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A year later, Chris Rock opens up on a Baltimore stage about ‘The Slap’

Chris Rock, left, and Will Smith onstage during the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022, in Hollywood, California. (Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Nearly one year after actor Will Smith assaulted comic Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards, the legendary funnyman is finally prepared to discuss the incident known as “Slapgate” — and he’s doing it for one of the first times on a Baltimore stage.

Rock joked for nearly five minutes about The Slap on Friday night as he roamed from wing to wing at the Hippodrome Theatre, dressed head to toe in white. A reporter for The Baltimore Sun attended the performance and took notes with a pen and paper.

Though the concert was billed as part of Rock’s “Ego Death Tour,” he appeared to be testing out material for an even bigger stage.

On March 4, Rock’s new comedy special, “Selective Outrage,” will air on Netflix. The entertainment giant’s first live global event also will be streamed from the Hippodrome in downtown Baltimore — and without the seven-second delay typically used to edit out offensive material.

Rock worked The Slap into his stand-up routine as carefully as he worked his other bits: teasing the incident early on, using rhythm and repetition to build comic impact, pitching his voice high and loud to underscore his indignation. The full house of 2,300 fans howled with laughter.

Only in retrospect did the comedian’s hurt and anger peek through beneath his jokes.

”Will Smith practices selective outrage,” Rock began. ”People who are in the know, know that [expletive] had nothing to do with me.”

40 seconds, a lifetime interlude

The attack occurred March 27, 2022, as Rock was presenting the award for best documentary feature. The comedian made a joke about the shaved head of Jada Pinkett Smith, the Baltimore-born actress and hometown favorite who is married to Will Smith.

Pinkett Smith has revealed that she suffers from alopecia, a medical condition that causes hair loss.

“Jada, I love you,” Rock said during the awards presentation, which was broadcast live on ABC to more than 16 million Americans. “‘G.I. Jane II,’ can’t wait to see it, aight?”

Initially, the camera caught Will Smith laughing at Rock’s remarks, though Pinkett Smith appeared pained. Seconds later, Will Smith strode up to the stage and slapped Rock across the face hard enough to make the other man stumble.

Eleven months later, that 40-second exchange continues to resonate to an unusual degree in public broadcasts and on social media. That’s a relative eon in popular culture, where scandals typically go viral, dominate the national conversation for a few days or weeks, and then abruptly vanish.

As recently as Jan. 10, comedic actor Eddie Murphy made a crack about The Slap at the 2023 Golden Globe Awards. Comedian Marlon Wayans reportedly jokes about the incident in ”God Loves Me,” his comedy special, which debuts March 2 on HBO Max.

And on Feb. 13, Janet Yang, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, made a public apology.

“What happened onstage was wholly unacceptable,” Yang said during a luncheon for the 2023 nominees, “and the response from our organization was inadequate.”

Rock told an audience in Arizona last year that he turned down a chance to host the 2023 Oscars, which will be held March 12, likening it to returning to the scene of a crime.

‘I am not a victim’

Though Rock has included references to The Slap during the past year as he crisscrossed the nation on his Ego Death Tour, he has kept his remarks brief and superficial.

For instance, during an April 22 performance at The Lyric Baltimore, Rock took issue with the sentiments expressed in the children’s nursery rhyme “Sticks and Stones.”

“Words only hurt,” Rock told the crowd, “if you’ve never been punched in the face.”

As the months have passed, commentators nationwide have called on the comic to address the incident more fully. On Friday at the Hippodrome, he obliged.

Spoiler alert: If you would rather hear what Rock had to say about The Slap from his own mouth — and trust us, it’s a lot funnier when he says it — stop reading now, tune in to the Netflix special March 4, and take your chances he’ll discuss it then. But if your curiosity is getting the better of you, read on.

Rock led into the segment by reflecting that in 2023 America, “everyone is claiming to be a victim.”

Everyone, that is, except Rock. The slap might have hurt, but he implied that other men have faced more dangerous adversaries.

“Who gets smacked by Suge Smith?” he asked, making a comical mashup of the names of the actor who sucker-slapped him and the notorious Marion “Suge” Knight Jr., a convicted felon and co-founder of Death Row Records.

“I am not a victim,” Rock said. “I got up and went to work the next day.”

Nonetheless, the comic couldn’t resist pointing out that the 6-foot-2 Smith has 4 inches and roughly 30 pounds on him.

“He is significantly bigger than me,” Rock said. “You will never see me on camera with my shirt off. Will played Muhammad Ali. I played Pookie,” — a reference to Rock’s pathetic crack addict character in the 1991 film “New Jack City.”

The comic says he thinks the attack was a classic example of scapegoating, and that Will Smith was really upset that his well-publicized marital troubles had made him an industrywide laughingstock. But instead of directing his anger toward the people who wounded him, Rock said, Smith lashed out at an innocent party.

“We have all been cheated on,” Rock said. “She hurt him way more than he ever hurt me.”

He paused, and looked out at the crowd.

“Everyone knows,” he said. “I’m not spilling any tea.”

In July 2020, Pinkett Smith revealed that four years earlier, she had begun an affair with her children’s friend, 23-year-old rapper August Alsina at a time when she and her husband were estranged. Fourteen months later, Will Smith confirmed that he and his wife had an open marriage.

In the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, social media and public airwaves were rife with jokes at Will Smith’s expense. He was the butt of wisecracks at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and at the British Academy Film Awards, among others.

“I felt so bad for Will, I tried to call and give him my condolences,” Rock said.

“Everybody was calling him a bitch except me. But who does he hit? Me.”

Since the incident, acquaintances have asked why Rock hasn’t retaliated, why he declined to press criminal charges against the actor.

“I was raised right,” Rock told the crowd at the Hippodrome. “I was raised not to fight in front of white people.”

Part of what hurts is that Rock has long admired the actor.

“I rooted for Will Smith my whole life,” he said.

No longer.

“The other day, I watched ‘Emancipation,’“ Rock said, referring to the 2022 movie starring Smith as a runaway slave, “just so I could watch him getting whipped.”

But perhaps the most telling part of Rock’s routine was what he didn’t say.

After Will Smith slapped Rock at the Academy Awards, he returned to his seat and yelled at the comic, “Keep my wife’s name outta your [expletive] mouth.” Then, he repeated his warning for emphasis: “Keep my wife’s name outta your [expletive] mouth.”

“I’m going to,” Rock replied. “OK.”

And on Friday, he kept his promise. During the approximately 90-minute monologue, Will Smith’s name came up repeatedly. Occasionally, Rock referred to “Will Smith’s wife” or “his wife.”

But the name “Jada” didn’t cross his lips.


© 2023 Baltimore Sun

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