The Wilbur Theater in an all-white ensemble. Audience members in the 1,000-seat venue greeted the 57-year-old with a rock star’s welcome. Rock basked in the standing ovation, which thundered on for nearly two minutes, before he made another effort to get the ball rolling for the evening: “Yo, let me do the show!”
After a few additional moments of applause, Rock addressed the elephant in the room.
“How was your weekend?” he began with a knowing wink, drawing a wave of laughter. “I don’t have a bunch of shit about what happened, so if you came to hear that, I have a whole show I wrote before this weekend. I’m still kind of processing what happened. So, at some point I’ll talk about that shit. And it will be serious and funny.”
An audience member then chanted “Fuck Will Smith!” but Rock ignored the comment and began his hour-long set.
“I’m going to tell some jokes,” he said. “It’s nice to just be out.”
Ahead of the 7:30 p.m. show, there was a small media frenzy that grew increasingly hectic outside the relatively inconspicuous theater. There were at least a dozen broadcast journalists set up as early as two hours before showtime, bundled up in the 30-degree New England weather.
“This is insane,” one onlooker shouted as he walked by troves of cameras and on-air reporters around 6 p.m.
There’s a small media frenzy outside the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, where Chris Rock is making his first public appearance since Will Smith slapped him at the Oscars.
Prior to showtime, local religious leaders gathered in front of the Wilbur Theatre to make a statement about “the incident regarding our brothers” and “send a message that violence is not the way to resolve conflict.”
“This is a teachable moment so we end the cycle of violence that is underreported in the Black community,” said Kevin C. Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, a non-partisan and non-profit organization that focuses on civic engagement, to a small crowd of reporters.
Event organizers at the Wilbur did not seem pleased with the masses that were forming on the scene.
“We have to get ready for a show,” one Wilbur employee lamented as he attempted to set up security ropes in front of the venue. “We’re trying to work now.”
Boston resident Sam Wisnia, 24, felt it was “serendipitous” that Rock was scheduled to make his first public appearance only a short distance from his hometown. He got tickets on Monday morning following the Oscars and acted early enough that he nabbed one for $70.
“I didn’t watch [the Oscars] live, but I watched the clip plenty of times,” said Wisnia, alluding to the footage of Smith slapping Rock. “I hope he leads [his set] with the whole situation, and he can find the humor in it.”
Another Boston local, 32-year-old Jesse Setaro, saw an Instagram ad for Rock’s show “after he got smacked.” He paid $225 and considers that a steal compared to what others spent. Setaro was unfazed by the circus of reporters around the theater. “Why wouldn’t they be here? It’s a historic night,” he said.
Wisnia and Setaro’s wallets were relatively lucky. Others in the crowd admitted to shelling out $800 to $1,200 for admission. Comedian Rick Ingram, who was Rock’s opening act, teased people in the balcony. “Never thought you’d pay $1,000 for the worst seats in the house…” he said during his set.
Rock’s silence is perhaps the reason that ticket sales for his stand-up comedy tour were nearly impossible to come by. By coincidence, Rock was booked to play several shows in Boston beginning on Wednesday. He embarks on his “Ego Death World Tour” next month, which starts in New Jersey. It’s the first time that Rock has gone on the road in five years.
His four-day stint in Boston commenced on Wednesday at the 1,000-seat Wilbur Theatre, with one sold-out show at 7:30 p.m. and another at 10 p.m. Guests were required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Tickets went quickly on Ticketmaster and were being resold on StubHub and other ticket exchange and resell websites for astronomically high amounts. Original prices started at $49.50, but, in the wake of the shocking Oscars altercation, tickets were being scalped for as much as $800 to $8,000 on secondary sites. (Whether or not anyone actually bought the $8,000 tickets is not clear.) Admission to the 7:30 p.m. show was in especially high demand because many anticipated it would be the first time Rock would publicly respond to Smith’s violent outburst.
A StubHub representative said the site experienced “more than 25 times the daily sales” over the past two days compared to the last month. “It is incredibly unusual to see the spike we have experienced,” said Mike Silveira, spokesperson for StubHub. Similarly, the online ticket reseller TickPick wrote Monday on Twitter, “We sold more tickets to see Chris Rock overnight than we did in the past month combined.”
The incident in question occurred in the middle of the 94th annual Academy Awards, as Rock presented the best documentary feature category on stage. The comedian began riffing about A-list celebrities in the audience before going off script to make a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith and her shaved head. (The actress has alopecia, a medical condition that results in hair loss.)
“Jada, I love you: ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” Rock said referring to the 1997 action movie in which Demi Moore’s character has a shaved head.
Smith initially laughed at the jab. But after turning to Pinkett Smith and noticing her epic eye-roll at the joke, he quickly shifted gears and walked on stage to slap Rock in the face. At first, everyone — Rock included — thought the rouse was a bit, but it soon became clear that wasn’t the case.
“Oh, wow,” Rock said as Smith walked off stage. “Wow. Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.”
Once he returning to his seat, Smith yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.”
Rock responded, “Wow, dude. It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.” That prompted Smith to shout at a louder octave, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!”
Rock appeared visibly shaken on stage and struggled to collect his thoughts. “That was, uh, the greatest night in the history of television,” he offered.
Shortly after striking Rock, Smith was awarded the Oscar for best actor for his performance as tennis coach Richard Williams in “King Richard,” a feel-good sports drama in which he plays the father of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams. In a tearful acceptance speech, Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow best actor nominees, but he stopped short of mentioning Rock. In his remarks, he also attempted to connect the altercation to his onscreen character in “King Richard.”
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams.”
Later in his speech he said, “In this business, you got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you got to smile and you got to pretend like that’s okay.”
On Monday, Smith issued an apology to Rock on Instagram. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be.” He also said, “Jokes at my expense are part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.”
Rock declined to press charges, but the Academy has launched an investigation into the situation to “explore further action and consequences,” a spokesperson said.
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