His comedy gives black-and-white conversation a new hue

Column by Ann Macari Healey
Posted 3/27/19

Comedian Sam Adams had just finished auditioning for a commercial the afternoon of Aug. 22, 2018, when he saw the text from a friend: “Dude, you are blowing up Facebook.” A video showcasing a …

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His comedy gives black-and-white conversation a new hue

Denver-area comedian Sam Adams’ “True Color” routine went viral last August, inspiring people around the world to match their skin tones to paint chips. “We’re all people of color,” Adams says, “so go find out what color you are.”
Denver-area comedian Sam Adams’ “True Color” routine went viral last August, inspiring people around the world to match their skin tones to paint chips. “We’re all people of color,” Adams says, “so go find out what color you are.”
Courtesy photo
Posted

Comedian Sam Adams had just finished auditioning for a commercial the afternoon of Aug. 22, 2018, when he saw the text from a friend: “Dude, you are blowing up Facebook.”

A video showcasing a piece of his routine, which Dry Bar Comedy filmed in 2017, was catching fire. Called “True Color,” it took a humorous look at race by pointing out we aren’t truly white or black, but rather shades of many colors. It had a million views and counting.

He drove to his Parker home, loosened his tie, sat on the couch, stared at his phone, watching the number of views on his Facebook homepage climb. He switched to his laptop, hitting the refresh button every five minutes: 1.4 million. 2 million. 3 million. 

Messages poured in, from Germany, Switzerland, Vietnam, across the U.S.

“I’m going to go the hardware store now — I bet I’m Paisley Pink.”

“We are Sahara Sands and Cashmere Pink.”

“We love this.”

Adams was stunned.

“Some people had already gone to the hardware store, sending me pictures of them holding up paint chips,” he remembers. “It was just mesmerizing.”

He stayed up until 4 in the morning, answering every message, saying “thank you, thank you,” posting smiley faces.

Eventually, the video surpassed 29 million views.

And Adams — whose true color, he will tell you, is not black — took a breath.

“I think people are tired of the divisiveness that comes with race,” he says, sitting in a Starbucks recounting the moment, still as awed by it seven months later as he was then. “With race, I can’t solve it. I’m gonna try to make you laugh about it — maybe the humor makes you think about it differently.”

                                                                          * * * * *

In Harrison, Arkansas, a town of 13,000 people in the heart of the Ozark Mountains near the Missouri border, the “True Color” video popped onto Veda Remington’s Facebook feed. 

She smiled as she watched, then promptly shared the video with friends — one of them Eric Stefanski, president of the Ozarks Arts Council who also books acts for the local theater. 

“I feel like racism is something that people battle against or something they try to hold onto — it depends on which side of the coin they’re on,” says Remington, a mother of two young boys who has lived in Harrison all but a few of her 26 years. “That bit spoke to me in such a way — stop worrying about what you’re not, identify what you are, be OK with that, and move onto something that actually matters.”

Stefanski, 56, also a longtime Lutheran pastor, loved the routine, too, and thought Adams just might be a game-changer for the town.

“We have a reputation we have to live down,” says Stefanski, who moved to Harrison about 19 years ago with his wife and their two young daughters. But “for all the attempts people make to get rid of that reputation, really the only way to get rid of it is to have someone who understands the problem in the country and who is able to look at it with humor, is not afraid to address it and who can bring people together.”

So, on Aug. 23 at 10:17 p.m., Stefanksi emailed Adams’ agent with an invitation to perform in Harrison’s Lyric Theater in the historic district of a town that has been called the most racist in America.

 

* * * * *

In 2001, Adams, now 59, was a sports writer — he covered the Broncos and other sports teams for The Denver Post and the defunct Rocky Mountain News. He did stand-up comedy at night as a hobby. On Tuesdays, his day off because the Broncos had the day off, he would head to Cherry Creek mall, one of his “think-tank places” for comedy ideas.

On this day, he was standing on the second floor, peering over the railing at the children’s breakfast-themed play area below. Kids were playing on the curvy strip of bacon, the fried egg, the waffle. He didn’t see the little boy, but his voice carried clearly through the air: “Look at all the pink people.” 

The words struck Adams: “There’s a little kid who sees actual color. He’s looking at white people, but he’s not calling them white. He sees the true color.”

That night, he tried out a new routine.

“I don’t know why we say black and white — they’re the blandest colors on the color wheel,” he told the audience. “This mic stand is black. I’m brown. White people, you’re not white. Grab a napkin, put it on your hand. You’re pink. It had people laughing, no matter where I did it.”

