murderer who taught himself about the stock market from behind bars and started a financial literacy class for prisoners.
“I’ve stayed friends with many of them,” Bell said. “I’ve been back to San Quentin twice to interact with the dudes I met when I was there.”
Following his stand-up set, Kamau and his wife Melissa Hudson Bell ’01, who has taught dance at SCU, participated in a Q&A hosted by Assistant Professor Danielle Morgan of the English department. Bell fielded questions from the audience about the challenges of comedy in the age of Trump, having productive conversations with people who hold different beliefs, and his responsibility as an artist and satirist.
“Just because the world doesn’t respond doesn’t mean it’s not great art,” he cautioned the more than 400 people in attendance. “Just because the world does respond doesn’t mean it is great art.”
The evening was hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and is the beginning of Bell’s Sinatra Chair residency, which is awarded to dynamic performers and educators who share their talent and expertise with students and the greater Santa Clara community. Bell will return during the winter quarter to lead discussions with classes, work with student research assistants, and host a salon discussion with other comedians and artists.
Last year Santa Clara hosted two Sinatra artists-in-residence, award-winning actor, playwright, and performer Anna Deavere Smith and the musical collaborative Silk Road Ensemble.