John Gebretatose joked about the Minneapolis improv comedy scene with a perfectly timed pause: “It’s not just white,” he said. “It’s 20-something-guy-in-a-flannel-shirt white.”
But the punchline came hours later, at a packed Bryant-Lake Bowl, when a fellow improviser stopped to say hi. The young, white man was wearing plaid.
“See the flannel shirt?” Gebretatose said, his eyes crinkling. “You can spot him a mile away.”
Gebretatose, who is black, can laugh about the lack of diversity now because it’s getting better. The 34-year-old has become the face of a broader effort within Twin Cities improv comedy to get more people of color onstage. Theater by theater, team by team. The all-black troupe Blackout Improv, founded in 2015, now performs regularly to sold-out crowds. The Theater of Public Policy started sponsoring a scholarship for people of color. Huge Improv Theater hosts monthly “POC jams” to encourage newbies.
This weekend, the Black and Funny Improv Festival will host two days of performances, discussions and workshops, culminating with an improvised musical.
Gebretatose seems to be part of it all. He’s a cast member of Blackout and the Theater of Public Policy, the director of diversity and inclusion at Huge, the co-founder of Black and Funny. Last year, he gathered the improv theaters in town — from Blackout to ComedySportz — for a symposium on diversity. “I can’t think of any other time — on anything — that all those theaters have been represented in the same room,” said Tane Danger, co-founder of the Theater of Public Policy.
Across the country, theaters are trying to broaden long-form improvisational comedy to include more women, gay and queer performers and people of color. Some have pegged the dearth of diversity to the cost of classes, where funny people learn the form. One of the country’s best-known improv theaters, Upright Citizens Brigade, launched a diversity program in 2009 and now offers scholarships for its ever-growing school.
Gebretatose, who grew up in Minneapolis, first watched improv at the venerable Brave New Workshop — a perk of working front of house. He began performing stand-up comedy for “coffee-shop white people” in 2006 but loved improv partly because “I can be anything I want to be ... specifically, a dolphin trainer.”
A few years back, though, Gebretatose got sick of one role: the only black person onstage. He was ready to quit. “I just felt like there wasn’t much room.”
Then a friend called, asking him to do a show. That show would become Blackout.
Performing with the troupe for the first time, “I felt the full satisfaction that white groups have when they have a group mind,” Gebretatose said, using improv lingo for the magic that happens when performers are on the same wavelength. “It was so nice to have my voice heard, recognized and appreciated,” he continued, “not only by my teammates but the audience.”
On a recent Friday night, a woman posted a sign to the Phoenix Theater’s front door: “Tonight’s performance is SOLD OUT.”
Gebretatose hugged friends as they stopped by will call. Backstage, Blackout’s performers got ready for an all-women version of their monthly show. In the theater, women and men in their 20s and 30s drank beer and sparkling wine, many singing along to the all-women-of-color playlist: Rihanna, Janelle Monae, Lizzo.
The nine performers, led by Joy Dolo, began by marching, dancing. Within the first half-hour, they’d tackled President Donald Trump’s latest (“Can’t get enough of that guy!”), mocked men’s feelings about the Women’s March (“The truth is, I don’t really know what a vagina is”) and celebrated women’s history in song (“Did you know that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women?”). Dolo, in her best infomercial voice, pitched a new product to prevent sexual assault as the women modeled garbage bags. “Dads, buy one for your daughter,” Dolo said, “ ’cause you know they’re coming for her.”
A woman in the third row laughed so hard she choked on her bubbly.
For much of its history, Minneapolis’ improv scene centered around Brave New Workshop and ComedySportz. Huge and Phoenix theaters helped open things up.
After years of producing shows, the improvisers behind Huge opened their little theater on Lyndale Avenue S. in 2010, not far from Brave New Workshop’s former space, and a block away from the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Not a diverse neighborhood, maybe, but one “where people buy tickets to things and maybe know what improv is,” said Jill Bernard, one of Huge’s founders. “When we opened, we were just trying to make an improv theater work — already an impossible task.”
A few years back, a black audience member tagged photos in Huge’s lobby with the caption, “Spending time in white territory tonight.”
It was a good reminder that “just swinging open the doors and hoping there will be diversity is a mistake,” said Bernard, now Huge’s education director. So the theater workshopped with Mu Performing Arts, an Asian-American theater company, and New Native Theater. But it failed to convert any actors into improvisers. The company performed a show entirely in Spanish. (“It was an adorable failure,” Bernard said.)
Finally, the theater accepted Gebretatose’s proposal to become its diversity director. He started in October 2016. For many reasons, he is “the right person,” said Bernard. “It’s weird for me to go someplace and say, ‘Hey, there’s this theater in Uptown.’ It’s much better if someone of color is opening those doors.”
