Thursday, February 07, 2002

Cosby cancels, cites racial climate

Comedian responds to boycott request

By Kevin Aldridge and Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The state of race relations in Cincinnati is no laughing matter for Bill Cosby, who Wednesday canceled two planned concerts saying he feels “uncomfortable” performing in the city's racially charged environment.

        The world-famous actor and comedian pulled out of the March 15 evening shows at the Aronoff Center for the Arts downtown after receiving a letter from the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati asking entertainers to boycott the city.

        Mayor Charlie Luken said Wednesday he and other city officials tried to contact Mr. Cosby last week to encourage him to come, but were unsuccessful.

        Mr. Cosby's agent, Mr. Luken said, told them that comedy relies on timing and the atmosphere in Cincinnati wouldn't be right.

        Mr. Cosby's decision comes as Cincinnati Community Action Now unveiled its regionwide ad campaign, conveying to Tristate residents that they can individually help overcome race differences.

        Despite such efforts, “I still stand by the fact that I feel very uncomfortable playing the concerts at this time in this climate,” Mr. Cosby said in a statement.

        Mr. Cosby's two shows had sold a total 3,000 tickets — with no advertising — and were on the way to selling out, said Steve Loftin, president of the Cincinnati Arts Association, which books the acts at the Aronoff.

        There were an estimated 5,400 seats to be sold at $20 to $45 apiece, Mr. Loftin said. Mr. Cosby's performances were to have been top revenue generators for the nonprofit organization.

        “We were very excited about Mr. Cosby coming and were looking forward to it with great anticipation,” he said. “We're disappointed and saddened for our patrons.”

        Mr. Luken said Mr. Cosby had been unduly influenced by boycott organizers, who presented an incomplete picture of Cincinnati's race problems and the various attempts to resolve them.

        “I just think Mr. Cosby listened to the wrong people,” the mayor said.

        Mr. Cosby's publicist, David Brokaw, disagreed.

        “I think it's evident that Bill Cosby is an independent-minded person who makes up his own mind on matters,” Mr. Brokaw said.

        “Bill Cosby loves to perform, and he enjoys giving concerts all over the country. But he doesn't feel he can be funny in that atmosphere.”

        Mr. Luken said he worries Mr. Cosby's decision could have long-term consequences by discouraging other black performers from coming to the Tristate.

        “This is something that may happen again,” Mr. Luken said. “You have to worry because some people might say, "If he did it, then we've got to do it.'”

        Mr. Luken pledged to fight for every convention or performer considering coming to town.

        Grammy-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is scheduled to appear at the Aronoff the night after Mr. Cosby had been scheduled, said Mr. Loftin, but the artist's agents gave no indication he was considering canceling. Mr. Marsalis' spokesmen did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

        The Rev. James. W. Jones, chairman of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, said Mr. Cosby's decision “speaks volumes that our cause is right and that we have a just cause,” but it's not a guarantee others will follow.

        “We're realists; we realize that certain artists have contractual obligations that they can't break,” he said. “Our hope is that those artists would make some kind of statement expressing that they recognize the legitimacy of the cause, whether they appear or not.”

        Last month the African-American a cappella group, Sweet Honey In the Rock, performed at the Aronoff. Group member Bernice Johnson Reagon said during the concert that the group felt torn because they believe in the power of boycotts and have participated in them in the past.

        It is still unclear whether the Progressive National Baptists, which is scheduled to bring an 8,000-delegate convention to Cincinnati in August, plans to cancel after being contacted by the Cincinnati Black United Front.

        Convention organizers have said they'll discuss their plans this week.

        Mr. Cosby's TV and movie career extends from the 1960s through the 1980s.His concert performances are still typically sellouts, his books top sellers. Over the years, he has made frequent appearances in the Tristate.

        Mr. Luken acknowledged that his cancellation was a victory for boycott organizers but said it ultimately is counterproductive to improving race relations.


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