KJ Whitehead wants to see unrepresented voices take over the comedy world and her latest project, The Haggard Unicorn, is a reflection of that ambition.
"Something strange. Something different. Something radical," she said when asked to describe the show, taking place Friday, Jan. 31, at The Salon. "Those who know me will know that the openers for this show are all a reflection of me and who I feel I am in one way or another."
Whiteheadwho identifies as a queer trans womanhas been performing for the past six years in Chicago and around the Midwest and has never been what one would call a "classic standup comedian." Instead, she's focused her work on "what comedy can be." The performers joining her for The Haggard Unicorn all focus on sharing their unique experiences through comedy in their own ways as well.
"The host, Arts & Culture Club's Devin Middleton, is a musician/comedian that represents my pride in my Black culture and heritage," Whitehead said. "Chicago comedy newcomer Jolly Bean is my joy in being different and just doing what makes me happy, and hoping I can brighten up someone else's day doing it. Then we have the co-founderproducer and house member of Bad Taste, Mo Lessa burlesque performer who lives within the extreme and absurd and doesn't hold that part of their being back for anyone, nor should they.
In The Haggard Unicorn, Whitehead continues to mine her personal experiences, telling Windy City Times she's endured several crises. "This year, I've been diagnosed with PTSD; I've attempted suicide; I've lost a friend to cancer; I've faced racism and transphobia in the workplace; was suspended from my teaching job at Second City under accusations that I was bullying my students because I critiqued their workwhich, unfortunately, they don't seem to understand that critique coming from their cisgender, white instructors will go over easier than from someone like me; lost all my money from unemployment, [dealt with the] lack of opportunity for Black and Brown trans people; and [was part of] the recent CTU strike. Oh, and I had a really bad breakup. That's a few of the things going into this show."
While Whitehead is processing her own experiences through her work on stage, she said she is also working to change the face of comedy: "So, this show very much is inspired by my life experiences and what I wish to see in the comedy world today: a complete takeover of unrepresented voices."
Whitehead said she's seen comics put in half the time as she has and surpass her in terms of opportunities, so she knows the road ahead is longbut she won't give up.
"The biggest challenge is to keep doing it, even if no one notices," she said. "Honestly, it doesn't feel like enough people notice. When I work my ass off for several years and comics come along who have been doing this in less than half the time I have and they get a club spot or a festival I worked really hard on the submission for, not enough people have noticed. When I, a Black transgender woman, have to work twice as hard to get booked as a white or white-passing counterpart, not enough people have noticed me. This challenge hasn't really evolved so much as it has been added upon.
"So many folks want to say that they support QTPOC [queer and trans people of color who] are performers, but our comedy circuit has trouble finding them? C'mon! We're here! Support us! That's what I'm not seeing. That's what's lacking. The support of a community that says it cares but doesn't really know what that care should look like. I'm not saying there aren't people who don't do that for me now, but it takes more. So much more that others have and that I don't; that's a challenge."
But Whitehead said she's buoyed by some of the small changes she does see taking place around her, particularly the audience. "I'm definitely seeing more vulnerability and more boldness in using comedy to call out issues," she said. "I like this. It's coming from the exhaustion of how things used to be. In a new age where comedy, film and art in general is not what it was when I was a child, the audience has changed most of all. The demand for uniqueness has changed in the favor of those who wouldn't have otherwise gotten a shot decades ago."
As she faces the start of a new decade, Whitehead said, "I'm hoping to finally be successful, to pay off my debts, to right the wrongs I created in the last decade, to finally bring pride to my family and have them be financially secured for after I'm gone. I'm hoping to open up opportunities for those who've be waiting for someone like me."
KJ Whitehead and Radical Comedy Present: "The Haggard Unicorn," at The Salon, at 1579 North Milwaukee Ave., on Friday, Jan. 31, at 8 p.m. Outside Amy Schumer, "the comedy show featuring feminist stand-up comedians other than Amy Schumer, because some people still think she's the only one for some reason," returns Tuesday, Jan. 28, at The Playground Theater, at 3209 N. Halsted St., at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.