Adele Givens: The Healing of Comedy

When you think about the West Side of Chicago—people often identify some of the negative outcomes that result from its long history of crime. If you delve deeper, there are just as many success stories than sad statistics. What doesn’t tear us down—can often uplift us up.

Adele Givens is a picture of survival, perseverance and determination.

The comedian’s journey is powerful and filled with personal and professional curves and bumps in the road. Coming from a big family, she grew up around the Garfield Park community—attending Ryerson and Laura Ward Elementary schools. She went to Westinghouse High School for a brief period—eventually opting out to get her GED.

She jokingly laughs, “People thought I went to Orr High School because I hung out there all the time. They were like, ‘Do you go here?’ ‘Yep, every time I want to,’” she said.

At the time, Givens didn’t think of herself as funny in the way of becoming a comedian. She worked four days a week for Social Security Administration and part-time as a waitress at a popular West Side nightspot.

“I was a waitress at the Rose Cocktail Lounge. I used to go around serving and getting tips. I was telling jokes to people one-on-one and they used to love and tip me.”

In her twenties, she began to get phone calls from friends about a comedy search, hosted by the local radio station, WGCI FM. Her personality and charisma rang out her natural ability to bring her sense of humor to the stage but she didn’t realize it.

“They were calling me telling me that I needed to do it and if I had heard about it. I thought everyone was crazy. You know how Black folks are—everyone just like to laugh and crack jokes. I thought I was a part of that, even my sisters and mom were calling my phone telling me about the contest. That’s when I realized I was funny when I started getting those calls,” she said. “I knew I was funny but I thought everyone else was just as funny.”

The Crown Royal Comedy Search brought out every local comedian throughout the Midwest competing for a chance to be noticed and win a nice cash prize. With several small venues to choose from to perform in front of an audience to advance to the semi-finals—Givens chose a club outside of her comfort zone.

“I called my best friend and they had four options that you could go to—one of them was The Taste Entertainment Center on 63rd and Lowe,” Givens was a bit nervous because her place of employment, The Rose, was also on the list of participating clubs.

Givens swept the finals in February 1990—winning the contest and sealing her fate for something beyond her backyard. Working the Chicago stand-up comedy circuit for several months, she decided to make a major move to New York City.

“I got my ass on the train. My momma gave me a trunk, they all gave me their best wishes. I went to New York City, got there and was thirsty,” she said. Arriving there with only $200, she quickly ran out of money and was alerted by the hotel she had to leave three days later.

During the finals in Chicago, Givens met the comedy duo Arsenal and Mitchell, the opening act for the headliner Sinbad. Givens remembers, “They gave me their information and told me if I was ever in New York City to give them a call.” She gave them a call, but pride wouldn’t let her reveal her status with the hotel—nonetheless, their generous offer to the struggling young comic set the tone to her journey today.

“They told me they have four bedrooms and there would be no funny stuff. They knew how it was coming up, they stayed in their car. I was on my way to Western Union to grab money that my mom and Tony (who is now her husband) sent me. I went to Queens where they were staying. They were great, taking me to auditions and clubs.”

It was at Club 88s where she met Def Jam Records’ President Russell Simmons, who was looking for fresh and upcoming talent for his new project.

“Russell Simmons came up to me and told me he was going to do a new show. I pinched his jaw and said, ‘okay, call me.’  Back then, everyone was jockeying him but I was like, ‘Yeah, okay—everybody has a project.’ I wasn’t disrespectful. I came home and a couple of months after that, he called me—they sent me a ticket and I went to tape Def Comedy Jam. It didn’t come out until 1992. That was my first television debut.”

Since her first appearance on the hit HBO series, giving a renowned platform for Black comics—this led to her becoming one of the reigning Queens of Comedy working alongside fellow African American female comedians—Mo’Nique, Laura Hayes and Sommore. The show was filmed and subsequently shown on Showtime and later released on DVD.

Her repertoire of work includes television appearances on “Moesha,” “The Parkers,” “Comedy Central Presents,” “Martin,” “Tracey Takes On …” and “The Steve Harvey Show” in addition to roles in classic cult films “The Players Club” and “Beauty Shop.”

The West Side native currently resides in Lexington, Ky., with her husband, Tony, where she continues to enjoy the tranquility of her family’s Southern roots.

“I still have an apartment in Chicago. I can’t not have a place in Chicago. We came to Lexington to raise our sons. You know how it is in Chicago, even if you’re not [gang] active, you could be a target. Being young, Black men—I didn’t want anything bad to happen so I came to Kentucky. Everywhere has their own little drama—Lexington has it too.”

She continues to entertain fans, playing at sold out venues. Givens wears various hats as a writer, a filmmaker and a promoter. Her mind is always coming up with unique and politically “incorrect” concepts and pitches. She also remembers it was a time that none of this seemed attainable—not because she was Black nor because she was a woman in the business.

Givens remembers. “I was so in the moment—I came from drug addiction and killings—I’m the heart of the West Side. The comedy turned into my escape. The obstacles weren’t obvious to me at the time. I wasn’t looking to excel and it get on TV. People from the West Side didn’t know I was doing standup until they saw Def Comedy Jam,” she explains.  “It’s not like I thought I was better but I was trying to get away from all the devastation and tragedy that we kept experiencing. It was the best escape for me. I didn’t feel the obstacles.”

She returns home to produce her own one-woman show during the Mother’s Day weekend at DuSable Museum of African American History. Aside from doing the average 20 minutes on other larger shows, the Queens of Comedy stand-up is excited to give her fans more time and quality entertainment.

Givens remembers coming up as a young comic and requires promoters pay featured acts a certain standard rate when they open for her.

Offering advice to the next generation, she said: “Comedy can keep you humble but you can be humble yourself. You can come out and everybody can love you, you’re on top of the world and the following week—you’re on a show with five people and a drunk person is heckling you…You should contribute to the art instead of expecting something from the art. You’re there to contribute—not to get some sh*t.”

Check out Adele Givens on Saturday, May 13 at DuSable Museum of African American History. Showtime at 7pm. For more information.

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