Born during South African apartheid, as a child Trevor Noah could walk down the street with neither his white father nor black mother. While his dad waved sporadically from one side of the street, his mother only held his hand until cops approached, at which point she threw her arms up with a gasp, as if claiming, “It ain’t mine! Dunno where it came from!” “I felt like a bag of weed,” Noah laments.
The Leno vet made his Letterman debut Friday, May 17, the week he began his month-long run of Born a Crime at the same Off-Broadway room that tested both Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me and Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short. The diverse, rowdy crowd of 125 clapped and whooped at his mention of various African countries and fish-out-of-water experiences (“Zambia is a very conservative country,” Noah was once cautioned by a guide. “So while you are here, don’t be gay.”), but it was his impressions of people encountered throughout his extensive travels that received the loudest response.
The subdued, soft-spoken 29-year-old possesses an uncanny ear for accents and languages (he currently speaks six), and is able to lovingly skewer the reactions he invokes in wary white Southerners, Mexicans who mistake him as one of their own, perky West Coast blondes who help him fill out bank forms, and black New York comedians who rely on cursing and boundless energy to sell questionable punchlines.
While Noah treads no new territory as a mimic, his unique history and outlook ensure his hour-long one-man show remains highly engaging. He didn’t venture to the United States, he explains, for clichéd notions of wealth and fame. In his version of the American Dream, “I came to America because I wanted to be black.” Formerly lacking any racial identity and referred to as “mutt,” “mixed breed,” “half-caste” or “colored,” in America, those of mixed descent who achieve success (Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Barack Obama), “get upgraded to black,” which goes a long way in explaining why he doesn’t mind when flyover natives refer to him as “nigger.” And as a comedian, his admission that his Swiss-German father doesn’t think much of his career choice—dismissing him as a literal clown—hints that there’s a wealth of material outside of racial observations that he has yet to tap.
Noah is a thoughtful, deliberate, magnetic storyteller with one-of-a-kind perspectives and big goals of fostering understanding and harmony. But like Russell Peters or Gabriel Iglesias, he runs the risk of sacrificing clever, original joke-writing on the altar of broad appeal. Now that he resides in Los Angeles, boasts a full tour slate and is deliberately courting industry recognition with July appearances at Just For Laughs Montreal, will Noah bridge the gap from “talented performer” to “widely admired stand-up comedian”? If his proven drive and fearlessness are any indication, it’s merely the latest in a series of gray areas from which he’ll emerge via a path of his own making.