There is the one Bill Cosby, the familiar Jell-O-pudding Cos of the goofy faces and the sweaters with hyperactive squiggles, the one who kept us laughing with the endless stories about his brother, Russell.
And of late there is another, slightly bitter Cos, whose scathing observations about race and class and inner-city pathologies aired decidedly aromatic laundry that some said needed cleaning a long time ago and others found appalling.
Perhaps the shock came from the messenger, rather than the message. It was meant to rattle; it was deliberate, over the top. Newspaper columns were written and talk radio debates were waged; Cosby himself penned an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times.
But now, as Cosby made clear to a reporter right before his sold-out show at Wolf Trap last night, he wants to move on and talk about something else. Like his art.
His two-hour-plus set contained none of the controversy of his remarks last month at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. To be sure, there were little hints of the causes that he cares about: A sweat shirt emblazoned "Hello Friend" was draped across his chair, a silent tribute to his murdered son, Ennis, who greeted everyone that way. And his baby blue T-shirt read "Parent Power."
Onstage he served up a rambling reminiscence, vintage Cosby, G-rated and clean-cut, more Ozzie & Harriet than Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle. He is above all a storyteller, a man who seems more comfortable traipsing through a past cast in a relatively rosy glow. Race is an aside; growing up in the projects is mentioned only in passing. Instead, fodder is found in the humor and drama wrought from big little moments: first kisses, puberty, parents who aren't afraid to say no -- or administer a little whack when the moment warrants it.
He meandered through tales of noticing how girls are escorted into womanhood by a bevy of mothers, aunts and grandmothers who give a detailed description of what to expect when that "special moment" arrives. (Most of them, Cosby cracked, experienced that special moment during recess. One day, "four of 'em got hit.") Contrast that with a young boy's experience of having a "wonderful dream that you certainly never made up" at age 111/2. Or the terror of a first kiss from his first crush, during a game of spin the bottle.
Cosby is a master of the story, the tale stretched tall, with telling details and pauses milked for maximum effect. At one moment he morphed, all rubbery face and silly sound effects, into an apoplectic 6-year-old, fervently wishing his parents would drop dead because they couldn't afford to give him the money he wanted to buy a box of cereal so that he could grab the box top and send it off for a chance to win a really cool toy car. And then, with a change of posture, he became a 14-year-old doing a mincing pimp walk, the better to convey his postpubescent obsession with being cool and getting girls.
He made no mention of his May 17 appearance at Constitution Hall, when he bemoaned the state of the "lower economic and lower-middle economic people who are not holding up their end in this deal." With a 50 percent dropout rate in cities and public schools, he said, it's time for parents to do some parenting. He said a lot of things that night, and his words cut. He made some people angry, and he made some people cheer.
"Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person's problem. We have got to take the neighborhood back," he said then. "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't'; 'Where you is.' . . . I don't know who these people are and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. . . . You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."
But last night, he showed, rather than told, letting his stories underscore his personal philosophy with the revealing anecdote. Such as the sidesplitting misunderstanding when 14-year-old Bill came home and innocently asked his mother what "out of wedlock" meant. Assuming the worst, she sent him to his room, to await the wrath of his father. His dad hemmed and hawed and told him, "Son, we'll bring the baby into the house." And young Bill, looking more and more befuddled, wondered, "Baby? What baby?"
His message was clear: You take responsibility for your life and the lives of others. And you make them laugh while you do.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.