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Review: Chris Rock mixes laughter, pain at Fox Theatre

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Chris Rock touched on everything from Detroit to Donald Trump to the infidelity that led to the dissolve of his marriage during his fiery, piercing and incisive sold-out show at the Fox Theatre on Friday, the first night of the comedian’s three-night stand at the venue.

He performed in front of a video image of a wall of Fender amps that looked like something out of an AC/DC fantasy. But the lone other production element was Rock himself, skewering both America and himself with equal disdain during the 90-minute show. “I’m not a good person,” he said at one point, holding himself accountable for his failings as a man.

Rock has long been one of the world’s most talented stand-ups, and even after a 10-year touring absence, he’s still a vital comic force. But while much of his delivery was familiar – his back-and-forth prowl, the barking rhythm of his speech, the repeated phrases that act as the connective glue within his bits – there was something darker at play here.

Rock’s current “Total Blackout” tour marks his first run of dates since his 2014 divorce from Malaak Compton-Rock, his wife of 16 years, and the split weighs heavy on both Rock and his material. He came off bitter toward his marriage and gravely disappointed in himself as a person, adding a layer of self-hatred that has previously been missing from Rock’s remarkable stand-up work.

He wasn’t the fresh-on-the-scene bachelor championing the single life. Quite the opposite. He talked about the custody battle for his children, the financial strain of his divorce and his addiction to pornography. He told a story about running into Rihanna at a party shortly after his divorce and thinking sparks were going to fly between them until the sad reality set in. “You ever forget how old you are?” he asked, the punchline landing with resignation.

Rock is now 52 and visibly leaner than he was in the past, when he attacked stages wearing shiny suits that would have made Puff Daddy blush. But this was no old-timer’s act or bummer fest. He is still as sharp and as witty as ever, but he works at a more relaxed clip. It’s the difference between seeing Pearl Jam when Eddie Vedder was hanging from the rafters every night and when he’s drinking bottles of wine on stage. Both are great, but the carelessness of youth has given way to a sort of casual refinement.

Rock took the stage after a pair of openers, Ardie Fuqua and Lynne Koplitz, performed 20 minute sets to warm up the crowd, which included billionaire businessman and Detroit developer Dan Gilbert.

Dressed in a pair of jeans, an unzipped jacket and a black V-neck T-shirt, Rock hammered on several overarching themes, mainly race, equality, parenthood, marriage and religion. On topics like gun control, the justice system and Presidential politics he was as on point, hitting homers with the effortless grace of a ball player taking whacks at batting practice.

Other moments weren’t as polished, and there were instances where you could see the mechanics at work as he temporarily lost his footing and steered himself back on course. Those flashes came from a real place – the work of a real performer working without a net.

He said bullies provide a service, and when bullies are eliminated we don’t know how to handle them when they do show up. He spoke of trying to find religion and kept reiterating the importance of marriage, comparing it to being in a band.

It was funny, smart, sad and surprising, and human to a fault. If the material had more sting than it has in the past – “Chris, pull back!” he said at one point, pretending to be a shocked audience member – it stemmed from a personal place, and when he dropped his mic at the end of the show as Jay Z’s “U Don’t Know” blared out of the Fox speakers, he earned his rock star finish.