By Patrice Nkrumah, Chicago Crusader
For over a decade Chicago’s only Black-owned comedy club gave patrons a temporary escape from their problems and served as a venue for up and coming Black comedians to hone their skills before heading on to big careers. But owner Mary Lindsey announced last month the final show at the 150-seat venue would be on June 25 because the club was unable to turn a profit. It is a sad ending but also symbolic of the challenges the Bronzeville community continues to face years after a renaissance was predicted to begin.
“I am very proud of what we were able to provide for the last 11 years and the impact Jokes & Notes has had in the community,” said owner, Mary Lindsey. “Our audience proved that there is a demand for African American style comedy and entertainment in Chicago and throughout the region.”
But Lindsey said while the club had loyal customers, it never was able to sustain a consistent base after six years in business. Even when she brought in big-time headliners, the club would not be filled to capacity. She believes a lot of that has to do with the location of the club and how many people consider the area unsafe.
The Crusader covered the grand opening of the club back in 2005. The red carpet affair brought out many of Black Chicago’s most prestigious citizens and comedian Mo’Nique was the featured act. The Academy Award winning actress from “Precious” stated at the time how proud she was to be a part of something owned by a fellow Black woman that was in the “hood.” Located at 4641 S. King Drive in the Bronzeville community, Jokes & Notes was supposed to be one of several entertainment options along the 47th street business courier.
But while Lindsey was there from the beginning, all of the other businesses never came. The Harold Washington Cultural Center has been a major disappointment and a January 2010 fire destroyed a large building next to the club that contained several other businesses, including the popular Blue 47 restaurant that was never rebuilt. Lindsey said that and other factors played a role in her club never being able to take off like she wanted it to, but she is still proud of what the club did.
“We provided an opportunity for Black comedians to come and practice their craft in front of a live Black audience,” she said. “We also hosted amateur nights and offered an avenue for Black female comics who many times don’t have the same opportunities as men.”
Ironically, Mo‘Nique was in town last weekend, performing at another venue. She spoke with the Crusader via telephone and said she was “very sad” to hear about the demise of Jokes & Notes, calling it a “loss for the community” and a void that “needs to be filled.” She said while Lindsey is calling it quits, it means others need to step in to fill her shoes.
“I got my start in a place like Jokes & Notes so I know its value from the comedians’ view and how it helps the community,” she said. “People are under a lot of stress right now. Hell, Donald Trump might become president. That alone speaks to how much we need comedy clubs.”
Before the final show, Lindsey thanked everyone who has supported her through the years at Jokes & Notes and her previous club downtown, All Jokes Aside. She said for now she is going to take a long vacation and think about her next move.
Allyson Jeffery and her husband Maurice attended the final show. The couple said they attended shows at Jokes & Notes at least three times a year since it first opened. As Bronzeville residents, the couple say they understand Lindsey’s frustration.
“I think everyone who moved into Bronzeville during the early 2000’s had big expectations that have not come to fruition,” Mrs. Jeffery said. “I’m not saying we were lied to, but rather many things have not panned out as we hoped they would. We are still struggling with some issues that are keeping property values down from what we expected and the mecca of successful Black businesses never happened. We’ve supported many of the ones that are here, but it seems like they are unable to draw people from outside the community into the area.”
Lindsey said for now she will just take solace in knowing that she helped several comedians from Chicago move on to great things like Deon Cole, and provided steady work for people like Damon Williams and George Wilburn.
“It’s disappointing because I always envisioned myself being here for much longer than 11 years,” she said. “But I want to say thank you to each and every person that came through our door.”