“He was local, wasn’t he?” a talent agent says about a second-rung stand-up comic in Trevor Griffiths’s 1975 play Comedians. It’s a devastating put-down, “local”–a dismissal of an entertainer who knocked ’em dead on his home turf but couldn’t raise a chuckle off it.

Griffiths’s comedy-drama, a highly politicized portrait of a night-school class for wannabe comics set in Manchester, England, in the mid-1970s, is filled with references to British society of the time–from entertainers like Max Bygraves and George Formby to politicians like Reverend Ian Paisley to the circumstances of being Jewish or Irish in a nation with a long history of oppressing those groups. Over the years, the brilliant script has come to seem increasingly, well, local to American audiences.

Thus it is that a multinational, multiracial group of theater folk have been gathering in the basement of a Hyde Park church for the past few weeks to rethink Comedians for Chicago in the 90s. A bunch of black, Latino, and white American actors and actresses have come together in workshops to remake a play whose original characters are all white males; guiding the process–and being guided by it–are the playwright, a white Englishman, and the director, a white South African named Barney Simon, who will stage the play for Court Theatre. The first phase of the workshop process has been focused not on Griffiths’s play–which was given a first-draft Chicago-flavored rewrite by comic Aaron Freeman–but on letting the actors learn to be funny, just like the characters in the play do.

On a Sunday afternoon in late February, the actors take turns unveiling new comedy monologues. Juan Ramirez takes the stage first. His character in the original Comedians, Sammy Samuels, has become Sammy Sanchez. Making Sammy Latino was Freeman’s idea: “I had to find something analogous to a Jewish guy in Manchester,” he explains. “My first thought was to make him one of these overachieving Haitian types–you know, Haitian Americans have a higher per capita income than white Americans. That’s because the first people to flee were the doctors and the lawyers. They were the ones who had the money to come here. Poor people followed them. Now we keep them and send the poor people back.”

Ramirez’s monologue deals sardonically with Latino stereotypes. “They declare war on drugs. How’s a guy supposed to make a living?” he asks at one point. Later he speaks of a Latino woman who borrows from George Bush’s economic rhetoric after shooting her spouse: “My husband’s not dead,” she says to the cops. “He’s just making a slow recovery.” He winds up with a long rap about dating from the driver’s seat of his automobile.

Ramirez is followed by Johnny Lee Davenport, a tall black actor who plays Mick Connors–an Irishman in the original, now a transplanted southerner. Davenport’s routine is an autobiographical reminiscence about his father, an amateur boxer who toured the Illinois prison system. It isn’t particularly funny, nor is it meant to be; Ramirez, still in sleazy character as the program’s MC, describes the downbeat nature of Davenport’s monologue as “watermeloncholy.”

“Thank you Mick,” he says when Davenport is done. “Speaking of micks, we have two little ladies from the south side.” On come Karol Kent and Josette Di Carlo as the Murray sisters (brothers in the play) from the southwest side. Di Carlo is playing Jenny, a meter reader, and Kent is playing Phyllis, who Kent says “didn’t want to be classified as a south-side chick” and has moved up to Wrigleyville. Their dialogue, about women taking two different roads in life, is heavy on crude sex jokes that mock the way stand-up so often emphasizes vulgarity. Throughout the performance, Griffiths sits slouched in his chair, listening intently.

Griffiths, whose work also includes the screenplay for Reds, got the idea for a reworked Comedians in Italy several years ago. “A group at the Piccolo Theater in Milan decided that they wanted to do a root-and-branch conversion of the play to Italian working-class life,” Griffiths says. “I thought, what a much better way of doing it–if you translate the play faithfully into the mores and institutions of the host society. [Otherwise] it’s a little like a foreign film–it needs subtitles.” Barney Simon, artistic director of Johannesburg’s progressive, multiracial Market Theatre, knew of Griffiths’s enthusiasm for the Piccolo project, so when Court Theatre approached him and asked him to suggest a play he thought of setting an all-black version of Comedians here. He contacted Griffiths for permission–and wound up with Griffiths’s offer to participate in the project.

Chicago, of course, is a landmark city for comedy. It’s the town that launched Mike Nichols (who directed the Broadway production of Comedians) and Dick Gregory; it’s also the town where Lenny Bruce first got censored. Gregory and Bruce are prototypes of the morally and politically probing comedy that Griffiths pays tribute to in Comedians. They seem to be a vanishing breed, Griffiths notes ruefully: “I must have watched 20, 30, 40 hours of comedy shows on television over the two and a half to three weeks I’ve been here. I watch TV a lot–it’s kind of a dipstick into the culture. . . . I just find it so bland; I find America so bland, unreal, slightly scary. Because it’s taking these major decisions to kill a quarter, half, three quarters of a million people, and it seems to be taking them pretty mindlessly, without any real engagement of the heart or the mind. . . . There’s so much that comedy needs to talk about in this country and it seems to talk less and less about it.”

The British writer is making an effort to absorb the feel of the city on walking tours that have taken him from Maxwell Street to Wrigleyville to the southwest side. “Now I’ve got to go away with what I’ve learned about Chicago,” says Griffiths. “I’ve got to go and write the fucking thing.”

Three weeks later, Griffiths is still writing. Some questions have been resolved; George Formby and Max Bygraves have become Danny Kaye and Johnny Carson, for example, and Reverend Ian Paisley is now Reverend Jesse Jackson. And Ramirez’s character, who went from Samuels to Sanchez, has changed to Santiago. “Sanchez is closer to what would be like a foot soldier of the conquistadors,” Ramirez explains, whereas Santiago is more aristocratic: “We’ve made him first-generation Miami Cuban. His family had wealth and came over here when Castro came to power.”

Another change involves the two women: Simon decided to switch Di Carlo and Kent around, and Di Carlo, unhappy with her new assignment, has amicably withdrawn from the project. Kent says that Griffiths is still working on the sisters’ roles, so they won’t “seem like male characters that they cast females in. There needs to be a more female point of view in there.”

And everyone agrees that the process has proved at least one thing: comedy is damned difficult. “It’s really scary,” says Davenport. “It’s more than knowing the lines. The immediacy of being in front of people, the direct eye contact and the visceral contact–you can’t hide behind a character. . . . I learned that it takes a lot of guts.”

Comedians begins previews Friday, April 10, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis; it opens April 16 for a run through May 31. Tickets are $14 to $25. For more information call 753-4472.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.