A night with Bill Cosby: It's complicated

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A complicated night with Bill Cosby 02:58

Story highlights

  • Despite controversy, Cosby received a standing ovation at a recent show
  • He talked about faith, relationships and family
  • One attendee at the Augusta show said she's praying for him

This story originally appeared in March.

Augusta, Georgia (CNN)Don't get it twisted: Bill Cosby is not going to let you tell his story for him.

It is literally a rainy night in Georgia when hundreds of fans gather at the William B. Bell Memorial Auditorium in Augusta for a Cosby comedy concert.
Outside, people scurry in to avoid the weather. The rain has vanquished the signs Deann Veteto placed earlier that say "Shame on you, Bell Auditorium" and proclaim that the comedian has broken her heart.
    Inside the more than 2,600-seat auditorium, such unpleasantness doesn't exist.
    The legendary performer pauses his monologue a time or two with a warning for audience members who affectionately try to finish his jokes or share asides.
    "I'm telling this story," he says with a half-smile, half-grimace.
    By now, the world knows there is at least one narrative Cosby can't control.

    'Cosby kid'

    That narrative is actually a series of stories told by more than 20 women, all with similar themes: Bill Cosby drugged me, some allege. Bill Cosby touched me, others say. Bill Cosby raped me, a few have accused.
    They all agree on one thing: Bill Cosby is not the man you thought you knew.
    I was a self-professed "Cosby kid." The man I "knew" was Dr. Huxtable.
    Like so many who watched the show when it originally aired and while it ran in syndication, I was enamored with Cosby as the patriarch of this funny, loving family that looked like mine. I most identified with Lisa Bonet's free-spirited character, Denise. But, unlike my father, Cosby's Cliff Huxtable allowed her to express herself via her edgy clothing and hairstyles.
    It wasn't until later that I learned of Bill Cosby the activist, educator, philanthropist and trailblazer. And my esteem grew.
    I've heard all of the arguments from both sides of the camp: The women's stories are too consistent to not be true; the women have to be lying; Cosby must be a villain; Cosby must be a victim of a racist conspiracy.
    That last theory goes something like this: Cosby has been such an outspoken advocate for the importance of education and pride in the black community that it has made him a target. To back up that claim, Woody Allen's name often comes into the discussion.
    Why, some have asked, has Allen not faced the same level of scrutiny -- or outrage -- after marrying a woman he helped raise and facing allegations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow? Why does Netflix cancel Cosby's comedy special and two months later Amazon announces that Allen will write and direct an online series for their streaming service? Both Cosby and Allen have steadfastly denied any accusations of wrongdoing.

    'Far from finished'

    Cosby seemed poised for career renaissance with the Netflix special, a planned NBC show and a tour. The first two went away amidst the scandal, and the third sputtered with cancellations and "postponed" dates. I had never seen Cosby live, and I wanted to witness for myself how the legend was handling on a comedy stage all of the drama that was going on behind the scenes.
    The original plan was to attend the show in Boston in early February, but Cosby canceled that concert, citing an impending snowstorm. I bought a ticket to the Pittsburgh show. Canceled. Soon, multiple shows had been canceled.
    I bought tickets for a show closer to home, in Augusta, Georgia. I was hopeful; the comedian was scheduled to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, the night before the Augusta show and released a statement for his fans in Lafayette:
    "Dear Fans: For 53 years you have given me your love, support, respect and trust. Thank you! I can't wait to see your smiling faces and warm your hearts with a wonderful gift -- LAUGHTER. I'm ready! I thank you, the theatre staff (Heymann Performing Arts Center), the event organizers and the Lafayette Community for your continued support and coming to experience family, fun entertainment. Hey, Hey, Hey -- I'm Far From Finished."
    I checked the Internet daily and even called the venue. I scoured Augusta media to see whether any protests were planned.
    Cosby didn't cancel or postpone, so the show must go on.

    'We are not talking about that tonight'

    Attendees shift in their seats and chat while awaiting Cosby. The audience is largely older, mostly white. It's a good-sized crowd, though not at all sold out.
    A huge picture of the comic shaking hands with the late South African President and human rights activist Nelson Mandela stares down from the stage. Draped on a chair is a sweatshirt bearing the words "Hello friend" -- the greeting often used by Cosby's son Ennis, who was killed in a botched robbery in 1997.
    The only nod to the current troubles dogging Cosby is an announcement, intoned a half-dozen times, that concert organizers had been warned of possible attempts to disrupt the show.
    "If a disruption occurs, please remain calm until the matter is resolved, and do not confront the person who is making the disruption."
    There are no confrontations. Just thunderous applause as Cosby takes the stage. A shout of support in the face of the allegations rings out from an audience member.
    "No, no, we will not cover that today," Cosby says. "We are not talking about that tonight. What we're going to cover is the performance of Bill Cosby."
    And with that, he launches into a bit about religion: "I'm not trying to get into heaven."
    In the audience, Tom Chumley turns to his date, Diana Nevils, and says, "He reminds me so much of my father."

