Joe White: Ethiopian and Still Not Hungry | Edinburgh Fringe comedy review
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Joe White: Ethiopian and Still Not Hungry

Edinburgh Fringe comedy review

Tilahun Hailu has had an extraordinary life. Born in Ethiopia, he, his mother and five siblings had to move to war-torn Sudan, where they often lived on the streets in fear of kidnappers and never having enough to eat.

They arrived in Perth, Australia, as refugees when Hailu was 11, and he instinctively adopted the name Joe to protect himself from bullies. He speaks four languages and left a career in banking to pursue comedy, for which he has won several awards in his adopted nation.

Hungry to learn more about his experiences, I was so hoping to love this show. White has an easy, friendly demeanour, but it feels as if he doesn’t trust the audience enough to let the narrative breathe and go deeper. Given that this is his Edinburgh debut – in fact, he says he’s the first Ethiopian to do a stand-up show at the Fringe – he could have presented this in a more satisfying way.

Instead, he peppers jokes and observations with tantalising information about his upbringing when it might have been stronger the other way around. The meat of it feels just out of reach. There are some lovely, funny stories about his mother and, just when you’re hoping to learn more about how she achieved the incredible feat of taking care of her family, White sells it all short with a joke that’s too obvious or predictable.

And sometimes there’s a sense that his observations about cultural differences are designed for an audience who’s never encountered a black person before. It feels very uncomfortable to write this, but some of the jokes he makes about himself (whether repeating what others have said or using his own descriptions) sound like the casual racism you’d get on television in the 1970s. He’s obviously had to go along with this kind of thing to protect himself from ignorance and bullying, but it doesn’t mean he has to join in with it or try to make us laugh at that kind of behaviour.

Similarly, he makes light of inappropriate sexual conduct from someone in a position of power. It’s not for me to say whether or not he should laugh this kind of thing off on stage (it’s his story, after all), but White shouldn’t have to act like it’s OK to be treated like that. And if he is going to laugh it off, the jokes need to be stronger.

Some judicious restructuring to help pace the emotional shifts and revelations could really lift this hour, which has so much going for it in terms of story and how humour has helped White and his family through horrific circumstances.

Review date: 18 Aug 2023
Reviewed by: Ashley Davies
Reviewed at: Gilded Balloon Teviot

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