Meshelle Foreman is right where she wants to be, on stage, making people laugh with a story from her life. This one involves an uncle who's just out of "the system" after 20 years.
Uncle Skippy thinks it's 1976, Foreman says, as her sound man cues up the O'Jays' "Money." He still wears double-knit pants. Uncle Skippy doesn't walk down the street, he does one of those arm-swinging pimp rolls last seen in "Super Fly." Laughter ripples through the audience.
Foreman, 28, sprinkles her story with knowing glances and asides. "Y'all know what I'm talking about?" she asks, and every head in the audience nods. They might not have an "Uncle Skippy," but they know someone like him. He's part of their world, the world Foreman knew growing up in Woodlawn and northwest Baltimore.
She is a rarity on the comedy circuit, a young woman whose comedy is in the style of Bill Cosby and Sinbad. While many comedians use foul language and sexual innuendoes, Foreman presents life without getting down and dirty. She is, after all, a Christian woman. But she doesn't sacrifice her edge by being clean, and she doesn't think of her work as "gospel comedy." That definition might limit her audience.
"Someone coined the phrase 'inspertainment,' inspirational entertainment," says Foreman, a doctoral candidate in psychology with a light-up-the-world smile and an effervescent personality. She doesn't greet you with a handshake. She reaches out and gives you a hug.
"You're going to learn something," she says of her routine. "You'll be entertained and filled up with some good positive feelings, but you'll also walk away wanting to do some things in a positive way."
Providing clean, thought-provoking entertainment is what Foreman will be doing tonight at the Arena Playhouse. The Choir Boyz, a local contemporary gospel group, will be with her, along with the Sunz of Robeson, who work in the thoughtful, hard-hitting style of the Last Poets and KRS-One. Instant Records is taping the event for Foreman's first CD.
This past week has been a hectic one for Foreman. She is trying to serve two masters: the stage and the classroom. Almost daily she has been driving between Baltimore and Philadelphia, where she is in the third year of a doctoral program at Temple University.
There have been rehearsals and last minute preparations, a term paper on panic disorder, a final exam in biological psychology. It's all getting to be too much, she says.
"I've been fighting the whole stage thing for the last two years," she says, reflecting on past opportunities. "If I get one more 'You better come to L.A.' from somebody's who's out there and I don't do it, I'll feel like I never gave it a chance."
Performing is nothing new for Foreman. She was born to it. Growing up, she moved easily between the county world of charm school and the city world of double-dutch jump rope games. She and her sister spent summers and holidays in the neighborhood around Park Heights and Garrison avenues. They did skits on their grandmother's front porch and performed in talent shows at the recreation center. Foreman started out with impressions of Mae West, Shirley Temple and characters from the old Carol Burnett show.
Years later, while attending Bowie State University, she copied Whoopi Goldberg routines and appeared in productions of the musical "The Wiz." Looking back, she names the pioneering black comedian Moms Mabley as a source of inspiration.
"She reminded me of a lady who lived on your block who would just come out on her stoop and start running her mouth, and you couldn't tell her to stop," says Foreman. "She was just a character you kind of fell in love with."
Not until Foreman became a service coordinator for Baltimore's Infants and Toddlers program did she consider putting together her own comedy routine. Laughter became a way of soothing some of life's hurts and bringing a smile to the young women she came across in the high-rises of East Baltimore. She visited their homes, checking up on children who had been born with drugs in their systems.
"It was like walking into your cousin's house or walking into a neighbor's house and realizing that something not good was going on. I couldn't disconnect myself from them because they looked like me," she says. "Some of the homes were immaculate, right in the projects. And then some of the houses, you'd think you were in New Jack City. I had to find some humor in it."
At the office, she'd tell stories. Soon, colleagues started bringing her tales from their rounds. They pushed her onto an open-mike night at a local comedy club. Derek Owens, who sings with the Choir Boyz, remembers seeing her a few years ago at Club Laff-A-Lot.
"Most comedians, they curse like sailors. They talk about sex," says Owens. "But when she came on there was none of that, and she got the same laughs."
Since then, Foreman has performed at conventions and with the comedian Tommy Davidson, who has made a name for himself in Hollywood. She has come to think of her work in the same way the Choir Boyz and the Sunz of Robeson think of theirs.
"Our main goal is to minister to folks. Not to perform, but to minister to folk as to what's real," says LaMarr Shields, 27, of the Sunz, who teaches Spanish at City College. "When you're being ministered to, you're getting food for thought, as Erykah Badu would say."
For the Choir Boyz, there is a deep, abiding belief in the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives. They are, in Foreman's words, a SWAT team: Singers With A Testimony.
"After the Sunz, you'll want to read," says Foreman. "After the Choir Boyz, you may want to set foot into a church, temple or holy place. After me, you just might want to deal with yourself."
Think about it
Who: Comedian Meshelle Foreman with the Choir Boyz and the Sunz of Robeson
When: 7 tonight
Where: Arena Playhouse, 801 McCulloh St.
Tickets: $5 (proceeds will benefit the playhouse and the Jackson Girls Athletic Teams)
Pub Date: 12/18/97