    Dark cloud over 'America's Dad'

    For so many, Bill Cosby was a surrogate father.
    From the time "The Cosby Show" premiered on NBC in September 1984 until it aired its final episode in April 1992, Cosby's character, Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable, entered the realm of beloved TV dads.
    But the series about an obstetrician, his attorney wife and their five kids wasn't just entertaining; it was groundbreaking. For the first time, an upper-middle-class family of color took up residence in the television landscape.
    Cosby was especially revered in the black community. He had always been a star to them: He became the first black co-star in a TV drama when "I Spy" premiered in 1965, and his animated show "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" was one of the few to feature mostly minority characters.
    Yet much the way Michael Jackson's career is marked as having taken off after the success of his "Thriller" album -- despite an established, flourishing African-American fan base -- "The Cosby Show" put Cosby on the map in mainstream (read: white) America.
    "Even today, there are few black celebrities who have insinuated themselves into the heart of white America," wrote The Observer's Andrew Anthony in a piece headlined "Bill Cosby: A dark cloud now hangs over 'America's Dad.' "
    "Those who do, OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods, for example, often seem to undergo a spectacular fall from grace. It would be tragic for many reasons if the most loved black celebrity of them all now ends up being an embarrassing figure of hate."
    Even some of his accusers have referred to Cosby as a kind of father figure. Barbara Bowman was a teen when she met the star in the 1980s. She told CNN's Don Lemon that she considered Cosby her "mentor."
    "As a teenager, I tried to convince myself I had imagined it. I even tried to rationalize it: Bill Cosby was going to make me a star, and this was part of the deal," Bowman wrote in an article for the Washington Post in which she reiterated her accusations that Cosby sexually abused her.
    Cosby himself has not directly addressed Bowman's or any of the others accusations. His attorney, Martin D. Singer, has called the accusations "ridiculous" and said in a statement that it makes no sense that "so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years."
    But America is able to easily separate the artist from the art.
    Despite run-ins with the law, celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber have continued to make money and grow their fan bases. But for Cosby, who has not been charged with any crime, there has never been a delineation between Cosby the man and Cosby the actor. For many, he was, and continues to be, Dr. Huxtable.

    'Woman was the game-changer'

    In Augusta, Cosby plays to his core fan base: older folks. They are all firmly in the rhythm of his jokes. They laugh uproariously at his routines about family, faith and marriage.
    For more than two hours, he holds the audience in his grip. His stories span from being taken to church by his parents as a 3-year-old, to battles with his younger brother Russell, to his life as a husband, father and grandfather.
    "Read Genesis in the Bible, and you'll see that the woman was the game-changer," Cosby says, without a trace of irony.
    I want to be as into the show as everyone else. The man is a master at timing. But I can't help but attach meaning to some of his words and antics in light of all that has been made public. I have no idea whether Bill Cosby is guilty or innocent, but I stand in awe that he doesn't shy away from a joke that has him draping a tissue over his crotch to exemplify the fig leaf Adam and Eve wore.
    It feels defiant, and a part of me feels ashamed for being amused.
    The 77-year-old ends his show by lying on the floor during a tale about attempting to execute a gymnastic move for his wife, Camille. He slowly rises to his feet, looks at the audience and says, "Thank you all for coming." He receives a standing ovation.
    As Cosby exits stage right, I turn to chat with Chumley and Nevils, who sit nearby. They are older than me, white like many of Cosby's accusers and clearly fans of his work. I'm curious to know their feelings on the controversy and the accusations.
    I have just enough time to ask them what they thought of the show and the proper spelling of their names before security ushers us out with "Folks, you have to leave the theater."
    "When he's telling his stories, it's like you are right there with him," Nevils says. "It was wonderful."
    There's no time for a more serious conversation. I suspect security was worried that anyone hanging around posed the potential of protest. They seemed watchful for people like Deann Veteto.
    She told CNN affiliate WJBF, "Anybody who goes out there to support this show is condoning his behavior, and that is wrong. It could be your mother, your daughter, your sister -- anybody."
    Attendee Luvenia Bates told WJBF she's praying for the entertainer.
    "I'm one that grew up minding my own business," she said. "Because whatever he does, he's the one who has to give an account of it, not me."
    Driving back in the rain, I'm left feeling mildly unsettled by what I had seen. The jokes were effective and the laughter was sincere, but I felt unable to fully go with the funny flow with the specter of everything else looming.
    Am I allowed to appreciate the legacy that is Cosby in show business when so much about Cosby the man now feels tainted?
    The questions remain: Who is Cosby? Is he a revered entertainer who for years made me guffaw and is now unfairly being maligned? Or is he the manipulative monster that his accusers say he is? Is Cosby a victim or a victimizer?