Ever since the days of the court jester, the comedian has been regarded not only for their ability to make people laugh, but through their comedy can become a valued social critic, giving a unique, informed take on society and vital social issues of the day.
South African comedian Trevor Noah utilizes this role of the comedian-as-social-critic quite extensively, first as the host of Comedy Central’s popular mock newscast “The Daily Show”, and as a touring stand up comic (he will be returning to Just For Laughs this summer, with a solo show at the Bell Centre on July 26).
Thanks to Noah’s stand-up comedy, we get a look at how he grew up in South Africa during the waning days of the government’s oppressive apartheid policies and that historic moment when Nelson Mandela was released from a 27-year prison sentence and ushered in democracy when he was elected its president during the 1990s.
But Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black South African mother, which was a direct contravention of the country’s Immorality Act of 1927, which made it illegal for Europeans and natives to have “illicit carnal intercourse” with each other and can lead to imprisonment for up to five years. This racial mixture had Noah fall through the cracks of the South African government’s rather bizarre racial classification (where Chinese citizens were classified as “coloured” and Japanese citizens were classified as “white”). Basically, he couldn’t be classified neither as “black”, “white” or “coloured”; in his point-of-view, Noah was, according to the above-mentioned law, “born a crime”.
And that’s the phrase he used for the title of his million-copy best selling memoir, which has recently been released in paperback, and is about to become a major motion picture that will star Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.
Born A Crime is not the typical kind of memoir that comedians have been churning out for over the past 25 years, which are mainly a collection of humourous autobiographical stories that are strung together with samples of their stand-up comedy material. Noah offers a sobering, gritty, realistic look at what it was like to grow up in the volatile world that is South Africa, when it went from one turbulent period in its history to another.
We find out how he grew up as the child of a single mother, whose strong ties to religion and unique approaches to discipline and child rearing created a string bond between mother and child. We also find out how life was like growing up in the grinding poverty of the townships of Johannesburg (especially the powder keg that was Soweto, which was the site of violent riots in 1976), in which his detailed accounts can equal or surpass that of some of the best TV or newspaper foreign correspondents.
On the other hand, we also get a first-hand account of Trevor Noah the survivor, and how he made being an unclassifiable citizen gave him the ability to learn and master many of the languages and dialects that are spoken in South Africa, which made it easier for him to interact with many of the country’s ethnic groups (and sometimes evade some of its strict criminal laws); also we get to know how he survived an abusive stepfather who somehow managed to always evade arrest and imprisonment for domestic violence because of the pro male bias of the South African police (especially after he nearly fatally shot Noah’s mother in the head).
As well, Noah treats his readers to a number of stories that give a somewhat light hearted look to growing up under the harsh, racially charged atmosphere of contemporary South Africa, such as the time when he had a bowel movement on the floor of his grandmother’s house when he was five, and tried to conceal the evidence from his blind great-grandmother (but without luck, because she detected it and thought it was the work of the devil); or when he had a successful career as a bootleg dance music CD maker and travelling DJ (whose main attraction was a dancer named “Hitler”, and didn’t know the implications of that notorious name until the two of them did a show for a nearby Jewish school); or the time when he took the girl of his dreams to his high school’s matric dance (the South African equivalent of the senior prom), but his date refused to leave the car and go inside to the dance for the single reason that she did not speak a word of English or any of the other languages that he knew (while they were dating, their conversations barely went beyond the cursory “hello” and “goodbye”).
Born A Crime is probably one of the best memoirs to be written by a comedian since Lenny Bruce’s How To Talk Dirty and Influence People and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. Although Noah’s comic voice is quite evident in the narrative, he doesn’t chiefly rely on it. Instead, we get a quasi-journalistic portrait of life under an oppressive, racially tense society in a turbulently changing South Africa, and gives his global audience a much more clearer understanding of how apartheid tore apart this troubled country from someone who was thrust in the middle of all of that turmoil and survived it all with a great deal of humour, resourcefulness and a strong will to continue.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (Anchor Canada, $22)