With some polishing, he thought, that could be his signature bit.

It was in McCook, Nebraska, about six years later, that Adams — by then working full-time at comedy — nailed the home run.

He was wandering around in the small town’s Super Walmart, killing time before his show, when he saw the paint chips in the hardware area. He grabbed some brown ones, noticing the funny names. 

“This really old man asks: ‘What are you doing?’ ”

“I’m trying to find my true color.”

“ ‘Well, you’re black.’ ”

“No, I’m not. I’m Hoot Owl. Other shoppers in the area start gathering, thinking maybe I’m confronting him. I say to the old man, ‘Let’s see what color you are.’ I grabbed some pink ones, put it up against his arm. You’re Papaya Smoothie. Now people are laughing — they see what’s happening.”

That night, the mic stand is black. Adams is Hoot Owl. He pulls out the chip. The place erupts.

“Every time I went someplace, I went to Walmart, got some more paint chips. They didn’t all have the same ones. Caramel Nut is my favorite. Sumptuous Spice, this is my all-time favorite. Chocolate Indulgence. I have four that I like. I just like saying them.”

 

* * * * *

Mike Raftery, Adams’ agent, forwarded him Stefanski’s email. “What are your thoughts on this?” he asked.

“I think Mike thought I would say ‘I don’t think so.’ ”

But Adams took a long look at the offer. He researched the town, read the stories about its past — and its present.

White race riots in the early 1900s drove out all but one of the 115 black residents, who although poor were a vibrant community with deep roots, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Today, the head of the Ku Klux Klan, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, lives 15 miles from town. News photos show the driveway to his compound lined with Confederate and KKK flags. Harrison is the organization’s postal address, and white-pride billboards sometimes appear along roadways, news reports say.

The 2010 U.S. Census put the town’s population as 96 percent white and 0.3 percent black — who are generally students at the junior college or employees at the FedEx freight carrier company, Stefanski says.

The Community Task Force on Race Relations, founded in 2003, openly acknowledges on its mission statement the town’s ugly history and racial challenges, and emphasizes its commitment to promoting diversity and an inclusive environment. A victory: In 2016, the town won the Dream Keeper Award, given by the state’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission for noteworthy efforts to improve race relations, specifically among young people.

With some resident-organized peace rallies and town-sponsored diversity marches, as reported in local news accounts, Harrison is working toward rebranding its image.

But the past lingers. The reputation still makes African-Americans reluctant to live there, Stefanski says. And there are still people in the community who display prejudice and hate toward others different from them, Remington says. Her late grandmother was one. 

But, she says, “The majority are not that way.”

She credits her father — whom she describes as a man with a heart open to all kinds of differences — for instilling in her the creed “that people are people, that women and men need to be respected equally, that color doesn’t define a person.”

“We have some really truly wonderful people that live here,” Remington says of the town she learned to love in recent years, when she started looking for the good.

In the end, the astonishing reaction that “True Color” had inspired in so many people around the world persuaded Adams to accept Stefanski’s invitation. 

“Race stimulates conversation, positive and negative, like no other topic,” Adams says. “It’s really just a comedy bit, not intended to stoke political fires. But the people, in their comments, were finding a message they deemed positive in that conversation about race. For me it’s a funny-yet-true look at skin tones. Nothing more. But if people believe the bit can be a positive in the conversation, then I will deliver it. To do it in place where the reputation is stained with racism, I wanted the challenge.”

 

* * * * *

Adams knows racism. He heard it, saw it, felt it. He attended, he says, one of the most racist high schools in America in the 1960s and ‘70s in Cleveland. But his first experiences with discrimination started earlier.

“We would get off the city bus for junior high school, walk down the street. It was eerily quiet, sun’s out, too silent. Then white kids would pop out from behind the trees, throwing rocks.”

During a drive to visit family in Georgia one July, a 9-year-old Adams and his family stopped at a restaurant. They ordered waters and soda. A little boy in a nearby booth asked for a soda, too. His father said no. The boy noted Adams’ sister, then 3, had one, but referred to her by the N word. It was the first time Adams had felt the word directly aimed at him or his family. It made him feel small. He and his family walked out.

“I knew a lot of white kids were sort of hiding behind this thing that’s been passed down ... the cloak of racism” as he calls it. But “in class we would see how people really are. I was in band — the same kid who played trombone in the brass section, laughing and joking with me, was the same kid who would pop from behind the tree and throw rocks.”

