Donnell Rawlings comes home to The Birchmere, sharing memories of ‘Chappelle’s Show,’ ‘The Wire’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Donnell Rawlings at The Birchmere (Part 1)

He made us laugh on “Chappelle’s Show” thanks to his signature sign-off line, “I’m rich, b*tch!”

Donnell Rawlings is coming home to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. (Paul Smith Photography)

This Saturday, comedian Donnell Rawlings comes home to The Birchmere in his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, fresh off his debut stand-up special “A New Day,” which was produced by D.C. native Dave Chappelle for Netflix earlier this year.

“You won’t see any of those jokes, I’ve got a whole new routine,” Rawlings told WTOP. “The Birchmere is a special place for me because I grew up between Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia. … Whenever I come, it’s a very challenging show because I’m gonna be in front of people I went to high school with. It’s like a class reunion. I’ll probably have somebody that used to heckle me in high school try to heckle me, but I will destroy them.”

He graduated from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, made famous by the film “Remember the Titans” (2000) starring Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone, who was still a gym teacher for Rawlings.

“T.C. Titans are what? Red hot! How you spell it now? R-E-D, red! H-O-T, hot! R-E-D H-O-T, red hot, red hot, red hot!” Rawlings said. “Everybody thinks I was in that movie, but I’m not that old! … I wasn’t really good in sports, I just wanted to make the team to get free sneakers. As a manager for the T.C. Williams Titans basketball team, any time we won a game, we got free pizza. … I was too busy being class clown and roasting people in the cafeteria.”

After high school, Rawlings joined the U.S. Air Force, at one point stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in D.C.

“I had just got out of my four-year enlistment and I started standup in a place called Comedy Connection in Greenbelt, (Maryland),” Rawlings said. “They gave so many opportunities for a lot of local comics to get stage time when you couldn’t get it. I was a military police officer waiting to be a D.C. police officer. In the interim of that, I went to a comedy club with some co-workers, I fell in love with it. I was a heckler turned professional standup.”

Along the way, he met fellow D.C. native Chappelle, who cast him on Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show.”

“We met in New York, but we knew of each other being D.C. comics,” Rawlings said. “He moved on to New York a lot sooner than I did. … We really connected once I moved to New York and became a part of ‘Chappelle’s Show.’ … To be honest, me and Dave became closer after the show than when we were actually doing the show. … I looked at it more like we were co-workers. All I wanted was for him to say, ‘Action!’ and let the camera speak for itself.”

Rawlings appeared in hilarious “Chappelle’s Show” sketches like “WackArnolds,” “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” and “Reparations for Oppression,” splurging on a new truck and cigarettes with the line, “I’m rich, b*tch!”

“Dave loved that phrase so much,” Rawlings said. “One of the reasons why it resonates with people so much is because it was at the end of every episode and every time it would come on he would just die laughing. … For more than 25 years, we’ve maintained a brotherhood and friendship that’s gonna be forever. … Now we’re like neighbors because I’ve moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, so we run into each other in the local grocery store.”

To this day, his favorite sketch remains “The Playa Haters’ Ball” with his Jheri-curl character Beautiful.

“That character didn’t exist on paper … I had to create that character, the way he looked, the way he talked, the way he walked, even his name literally 24 hours before we shot that,” Rawlings said. “My favorite to watch was the Wayne Brady sketch. … I’ve never seen a sketch that was so dark with so many comedic twists and undertones. It took us so long to get him to say (profanity), because he’s a straight-laced guy. … The legend of Wayne Brady was born.”

Beyond comedy, Rawlings also showed his dramatic acting chops by playing Bread in HBO’s “The Corner” and Day-Day in HBO’s “The Wire,” both created by David Simon and both set nearby in Baltimore, Maryland.

“A lot of people don’t that the role of Omar came down to me and Mike Williams,” Rawlings said. “If you really watch that series, you’ll understand that it went from The Towers, then the storyline changed to the docks. … My character was about to blow up, but the Baltimore Tourism Board was upset with the production like, ‘Why is it always a depleted city with addicts?’ so they had to change the storyline and my character got lost.”

Either way, Rawlings’ legacy is forever intact when it comes to television history.

“Entertainment Weekly or one of those magazines did a Top 100 TV Shows in the history of television and both ‘Chappelle’s Show’ and ‘The Wire’ ranked in the Top 50 … I can say I was part of two historic shows,” Rawlings said. “Whether I get another acting gig on the small or big screen, the fact that I can come to The Birchmere or D.C. Improv and go across the country, put my name on a marquee and make an honest living doing it, that’s the thing I’m most appreciative of.”

Find ticket information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Donnell Rawlings at The Birchmere (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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