Edinburgh Festival: Gripped by uncontrollable Thea: Thea Vidale combines a school-marm's discipline with a ferocious sense of humour. Mark Wareham pays attention

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The Independent Culture
'ARE YOU nervous?' shrieks Thea Vidale. 'Never seen a negro this close?' She is towering over a shrinking front-row on the first night of her show. 'We have a tendency to call each other 'nigger' . . .' she says. 'But don't you do it, 'cos I'll kill you.' Playing to (or, as she says, 'dealing with') an all-white audience in Edinburgh is hardly going to intimidate a comedian who made her name performing in places like Dothan, Alabama and Starkville, Mississippi.

The road to recognition was paved with confrontation. 'I played places a white woman ain't got no place to be. Baby, I know damn well they converted those rooms into Klan meetings. In Alabama I had to have a couple of words but I can hang with the best of them. A lot of days I've been scared 'cos I stood my ground. They could have easily killed my black ass and you'd have never heard of me again.'

Five years ago she was waitressing in a redneck restaurant in Pasadena, Texas, the first black to work there in 20 years. Jiving with the regulars, she won them over and one night they took her to a comedy club. And that was the night that brought her back from the brink.

'I was a battered wife. If I hadn't started comedy, I'd be dead by now. He would've killed me . . . He was already killing my spirit. He was really tonkin' me. I told him, 'One of these days I'm gonna hurt you,' and he just laughed. Child, he picked a bad day. I clocked that bastard so hard I gave him a black eye. He sent me home to my Ma with a note, 'Dear Ma, Thea Romana Victoire Vidale gave me a black eye.' I was a happy bitch. Then he'd wait till I'd turned my back. One time, I was breast-feeding my baby and he hit me in the head with a lawn chair.

'He hated me doing something on my own. One time I came in, no later than 12 'cos I knew not to do that else he'd kill me. He got ready to kick me and somehow God put a shield around me. I stepped back and he hit the wall and fell down like a cartoon. I stepped over him, said goodnight, went to my bedroom and put the dresser up against the door.'

Domestically the move from waitress to comedian made matters worse. Bill, her husband, would practise his karate on her if she came home late from a show. But now she was bringing in more than the measly dollars 60 a week she'd earned from the restaurant. So she left him and she left her four children. 'That's one of the demons that haunts me,' she says. 'But they understand their Daddy's an asshole.'

She performed open mike spots and amateur nights and won two contests. Then she took to the road. 'I'd been so stagnated by my husband, I couldn't remember how to drive a car. My first tour I couldn't even read a road map - I ain't lyin'.' She took part in the Funniest Person in America Contest. And then she got the hair. And from the moment she went blonde and spiky, her career took off. Houston's Chocolate Kiss was born.

Now, in addition to the atomic blonde bogbrush, she's put on a few pounds and grown a set of scarlet talons so long they make Flo Jo look like a nail-biter. On stage, the effect is mesmeric. You hardly notice the stud in her nose and the rose tattoo on her 44D breast ('bras made by Nasa'). With a mouth the size of a tunnel, it's no wonder the voice comes hurtling out like a runaway train. If the microphone fails, it makes no difference.

Yet the immediacy of her physical presence is all but forgotten once you hear what she has to say about racism, sexism and racy sex. Or, more particularly, oral sex. 'Black men love for you to give them head,' she explains. 'But you can't get them to lick a stamp.' Inevitably, even her kids, who go by the names of Hellfire, Damnation, Pestilence and Scurvy, bring her on to the topic. 'My children fight a lot. That's like Nature's way of saying I should have given head.'

Vidale live is all-out assault, the comedy of terror. Over here, she believes her humour can be even harder. White Americans, she says, have an aversion to the truth. 'They get mad and stare at me.' Bill Hicks, a white American, is one of the few comedians she admires. 'I first loved Bill,' she recalls, 'in Lexington, Kentucky, when he got up on stage and said, 'White people are the scourge of the earth.' I was the only black person in the room. I was also the only one laughing. To get up and say it to your people. This is the truth, you know what our culture has done.'

A previous life as a school-marm helps her quell a rebellious audience. 'When I say 'Don't make me come off that stage,' I mean just what I say. I have put people in the corner, I have sat on their laps, I've made them turn their chairs back to the audience.' Throughout her show, the air is thick with expletives, 'though when I'm in love I don't cuss this much, the edge is off me'.

At the end of her show, there comes an extraordinary pay-off. Bracing itself for one last blue wave of abuse, the audience instead turns to hush as she puts her hard- hitting act into perspective. 'You may think that what I have to say is vulgar and obscene, but they're just words. What's obscene to me is having to tell my son that he might get killed for the colour of his skin.'

Racism, Vidale claims, is an everyday experience. 'People say 'Have a nice day', but somebody white's gonna mess with that.' She insists that no amount of success will dilute her anger. She gets wound up by people like Oprah Winfrey saying, 'Excellence is a deterrence to racism.'

'It was lovely what she did in the riots when she went to LA. But she says, 'Why the violence?' You know why niggers tore up shit. Cos they were hurt, they were enraged.' Oh, and just for the record, 'If any of you see my ass getting kicked by the police, put that video camera down and come and help me.'

Thea Vidale, Assembly at the Meadows (venue 116), Middle Meadow Walk, 031-229 9281. 10pm to 4 Sept (not 27 Aug, 1 Sept). Then Hackney Empire, London, 5 Sept

(Photograph omitted)