Filling the pipeline
On a recent weeknight in the basement of Huge Theater, 15 wannabe improvisers sat in a circle, making jokes and trading stories.
“We’re going to get up and get moving,” said the class’ instructor, Adam Iverson, who was wearing a flannel shirt.
They stood, passing words and phrases — Zip! Zap! Zop! They mirrored each other’s motions, making lots of eye contact. “Remember, it’s important to be heard,” Iverson said at one point, “but it’s also your job to let them hear you.”
“Oh, wow, I’m going to write that down,” said Janay Henry, grabbing her notebook.
Henry, 27, had watched “rerun after rerun” of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and, after years in dance, decided to try out for an improv troupe: The Theater of Public Policy, or T2P2 for short. Filling out the form beforehand, she started to sweat. “Please list any improv or theatrical training starting with the most recent,” it read. Her answer: zero.
But Henry impressed the troupe. The theater is paying for her Improv 101 class with the hope that starting this spring, she’ll perform with them. During each show, a bow-tied Danger interviews a politician or public policy expert. The actors then riff off that conversation in improvised skits. Earlier this month, when Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau took the stage, Gebretatose was part of the cast.
Improv “is an art where people onstage are creating something together that no one of them would have created by themselves,” Danger said. “Inherently, that is much more interesting and engaging and electrifying when ... those people are bringing different perspectives and ideas.”
Henry, who is a dance teacher, Lyft driver and wardrobe stylist, loves the openness of improv: “If you say ‘sea creatures,’ I can talk about them — or I can be one.” And she’s working on the concept of “Yes, and ... ” a rule that helps keep sketches moving.
“Somebody offered me a pineapple in a scene about AA counseling,” Henry said, laughing, “and I said, ‘No, what am I going to do with that?’ Which is how I would respond in real life.
“But in the scene, you take the pineapple.”
Sometimes, in Improv 101, Henry notices that she’s the only black woman in the room. But that happens in other parts of her life, as well, she said. Meanwhile, Gebretatose has introduced her to the broader improv community.
“He friended me on Facebook, and all of a sudden, all these vets of the community are in my inbox,” she said. “They’re welcoming like, ‘Take your jacket off and stay. Welcome home.’ ”
On their comment cards, T2P2 audiences were asking for more diversity. At the Brave New Workshop — which has launched black performers like Cedric Yarbrough of “Reno 911!” and “Speechless” — the material calls for it. Cast members write their sketches, which satirize current events, so the work “reflects their own background and voices,” said Katy McEwen, associate artistic director. For that and other reasons, “diversity is always top of mind,” she said. In its current show, two of the five cast members are women and two are people of color.
“It’s more authentic, more powerful if you can have the honest voices of all sides of an issue,” McEwen said.
During a show in December, for example, cast member Denzel Belin, who is black, asked Tom Reed, who is white, whether he wants to play the Game of Life. This edition of the board game, it turns out, “is supposed to accurately reflect the lives and times of the United States in 2016,” Belin said.
Audience members laughed, knowing what was coming: Reed played on a beautiful board littered with free money, while Belin had to make do with a makeshift, hand-scrawled version. Reed’s spinner only landed on 10, while Belin didn’t even get one.
“Well, these don’t look equal to me,” Belin said.
“Oh, I don’t really see the difference,” Reed said. “Who goes first?”
“You do,” Belin said. “Always.”
For the first Black and Funny Festival, held last year, Gebretatose and his co-founder Alsa Bruno — their improv duo is called “The Unpronounceables” — gathered black performers, including Blackout, and teachers. Like the symposium, the event was inspired by the pair’s trip to Toronto for “Our Cities on Our Stages,” a conference on diversity. This year’s performers include duos from that city.
“Our central goal has always been to expose improv to people of color as something they can benefit from,” Bruno said, “something they can do and do well.”
Black and Funny’s first year also had a side benefit: “Theaters aren’t allowed to say, at this point, ‘We can’t find black actors, we can’t find black artists,’ ” Bruno said, “because we, in two months, put together a festival and found them because we just asked.”
Since then, Bruno, 27, moved to Los Angeles, where he coaches soccer and is performing with a women-run theater. He worries about his friend, Gebretatose, he said, who he sees “run ragged.” While it’s good that theaters are focusing on diversity, “it’s not his responsibility to be everybody’s black person.”
Gebretatose understands that for now, he’s the face of this effort. But before a recent T2P2 show, that face was yawning. In recent weeks, he’s “hijacked” a fellow Blackout performer to be his protégé, added a few administrators to the Facebook groups, encouraged friends to become teachers.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “I’ve just got to get it started.”