Life Before Def, Black Ensemble Theater. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Victor Cole’s revue-style history of African-American comedy is its evenhandedness–even when he moves into sticky territory with the minstrel tradition. Rather than simply denouncing it, Cole reveals how black comedians of that era labored within a preexisting framework to counter the destructive impact of their blackface competitors. In Life Before Def comedy is no laughing matter–it’s a means of social protest as well as a way of forging one’s racial and cultural identity.

Life Before Def has the perfect setting for the show’s more didactic elements: the recording studio of a fictitious late-night radio program that bears the show’s name. Curmudgeonly deejay Happy Smith pores over his vast collection of comedy recordings and introduces those he “plays” with snippets of historical and biographical information; meanwhile the rest of the multitalented ensemble brings the classic song-and-dance and stand-up routines to life in a series of wonderfully dead-on impressions. Too bad Cole takes repeated swipes at current king of the hill Chris Rock, perhaps the first black comedian to hit the mainstream without having to whitewash his material. By including some of this generation’s torchbearers, Cole would have reinforced the idea that black trailblazers have continued to influence the form. –Nick Green