Review: Straight Outta Harvey: Kellye Howard’s Crazy or Nah?! Is a Perfect Storm of in Your Face Grief and Comedy

There have been some really great one-woman performances and standup comics over the years. My favorite ones have told stories that are personal and off-kilter funny. Kellye Howard is yet another bright talent who hails from Harvey, Illinois. Crazy or Nah?! is something that wider—and Whiter—audiences didn’t get to see very often back in the day. True, there are a lot of gifted Black female comedians, but Howard’s confessional and blunt talk about grief, sex, and rage is a truly fresh take on the genre of one-woman shows. Crazy or Nah?! at Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1700 stage, is directed by Jason Rhee in a deft and bare bones style where Howard is the focus. She draws the audience in as a participant and fellow traveler in her journey. Rhee is an alum of The Onion and was a PA on Conan, and this is his second time around directing Howard in a one-woman show. This is a work of people who have a shorthand for performance, pacing, and movement.

Crazy or Nah?! tells the story of Kellye as a young girl navigating life in Harvey and rising above myriad challenges. She has a mother who is an addict, a father who was in and out while she was cared for by a force-of-nature grandmother. Okay, that is a familiar story for a lot of Black women, but Howard spins comic gold from the maw of despair. Howard owns her story and mows down the myth that Black women are always strong and endure. A riff about how Black people view mental illness is spot on from my own memory listening to women in my family talk about who went to the “crazy house,” Howard is hilarious echoing, “I knew that bitch was crazy—she stole my skillet”–and how she has sent several skillets to the relative who said that.

Howard puts her life on the stage. The love story of her marriage and navigating the loss of a child is emotional and pure. Her spouse is Asian and his courtship of her is as astonishing as his later actions. I felt a connection with her being in a mixed-race marriage–especially how she does not code switch aka suppressing her Blackness when around others. No one escapes her scathing and yet affectionate name-calling and putdowns. Her comedy is aggressive and that is how Black women have grown up in America–having to be aggressive to keep from being under someone’s heel. We have not been allowed the luxury of having mental illness or being able to descend into grief.

Black women are considered to be able to weather the indignities of being in the underclass. That has produced a rage that Howard has taken and knocked the strong/angry Black woman narrative on its butt. It is long past time that Black women should have power over who gets to tell their story. Howard tells everyone why she is enraged and grief-stricken. She uses comedy as a means of healing. Speaking of being “straight outta Harvey,” there is a history of brilliant talent coming from there. Bernie Mac, The Dells, Nelsan Ellis–Lafayette from True Blood, and now Kellye Howard is running with the torch. The world had better watch out.

I highly recommend Crazy or Nah?! According to the Steppenwolf website, the show sold out for the first two nights of the brief run, which is a testament to Howard’s comic chops and popularity in Chicago. Crazy or Nah?! runs through August 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted . Tickets are $27 if you can score them. For tickets and more information, please visit www.steppenwolf.org.

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Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.

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