Bill Cosby: Fans and protesters clash at live show

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Bill Cosby on stageImage source, Rex Features
Image caption,
Cosby, pictured here at an earlier show, wore his traditional "Hello Friend" stage outfit

On Monday, Bill Cosby played his first live show since November in Ontario, Canada.

The embattled comedian, who faces at least 15 allegations of sexual assault, has seen several US dates cancelled and a new TV comeback scrapped. So the world was watching to see how Canada would react.

Just before he took to the stage in Ontario, Bill Cosby's team announced over loudspeakers that protesters might disrupt the show in the auditorium and that these individuals should not be approached. Instead, "everyone stay calm".

Cosby then walked to his seat at the centre of stage and said, "First of all, thank you." The nearly full crowd at Kitchener's Centre in the Square theatre let out hearty cheers and one women jumped to her feet, clapping her hands. The feeling in the auditorium was friendly.

The sweatshirt draped on Cosby's chair read Hello Friend. His oversized shirt read the same. He was the Bill Cosby the crowd knew from decades of feel-good entertainment. He made faces, and jokes that were laugh-out-loud funny - talking for the most part about his family relationships.

"To this day, I don't like my brother in my room, touching my stuff. DO NOT ENTER," Cosby motioned. "And my brother is 72 years old."

He moved with stiffness, and some of his stories dragged on in a grandfatherly fashion but, generally, he didn't seem weary. If he was nervous that he would be heckled over the ongoing allegations of rape, he didn't show it. And the disruptions never materialised.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Cosby began his career in the nightclubs of Greenwich Village before becoming a TV star in the 70s and 80s

After a standing ovation, one audience member told the BBC, the show was everything he hoped it would be.

But outside, it was bitterly cold.

Several dozen protesters, mostly young women and a few young men, stood near the front entrance of the auditorium from the time the crowd arrived until everyone departed for the evening, shouting choruses such as. "Rape isn't funny" and "27 voices".

"Please consider not attending this show," one man said to patrons heading in.

Most attendees marched straight through, ignoring the crowd of protesters and camera-clad journalists. Others engaged, both sides shouting obscenities.

"You're supporting rape?" one woman demanded of a man with Cosby tickets. "Yes, I support rape," he yelled back, defiantly.

"You're talking to people in a rude fashion, ya little wench," another Cosby fan joined in.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Several dozen protesters picketed the show

Protester Aaron Cornish told the BBC that Cosby "can't hide from the 27 women" who have come forward by using "publicity and fames and jokes".

"People going inside are ignoring that," he added.

Of those attending the show, who the BBC spoke to, all referred to the lack of convictions against the comedian and chose to give Cosby the benefit of the doubt.

"Due process, 30 years later?" said fan Tom Hitchens, referring to the years that have passed since many of the women say the abuses occurred. "I'm sorry, but I had to go and support [Cosby]. He's a magnificent comedian. If he did wrong, let me tell you, I will not be impressed. But until he's proven guilty, excuse me, no," he said in the direction of the protesters.

At one point, several protesters stood directly in front of the doors so that no-one could enter. They were promptly removed by security.

Image source, Evan Vucci
Image caption,
Cosby has largely refused to comment on the allegations of sexual assault

Several blocks from Cosby's sit down comedy show, locals staged an alternative event in support of victims of sexual assault. Called Voices Carry, the community event featured musicians and stories of survival, with the message "You are not alone - we believe you - we care."

It sprang to life when it was confirmed Cosby's performance would go ahead. Local radio DJ Mike Farwell took his rant to Twitter. Immediately frustrated by the limits of social media, he decided to redirect local opposition to Cosby into a fundraiser.

Organizers say after Hollywood director Judd Apatow blasted Ontario venues for hosting Cosby's show, they had a surge in local interest.

"So @Centre_Square - are you really going to let Bill Cosby perform on your stage January 7," he tweeted on 27 December.

"Is Cosby only popular in Ontario Canada at this point?" he added, addressing another venue. "Do people still find him delightful after 30 accusers?"

Image source, AP / Twitter
Image caption,
Judd Apatow, producer of Knocked Up and Bridesmaids, felt Cosby's shows should be cancelled

Then Voices Carry organisers heard from one of the lawyers of the alleged victims, attorney Michael Bressler.

"We got an email and it said 'Hi, I'm an attorney in Chicago and I'd like to speak with Melanie Baker,'" said Baker, a co-organiser of the event. "And I was like 'Oh, boy.' But he heard about our event and he was totally on board."

The group allowed people to trade in Cosby tickets for passes to their show. More than 300 attended, and with additional ticket purchases and donations, the group raised $7,500 for the women's groups.

"No big change ever happens without some pain alongside it," said Baker. "There is a catalyst for every major movement, whether it's the civil rights, movement, the gay rights movement - and this - getting assault and abuse out of the closet, dispelling myths, getting rid of victim blaming and slut shaming, and all those things that contribute to rape culture.

Image source, Joe Martz
Image caption,
The Voices Carry event raised $7,500 for victims of abuse

She hoped the publicity would contribute to "making it easier to say, 'no, [sexual assault] is not okay' - simply because you know there's going to be a lot of people who have your back."

Cosby is scheduled to perform in London, Ontario, on Thursday, and Hamilton, Ontario, on Friday. Protests are planned for both cities.