Breaking the ‘Black Box’
Improv Revolution’s Coup de Comedy Festival ended with a full theater of laughter on Saturday night at their last event, the Black Version, although about thirty minutes behind schedule.
IRev has been hosting the multi-day comedy festival, Coup de Comedy, for four years now with a variety of workshops, panels and performances that are free and open to the public. Different types of improv groups, comedians and celebrities, as well as professors and faculty, contribute to the 30 or so events. This year’s festival began with their headliner, Emmy-nominated producer of 30 Rock, New Girl, Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2, Kay Cannon and ended with their Epic Closing Event: The Black Version.
The Black Version is an improv show based in LA that started in 2010 when creator Jordan Black noticed the absence of Black improv groups, and gathered a few fellow African American actors to work with him. All the actors in the show and the show itself started at the Groundlings Theatre on Melrose in LA until the show sold out and they upgraded to a larger space. Keegen-Michael Key, who was the headline guest at last year’s Coup de Comedy, and Jordan Peele of Key and Peele once belonged to the group and do special appearances, as do other celebs, like Wayne Brady. Four of the actors present on Saturday night form the core of the group: Jordan Black, Danielle Gaither, Gary Anthony Williams and Cedric Yarbrough, all veterans of comedy, acting, TV, commercials, podcasts, voice-overs, etc.
The show runs like most Improv Revolution shows, under the stipulation that the grouptries to reenact a movie if there was a Black version. Their director, Karen Maruyama, elicited and filtered audience suggestions that were just as loud and strange as the usual college improv show. The movie selected was “The Dark Knight” of the Batman franchise, among options like “Toy Story,” “Jaws” and “Sound of Music,” all of which they had done already. Maruyama directed scenes that vaguelyresembled the plot of the movie but cast an entirely different production.
The end-product was a man called Bob James whose parents were not killed when he was a child, and instead lived to annoy him and support his crime-fighting with their billion-dollar pineapple. The hero chose the narwhal as his mascot, rather than a bat, and lived in the fictional town of Slam, Hawaii. Most of those choices were made by the audience but some occurred in the sketches. Another original addition was the musical scene for the King of Hearts (the Joker’s alias here) and his sultry sidekicks, Diamond and Club.
The improvisers held up their end of the deal and rather than making Black jokes and reinforcing stereotypical roles and narratives, they improvised something that anyone thrown into the difficult task of improvisation might produce. They are the Black Version, not because they have a particularly Black sense of humor, but because they are indeed Black comedians who must be recognized as such because of the inequity of actors of color represented in the media.
Afterwards, the actors were able to stay for a question and answer session where students asked about how they approach and break stereotypical roles, how they make a living in the entertainment industry, and how they developed their own niche and success with the Black Version.
“The whole reason for this show is not for us to come out and say, ‘Oh, we’re black.’ It’s a show where not every scene and every character is going to fit into the Black box,” said Black. “Our culture is so diverse within itself and we want to show that. Just like us; we all grew up in different ways, different types of neighborhoods, different types of homes, and we bring it all back, and we want to show that to audiences and to say, ‘when you come in the door you think you’re going to see the Black version, we’re going to give you a certain idea of your expectations and then we’re going to surpass them.’ That’s what we’re doing.”