Friday, March 22, 2024

Black and Funny Improv Festival at HUGE Theater

The 8th Annual Black and Funny Improv Festival is running this weekend only! I attended the first night and saw four improv groups perform. Not only was it a fun night of laughter (which is the norm at HUGE Theater), but it was a wonderful celebration of Black artists, Black comedy, and Black joy. The festival stresses that "Black people are centered, all are welcome," and it truly felt like that. As a White person, I felt not only welcome, but also privileged to experience and be part of this wonderful community. Laughter is healing and uniting, it builds community and companionship, it makes us forget any perceived differences we think exist between us and others. So head on down to HUGE Theater in Uptown to see some great improv by local, national, and international performers, and/or partake in comedy workshops. You can purchase tickets and find more information about the performers and workshops at the Black and Funny website. And to learn a little more about the festival, listen to our interview with festival co-directors John Gebretatose and Jada Pulley on the Twin Cities Theater Chat podcast.

I chose to attend the first night of the festival partly because it fit in my schedule, and partly because there were some familiar names on the lineup. But looking at the list of performers (from Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Canada, and more) they all look great, bringing different styles of improv (including musical). Each evening features two sets (at 7pm and 8:30pm), each comprised of two groups. Each set begins with a singing of the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which was my first time singing it at a community event (but not my first time singing it, because I go to a Unitarian Church). It was inspiring and set the tone for the show.

Here's a brief summary of the four groups I saw:

Brotha Brotha
I'd never seen this duo perform together, but I've seen local improvisors/actors John Gebretatose and Denzel Belin separately many times (the latter most recently in Brave New Worshop's current show Love and Other Things that Ruined My Life, from which he must have gotten the weekend off). They've been performing together for a while, and it shows. They play off each other very well, and in their set that jumped around from scene to scene, decade to decade, location to location, they someone constructed a surprisingly moving story about two brothers (with an inexplicable 30-year age difference) who bond over a trip to Wrigley Field (in Chicago, even though they live in NYC). It was funny and silly, with lots of fun callbacks to previous sketches.

The Dream
The only non-local performers on the first night, this troupe hails from Vancouver. Inspired by an audience volunteer's recent dream (this one was a doozy - she dreamt she was in the mob and had to kill her cousin), the four-person group set off on a wild ride that went places I wasn't expecting! Seemingly disconnected scenes, most having little to do with the dream, at times outrageously funny.

Black People Win
This show by local artist Alsa Bruno was an unexpected delight. It's a unique mix of game show, audience participation, music, improv, and storytelling. What I loved about the audience participation bit is that at the beginning of the show Alsa not only told us that we could say no, but had us practice it (a lesson I had to learn the hard way). This immediately put me at ease with whatever was about to happen, which turned out to be a lot of fun. An audience volunteer chooses a game from a charming prop, and each one continued our journey on a sort of battlefield of blessings. There was a bit of singalong, a bit of chant-along, that engendered a lovely community feeling that felt oddly healing. And prizes! For Black people, as it should be.

Closing out the night was, I dare say, the group that started it all. The Twin Cities' first all-Black improv troupe has performed at stages around town since 2015. Their usual format is the "swag hat," in which they draw an audience-suggested topic out of a hat to discuss and then improvise around. They weren't quite able to get the hat in place last night, so instead they took live suggestions. Usually the topics can be quite serious and timely, this time they were a bit lighter - Ninjas, mayonnaise vs. Miracle Whip, and Black Twitter/The Royal Family. First a subset of the ten performers sat in a circle and discussed the topic, in a real but still funny way. Then the improv began, loosely inspired by the topic. Blackout is always a joy to watch, and it's been fun to see them grow over the years. They'll be doing their Shakespeare show on the last night of the festival, and this summer they'll be performing in what is probably their biggest venue yet - the Ordway's Concert Hall on Juneteenth. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate!

Maybe Black and Funny has come up with a new anthem - lift every voice... and laugh!