At Blackout Improv, comedy wrestles with tragedy

The entire cast perform a skit based on an audience members life.
From left, Theo Langason, Denzel Belin, Joy Dolo, John Gebretatose, Ashawnti Ford, Kory Laquess Pullam, and Derek "Duck" Washington perform a skit, Friday September 15, 2017 at the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis, Minn.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

There are several improv comedy troupes performing in the Twin Cities. But among them, there's one group that stands out.

Blackout Improv is gaining a reputation for its humor, and for another reason. As cast member John Gebretatose explains from the stage:

"If you haven't been here before, the only difference is that we're all black. So all the performers you're going to see here are all black. You're used to seeing a lot of white people on stage — I repeat, we're going to be all black."

Once a month, audiences flock to the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis for Blackout Improv's show "The Minority Report."

"Welcome to the two-year anniversary show," Gebretatose tells a cheering audience. "Yeah! Nobody called the cops on us."

Kory Laquess Pullam allows an audience member to pick out the first topic.
Kory Laquess Pullam allows an audience member to pick out the first topic during a section of the show called "Swag Hat."
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Over the course of the next hour and a half, the troupe has the audience laughing nonstop as it runs through a series of improv skits.

Blackout Improv was founded by a group of actors who didn't want to be the token performers in what is typically a white-dominated field. Co-founder Kory Pullam remembers the first improv show he went to in Minneapolis.

"I was the only person of color, including onstage, in the audience, at the bar, at the front desk. And then I started taking classes — still the only person. Throughout the entire four classes that I took, I was the only person of color," Pullam said.

But still Pullam loved improv, whose primary rule is "yes, and" — the idea that you always affirm and build upon what the last person contributed to the skit. Pullam now teaches improv classes, often to young students of color.

"My favorite thing always, consistently, about improv is the fact that you start with absolutely nothing," he says. "There's no props, there's no costumes, there's no anything — and within moments you have everything you need," he said. It can be any and everything you want it to be ... What we as a people have always done is start with nothing and create something beautiful."

"The father's never at home," says Gebretatose. "That's the narrative in the black community, right? So, like, when we talk about marriage, from my experience, I didn't know anybody in my neighborhood that had a two-parent home at all. It was a surprise if you saw another person — you were like, 'Oh, who's the ... is that an uncle?'"

Joy Dolo performs a dance solo during intermissions of skits.
Joy Dolo performs a dance solo during intermissions of skits.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

In the two years that Blackout Improv has been performing, it's taken on white privilege, cultural appropriation and police brutality. Just weeks after the group formed, Jamar Clark was shot in Minneapolis. Then Philando Castile in Falcon Heights by police officer Jeronimo Yanez.

Co-founder Joy Dolo recalls the day Yanez was acquitted. Blackout had a show to perform that night.

"And we're like, 'We can't just have a regular show. This cannot be a regular show. We need to talk about this verdict and how we're feeling about it.' And during the entire show there was a lot of crying, a lot of crying, and there was a lot of processing — just trying to help each other get through this really hard moment because we just didn't understand."

Dolo says she's come to think of the show as a much-needed platform that presents both the beauty and complexity of black life. She says, at its best, their show uses comedy to find the hope within tragedy:

"And I think when we find those points of comedy within those ideas, that's what the cathartic feeling is, it's like, 'Oh, God yes — we will be OK, not only just us on stage but everyone in the audience, you're going to be OK, too. We were able to navigate this, you're going to be able to navigate it as well.'"

Blackout Improv performs the third Friday of every month at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis.

A sold out show brought audiences of different ages, races, and gender.
Blackout Improv is a comedy group of stand-up comedians, musicians, and classically trained actors that perform in a cast that is all black.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News