“What would you like to hear black people talk about?”
So began the Blackout Improv show on Friday, Feb. 10. From the Pause Mane Stage, Minneapolis improvisor John Gebretatose asked the lively audience of 40 to write down topic suggestions for the all-black cast – featuring Gebretatose, Joy Dolo, Theo Langason, Kory LaQuess Pullam and Ashawnti Ford – to cover over the next two hours. From white guilt to leaky windows, the suggestions were folded, placed into a baseball cap and the show began where all things at St. Olaf do: The church.
An energetic black church service scene complete with fiery preacher and spontaneous song, this first segment set the tone of the show from the get-go: funny, poignant and creative to the point of near confusion. An interactive commentary on black church culture, the heightened characters were laughable yet familiar. Their exaggerated elements were humorous and indescribably comforting to watch.
Blackout Improv is a Minneapolis-based group made up entirely of improvisors who identify as black. According to their website, “Blackout Improv is a mix of comedy, social justice, and arts access. [They seek] to put more Black performers on more stages; to create comedic dialogue around serious truths; and to provide more opportunities for Black students. Blackout is changing the face of stages in Minnesota.”
One thing is for certain, Blackout changed the face of its audience at St. Olaf. It was a rare and appreciated experience to see so many of my fellow Oles of color in one room, laughing and smiling fearlessly together. Throughout segments like the church scene mentioned above, the group crafted a highly imaginative and entertaining evening out of dispelling racist stereotypes. And we Oles ate it up.
A partially improvised news recap of the last year, the “Minority Report,” was delivered by the one and only Barack Obama. Filled with current-events jokes and jabs at the current state of the White House, this may have been the first ever speech Obama has concluded with, “Michelle says when they go low, we go high,” immediately after stating that he had a lot of weed he needed to smoke.
“A Day In the Life” was a dramatic re-creation of an audience member’s day. Three audience members total, including myself, were asked to describe their day in almost painful detail. Brought to life onstage with eventful twists, this was one of the most memorable segments of the whole show. There’s something about watching improvisors invent German words while pretending to translate the Bible that makes for a fun night out at the theater.
Not your average getaway, another segment called “Family Vacation” was a classic short-form improv scene where three cast members created random frozen images while the remaining two described how those images reflected their recent road trip. For a hint at the hijinks that ensued, Flint, Mich. was the first vacation location. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.
The mysterious audience suggestions written at the beginning of the show were saved for the final, potentially best, segment called “Swag Hat.” A suggestion would be pulled from the hat, the cast would analyze it and discuss their thoughts, then a story sparked by the discussion would emerge. Hearing these five black artists share their concerns and triumphs surrounding their skin color was incredibly insightful. Presented through the lighthearted lens of comedy, finger-pointing was minimal and optimism was high, creating a deeper opportunity to discuss race at St. Olaf than I have seen in many of my classrooms.
If you haven’t had the chance to see Blackout Improv perform yet, make sure to find them on Facebook as Blackout Improv, and let it be known that you want them back on the Hill again soon.
Both celebrating the black body and tickling ye olde funny bone, Blackout’s performance was a much-appreciated end to the first week of spring semester. Charming and alarming, the fast and wild ensemble left us thinking critically about the role of black people in society but chuckling all the way home.