“Chester is a guy who says crazy things and gets away with it – he’s a tiny little ball of rubber, so you can’t really get offended,” says Koch, acknowledging that no one wants to look like the person who gets upset by a puppet. Well, almost no one: in 2014, when Chester criticised white singer Steve Hofmeyr as racist, and called on brands to stop working with him, after he tweeted that “blacks were the architects of apartheid”, Hofmeyr responded by taking out a gagging order on Koch. Koch challenged this in court – and won the case.
Now, Chester is making his debut at the Edinburgh Fringe festival – and this time, the racism he is calling out is his own creator’s. In a comedy show called White Noise, the puppet decides it’s time to ask the man who keeps him in a suitcase all about his own white privilege. In fact, Chester refuses to do the show until Koch deals with his racism.
“He gets me to say ‘hello my name is Conrad, and I’m a racist’. The whole show is him mocking me,” Koch says. “It’s what I love about ventriloquism – you have a suspension of disbelief that allows a level of self-reflection that very few other art forms allow.”
And reflection is the aim of the game here. Koch’s show explores white supremacy and colonialism, to look at how, as a white person, he may not be to blame for them but does nonetheless still benefit from them. It’s also meant to be fun – there’s ventriloquism, and a rude puppet, and, of course, a lot of jokes. But the hope is also that such a personal mea culpa may also open up space for audiences to reflect on their own lives.
“It’s not about feeling guilty – I didn’t create slavery or apartheid – but if I don’t deal with the bullshit that’s in front of me, then I am enabling it by my silence,” points out Koch.
As a white man who has won an award for his anti-racist work – in 2015, Koch received the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Anti-Racism award, given by the anti-apartheid activist who was in jail with Nelson Mandela – it would be easy, Koch says, to simply congratulate himself for being “one of the good ones”.
But that would be a mistake. “Chester gives actual, very awkward examples of me [being racist] in my personal life,” Koch says. “I once tried to order coffee from my own black friend,” he offers as an example, acknowledging the racialised assumptions that live in his head as a white South African. “He came up behind me and I saw a black arm, and all the servers are black… well, not all, the really racist cafes have white servers! That’s apartheid!”
Most exposing, perhaps, is Koch’s admission that he has stayed silent in the face of racism, even when it hits extremely close to home. “I haven’t spoken up when I’ve seen racism against my wife in social situations. My wife is a person of colour, and I see on a daily basis – an hourly basis – colonialism and apartheid in her own life.” While Koch does mention this in the current version of White Noise, he no longer goes into as much detail as he initially did while developing the show, because, he says, “she found it really triggering”.
Now, the show stays more firmly within Koch’s direct experience. And ventriloquism is the perfect medium for this dialogue with the self, he suggests, because “Chester is always a version of me”.
Koch learned the art of ventriloquism when he was very young, attending The College of Magic in Cape Town as a child. He recalls watching classic US ventriloquists like Ronn Lucas on TV when he was growing up: “I loved the cheekiness of the puppets, the concept of this puppet getting away with this kind of stuff,” he says, remembering Lucas making jokes at the expense of literal US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton watching in the audience, and them just laughing.