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February 28, 2002 Creative writing student thrives on stand-up comedy



Daliso Chaponda

Daliso Chaponda, a student from Malawi, delivers the punch line.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Robert Scalia

Daliso Chaponda figures if the Malawi-style storytelling and British cynicism don’t cut it, he can always squeeze a laugh out with his distinctly Canadian self-victimization bit.

The 22-year-old comedian demonstrated all three in fine form during his first headline act, Feed This Black Man, stroking the funny-bones of about 50 people at the D.B. Clarke Theatre on Saturday night with fairytale rhymes and humiliating experiences.

“Being broke. Not being able to eat. A bad love life. Everything that can possibly conspire against me does,” explains the Concordia creative writing student, summing up his tortured stage persona over the phone.

Don’t get him wrong, Chaponda loves Canada. It beckoned him onstage. He would have never dreamed of doing stand-up in his district of Mulanje, Malawi.

In Malawi, storytelling is the closest thing to standup. Town elders renowned for their skills are usually invited — not hired — to entertain guests at weddings and Christmas parties. While the stories are usually hilarious, sarcasm “doesn’t go over at all in Africa.”

It does in Montreal, as Chaponda was to discover during the Just for Laughs Festival two yeas ago. He was studying computer science at McGill University and writing plays and poems on the side. He decided to take the stage during an open mike contest at the Comedy Nest.

“It was absolutely amazing. That’s why I kept going.”

Almost two years and many shows later, Chaponda admits he still gets the butterflies before every performance. Once in the spotlight, however, anything goes.

“Many comedians would disagree, but I actually believe any comedian can make any joke. Once the audience likes you, they’ll let you say anything.”

Of course, like a shark specialist, Chaponda has learned the vital skill of testing the waters before diving in head first. That means using certain “probing jokes” or stories that start innocently and get progressively more vulgar to gauge how politically, religiously or sexually flexible his audience will be.

“People who go to comedy clubs respond very well to it, because they go looking for it.” University students are a tougher sell. “It’s very hard to talk politics with them unless you agree with them.”

Chaponda learned his lesson during a show at Reggie’s Bar, which was packed with Concordia Student Union representatives just coming out of a meeting. They didn’t appreciate his Fanatic bit, an imaginary Survivoresque contest that would pit Taliban Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses and ant-abortionists against one another in the desert for weeks. He never even got to the punch line.

Still, Chaponda believes humour is necessary, particularly when dealing with tragedy. He recalls watching “hilarious” plays produced in the market theatres in Swaziland, South Africa, that had been written during apartheid. “If you can’t do anything about a situation, you might as well laugh at it.”

These days, Chaponda is trying hard not to infuse stand-up humour into his creative writing, though a surprise punch line is always tempting.

He always loved writing, and remembers how a high school teacher in Kenya egged him on by publishing one of his stories in the local paper. He is presently trying to publish his novel Malevolent Spirits and hopes to release a play titled Wheelbarrow by April.

Still, it is the stage he craves. Besides, he is confident that his parents are finally coming around to the idea. His three brothers, spread out all over the world, are his biggest fans.

Where does this defiant comedian draw the line? “I wonder if I could perform in front of my mother and start talking about sex,” he says, amused by the prospect. “No, I don’t know about that. It hasn’t happened yet.”

You can catch Daliso Chapondra’s second and last performance of Feed That Black Man this Saturday night at the D.B. Clarke Theatre, in the Hall Building. Tickets are $8.