This comedian will make you check your privilege with a chuckle
Giggles and guffaws surge over the stage as Tyson Ngubeni drops his punchline. Raising a bashful eyebrow, he acknowledges the audience’s wit at having caught the joke – he’s a master at manipulating the atmosphere. Having reached the scene’s end, Ngubeni slides out of one persona and into the next. This time he embodies a memory: a stranger is asking about his nationality. He drifts through the awkward encounter with humour and the crowd chuckles on, coaxed into confronting a subconscious prejudice.
Throughout childhood and adolescence, Ngubeni experienced the glare of racial profiling. Dark in complexion – he jokes that he’s somewhere on the spectrum between Wesley Snipes and eternal darkness – he explains that he is seen as too foreign for South Africans, yet too South African for foreigners. With self-deprecating charm, Ngubeni positions himself as the butt of many of his jokes. But for the Soweto-born funny guy making his way to the centre stage of South African stand-up, comedy is no mere self-indulgence. It’s a means of drawing attention to important societal issues, and word is spreading about his work.
Ngubeni’s inaugural solo show, The Dark Ages, deals primarily with race and xenophobia. It has been a hit at the National Arts Festival for the past two years, earning him an Ovation Award in its first run. As he continues to build his name in the industry, a notoriously difficult task in South Africa, he takes heart from how far he’s already come. His first job out of school was at a Dutch call-centre, an occupation for which he learnt a new language, and thereafter he managed to develop his craft while maintaining a rigorous academic programme at Rhodes University. Ngubeni’s demeanor has been light-hearted all the way through, the mark of a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nevertheless, he’s a genuine talent with a real message.