And Adams thought: “ ‘I know who you really are — you’re the trombone player, you’re not the rock thrower.… Eventually that’s how we worked it… I’m just going to be me — when everybody started being themselves, things started getting better.”

He looks back on that time and wishes he’d displayed more leadership, more willingness to try to defuse situations, to find a way to connect.

Humor, he thinks, could have been a good tool. 

 

* * * * *

On Dec. 6, Adams flew into Little Rock, Arkansas, then drove to Fayetteville, about 75 miles from Harrison.

He wasn’t afraid. He was concerned, as he would tell his audience the next night.

He had prepared, trained, for months. “Like a boxer getting ready for a big fight. . . .  I let myself believe I was going to fight racism.”

He studied the town’s everyday life to find ways to connect. He knew the high school football team was on a winning streak and congratulated it in promotional videos for the show. He found the diversity task force’s Facebook page and contacted it to gauge interest in his show. He knew about the town’s annual hot air balloon race.

He envisioned every possible scenario — from no one showing up to the performance to being the target of heckling or violence — and how he would respond.

As Adams left for the drive to Harrison, he made sure his gas tank was full. He bought plenty of water and snacks so he wouldn’t have to stop along the way. 

In Harrison, he parked by the town gazebo. The night was cold, quiet. Whatever happens, happens, Adams thought, as he got out of the car.

He looked up and saw the Lyric Theater across the street, its neon sign announcing: “Comedian Sam Adams Dec. 7 @7:00.” 

He met Stefanski inside. They exchanged pleasantries, talked about how to introduce him. Make your announcements and I’ll just walk on, Adams said. 

As he did, a loud roar swelled through the hall, where almost all 350 seats were filled. Adams’ knees slightly buckled. The cheering seemed to go on and on.

He hadn’t envisioned that scenario: “What if you go out there and they give you this great ovation? I didn’t know what it meant to them.”

Sitting in the audience for her first comedy show ever, Remington felt her heart fill.

“It just validated for me that the town is what I like to believe it is, and that we have people here that are supportive and find good humor, and they’re not what our reputation says we are. . . . Just to hear the entire place light up like that — it was incredible.”

A few seconds of silence passed as Adams composed himself. 

Stefanski finds it difficult to capture the moment in words. “It was a matter of him being honored and us being honored. It’s hard to describe apart from being there — it’s kind of one of these awesome moments.”

Time flew. Adams’ 45-minute show stretched into 90 minutes. He emptied his bag of fun. At the end, he invited people to shake his hand or have a picture taken with him for $5 — to raise money for the local food bank, which Adams had read was in need of donations.

A line formed down the aisle.

There was the 13-year-old girl with the pink-and-white “I (heart) comedy” sweatshirt who wants to be a comedian. 

And the woman who told Adams he would never know how much this meant to the town, because by showing up he had helped dissolve some of the reputation they were working so hard to erase. 

“It was my pleasure to perform for them,” says Adams, who was deeply moved by the warm reception. “They were genuinely nice to me … I saw that they weren’t what the internet portrayed them to be.”

The crowd that night was mostly white, with a few Hispanic women, Remington says. But a cross-section of the town had shown up, Stefanski says — politicians, businesspeople, everyday residents, young and old. And after the show, many lingered in conversation.  

“I would have never seen them talking to one another,” Stefanski says. “That dialogue is exactly the sort of thing we have to have going on here. That’s where a lot of things are going to get repaired.”

                                                         * * * * *

That his “True Color” bit has touched so many still amazes Adams. At the end of the day, he says, his job is to make people laugh, not to make a political statement.

But, he reflects, we’re conditioned to see what’s different from the time we’re little. If you’re given three triangles and a circle, we’re always told to pick out the one that’s different, not the ones that are alike. 

“Maybe,” he says, “if we stop seeing black and white, stop looking at color, we’ll get on to more important things.”

Adams, who is most likely returning to Harrison for a fall show this year, still has his original paint chips — Hoot Owl, Caramel Nut, Sumptuous Spice, Chocolate Indulgence. He also has the paint chip a woman in Harrison handed him that night. On it, she signed her name, circled the Peach Medley shade and wrote “We love you. You are great!”

The paint chip sits on his desk, in the “me” room, alongside the trophies and photos with famous people — a reminder of an unforgettable night in which hundreds of true colors swirled into a tapestry of humanity at its joyful best.

Ann Macari Healey writes about people, places and issues of everyday life. An award-winning columnist, she can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia or 303-566-4100.

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