There is an endearing effortless about Wyatt Cenac. It’s evident when he steps onstage for his new Netflix special, Brooklyn. In contrast to his rousing introduction, Cenac is low key, thinking the crowd for coming out to Brooklyn to see the show, because if it were in Manhattan, he wouldn’t be there. He hates to take the train at night. It’s just a little “Hello, how ya doin’?” before the conversation starts.
Brooklyn‘s informal feel suits Cenac’s style. Shot at Union Hall, the venue feels like a giant living room, complete with an old-fashioned portrait on the wall. The perspective changes every so often to a view from the back of the room, as if someone got there a little late and quietly walked downstairs to find the show already in progress. They’ve found a relaxed corner at the party where the most interesting person there is holding court.
Cenac delivers a smart, fresh set covering personal topics like visiting his grandmother and broader, more social-minded targets like racism and gentrification. Brooklyn, the borough, is a big part of Cenac’s narrative. He’s more comfortable there than in Manhattan, where he lived in a building with a black doorman his own age, a situation that became unsettlingly competitive. Still, he sees his neighborhood changing. Toy stores are opening up and the Barclays Center moved in, as did, nakedly symbolic of gentrification, a store that just sells mayonnaise (which is shown during the closing credits).
If you want to see where the racial divide in America is, he says, look to hockey and basketball. When a bunch of white dudes beat the crap out of each other in hockey, people cheer, the ref breaks it up, and everything goes back to normal. If you’re a basketball player and you get into a fight, you get tossed from the game, he says, and “Some dude on ESPN calls you a thug, you get fined a bunch of money, and you’ve got to try to rebuild your image by dating a Kardashian.” If that’s the difference in justice for black and white millionaires, there’s no shot for some 16-year-old black kid with a dimebag of weed. Cenac turns the whole chunk around in the end to lighten the mood a bit, but the point is taken.
At the center of the special is story about how Cenac’s father, a New York City cab driver, was gunned down when Cenac was very young, and a surprising take on Cenac seeing the police file on his father’s killer. There is both darkness and light in Cenac’s reaction to seeing that mugshot and learning that bit of history. He acknowledges the tough transition to the next setup, gleefully telling the crowd, “I’ve been going to a lot of weddings lately.”
Occasionally, the live footage of Cenac on the mic recedes into the background while a puppet show illustrates his story in the foreground. It doesn’t necessarily make anything funnier, but it’s a clever way to show how Cenac sees the story in his head, and it allows for a couple of fun cameos (Eugene Mirman and The Wire actor Gbenga Akinnagbe).
There is the odd joke that doesn’t work, which Cenac brushes off with a smile. But that’s rare, and Cenac is never less than engaging for a little over an hour’s worth of material. He may make fun of the “small batch,” artisanal culture that’s spreading through Brooklyn, but he’s created a special that is very much in the spirit of what that purports to be: intimate and handmade. And also funny.