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ChangeMakers: Blackout Improv, breaking barriers and busting guts

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Members of Blackout Improv are photographed at Mixed Blood Theatre.
Members of Blackout Improv, a black improv group based in Minneapolis, Minn., are photographed on Monday, Feb. 19, 2019 at Mixed Blood Theatre. Front row, from left: Janay Henry, Denzel Belin, and Derek "Duck" Washington. Second row, from left: John Gebretatose, Kory LaQuess Pullam and Vann Daley. Third row, from left: Alyssa DiVirgilio and Alexis Camille.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

For the last three years,  Blackout Improv  has been using comedy to tackle tough issues, including white privilege, cultural appropriation and police brutality. They are the state's only black improv group with the mission of changing the face of comedy. 

MPR News recently sat down with five members of the troupe.

What does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

 Alyssa DiVirgilio: Well for me being a biracial, half-black, half-white Minnesotan, it's a lot about being really surrounded by whiteness and by having to consciously seek out black people to have in my life so that I can even learn what it means to be black for myself, and black in the state.

Kory Laquess Pullam:  I'm from Texas originally. For me one of the biggest things that stands out is as a Texan I felt like the racial divide or the racial tensions were always very apparent. They were very in my face and I kind of knew where I stood with the people that I was around and engaging with. In Minnesota there's so much passive aggression and there's so much that's veiled that you know there are people you think you're good with and then it turns out that that's actually not the case.

John Gebretatose:  I'd say that's like being invited to a ski resort but you didn't ask to go ... 

Laquess Pullam: I'd actually offer one more thing about this black person in Minnesota thing. I feel like we're such a commodity. Like it feels like we're this precious resource because there's so little of us but we're so magic at the same time, like we're the fire emojis.

So there's only like that one place you can get the fire emojis, so it feels like we're always being tapped to be fire emojis all the time ... and sometimes we all want to be fire all the time. Like my fire is not burning so bright today because you keep tapping the fire emoji.

 Alexis Camille:  It's exhausting... Always being that token, right? 

Do you want me here for my face to be on the cover of your brochure on the thing? Or do you actually really want to hear my voice. Because when we start using our voice when they're tokenizing you then they freak out because they didn't expect all that. They just want your face on things but then you know it's hard for them and it's hard work to hear what the black experience is really about.

 Gebretatose:  Just to add another thing on the table, being black in Minnesota means when you're afraid of the police you have evidence to be afraid of the police. Because we've got other places they may not have a shooting that's on the news and in your face without any justice being served. We have evidence of that again and again.

What figures have shaped you into who you are today?

Laquess Pullman: Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle — those are all people who I feel not only were just so, so, so, very funny and very good with characters, but were very good with social commentary and political commentary and using comedy as a tool to kind of tackle the issues that were hard to talk about. Richard Pryor, for example, going on stage and telling a predominantly white audience about black people being lynched in Florida. That's a radical act and that's a fearless act. I feel like that takes so much courage to do especially at the time when he was coming up. I just feel like we stand on the shoulders of those people who were so fearless.

DiVirgilio:  Right now I feel like one of the most important comedians and actors, entertainers in my life right now is Tracee Ellis Ross. I enjoy Blackish and like her Instagram account so much because she's the first, she's biracial, she's like super goofy, she is an advocate ... she's such a hopeful representation of a sense of authenticity that I feel but I've never seen outside of myself before. I'm like so grateful that she is so present and predominant in our media right now. 

What's your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?

Laquess Pullam: I feel like it shouldn't be a radical act that we are doing what we're doing. Obviously I think that we're an amazing improv group. We all being such talents and all these different abilities but it shouldn't be like "Oh my gosh it's a black improv group!" My goal and what I think would be dope, eventually, is that there are numerous black improv groups, Asian-American improv groups, Native American improv. Like where every single kind of disenfranchised people are represented in a way that it's not like we're a novelty it's not some like big deal. I think that we all want a seat at the table. And not only do we want a seat at the table, like let's build a table.

 Gebretatose: I would really love a black ski resort. You know? 

 DiVirgilio: I think a lot of other black people experience tension just walking into a grocery store or being at a red light and knowing like your mirror is messed up or your tail light is out and there's a cop behind you. I would love just for us to carry less of a physical and emotional burden every single day. Obviously that work is going to be a lot on people who aren't black it's going to be on white people get to work. 

Camille: I feel like I'm an educator and a person who represents first and uses comedy as a point of levity to have really hard conversations and talk about real life. I hope that, and I know, I've learned that just being there is just seeing it. I used to watch Blackout before I even became a part of Blackout and it was like "yo, yo, yo, yo!" 

We're out here and we're representing, we are here and we are all allowed to be here. 

Editor's note: The interview was edited for length and clarity. Denzel Belin is a member of Blackout Improv and works at MPR News.