The Missing Identityby Nolan Stevens / 20.05.2013
Watching The Chester Missing Road Show at the Market Theatre is an experience that goes way beyond the political-satire brand of humour that Mister Chester Missing, and Conrad Koch, are so well-known for. It; the show they put on, has a rich subtext that deliberately does a gumboot dance through the minefield of South African identity politics. This is evident from the carte blanche manner in which Chester interacts, insults, challenges and attacks the various politicians he interviews on the Late Nite News (LNN) show on eTV. The fact that he, and the other puppets in the Chester Missing Road Show are able to approach the subjects that we humans struggle to, despite wishing we could, makes you wonder. Is it just that this radical, funny and politically incisive questioning comes from a puppet that makes it acceptable to both the politician being interviewed and the audience at large?
One answer to that may involve a little more than the fact that a doll in a suit is saying the kinds of things we would had we been blessed with larger gonads. It may have something to do with the fact that Mister Missing, despite being controlled by a very talented white ventriloquist is racially ambiguous, as Chester himself says he’s “a previously disadvantaged mannequin”. He is a coloured puppet, unrepresentative of any specific race group. He is kind of black looking but speaks with a “coloured accent”. Most importantly, he’s just a puppet, a tromp l’oeil (trick of the eye) that seems to trip the switches of the usual race debate about who can say what to whom, depending on their specific South African racial and socio-economic defaults. Most importantly, he makes no attempt to speak down to his audience or interviewee. Watching Chester on the LNN show we would be forgiven for forgetting that the man pulling the proverbial strings is Conrad Koch; a white man.
This is something that is a focal point in The Chester Missing Road Show. In many ways Koch has managed to go a step further with his ventriloquism than South African satire stalwarts like Pieter Dirk Uys’ Tannie Evita, because, unlike most people with an alter ego, Koch is able to interact with his creations, and in so doing he is able to adopt different identities and represent differing viewpoints. The Chester character’s surname “Missing”, overtly references that this is a puppet with a missing identity. Chester was born into modern day Mzansi’s political discourse without all the socio-political baggage. This is the most crucial “missing” portion of his identity, and it makes him a lot different to the rest of us, in the sense that it allows a privileged white man the opportunity to take on all kinds of holy cows, without people asking, “is he allowed to say that.” At the same time there’s a deep and almost fatal irony in the fact that Chester is a black puppet on a white comedian’s knee. Whitey is pulling the strings, again. And Koch is aware and reactive to this situation at almost every turn. It’s this powerful and freakish combination that makes Chester Missing’s political satire so incisive.
Funny that a racially ambiguous puppet is able to navigate our shaky political landscape so succinctly. Despite the honest and brazen lines of question, Chester Missing is somehow loved by all, especially the political bigwigs he interviews.
However let’s not get too caught up by the Pinocchio-like story that Koch has painstakingly woven for us to eat up like wide-eyed children. Chester Missing hasn’t got a life of his own. These still are in some way or form, the views of a talented white South African who shares in the baggage scars that come from living in this country of ours. The puppet merely suspends these presets, so the audience can hear what he’s saying. And most of the time it’s both poignant and very, very funny.
*The Chester Missing Road Show plays at the Market Theatre until 02 June 2013.