Meshelle Foreman is where she wants to be: on stage, making people laugh with a story from her life. This one involves an uncle who's just out of "the system" after 20 years.
Uncle Skippy thinks it's 1976, Ms. Foreman says, as her sound man cues up the O'Jays' "Money." He still wears double-knit pants. Uncle Skippy doesn't walk down the street, he does one of those arm-swinging strut last seen in "Super Fly." Laughter ripples through the audience. They might not have an "Uncle Skippy," but they know someone like him. He's part of their world, the world Foreman knew growing up in Baltimore.
Foreman is a rarity on the comedy circuit, a young woman whose comedy is in the style of Bill Cosby and Sinbad. While many comedians use foul language and sexual innuendoes, Foreman presents life without getting down and dirty. She is, after all, a Christian woman. But she doesn't sacrifice her edge by being clean, and she doesn't think of her work as "gospel comedy."
"Someone coined the phrase 'inspertainment,' inspirational entertainment," says Foreman, who is in the third year of a doctoral program in psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"You'll be entertained," she says of her routine. "But you'll also walk away wanting to do some things in a positive way."
Providing clean, thought-provoking entertainment is what Foreman does. A recent show was taped for her first CD.
Performing is nothing new for Foreman. Growing up, she moved easily between the country world of charm school and the city world of double-dutch jump-rope games. She and her sister spent summers doing skits on their grandmother's front porch and performing in talent shows at the recreation center.
Years later, while attending Bowie State University in Maryland, she copied Whoopi Goldberg routines and appeared in productions of the musical "The Wiz." Looking back, she names the pioneering black comedian Moms Mabley as an inspiration.
"She reminded me of a lady who lived on your block who would just come out on her stoop and start running her mouth, and you couldn't tell her to stop," says Foreman. "She was just a character you kind of fell in love with."
Foreman has performed in recent years at conventions and with the comedian Tommy Davidson, who has made a name for himself in Hollywood.
Derek Owens, who sings with the Choir Boyz, a contemporary gospel group, remembers seeing her act a few years ago at a comedy club.
"Most comedians, they curse like sailors. They talk about sex," he says. "But when she came on there was none of that, and she got the same laughs."