bony Essence Jet, an all-female troupe from Chicago, was on a roll Saturday night at the HUGE Theater, when one of its members froze. A teammate had challenged her to channel Meryl Streep's character in "The Iron Lady." Streep may have won an Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in that film, but the comic actress was not familiar with it.

That kind of ignorance may have seemed out of place elsewhere, but this was the Black and Funny Improv Festival, a weekend of shows and workshops where black culture ruled. The Saturday night showcase, which also featured groups from Baltimore and Toronto, made references to Betty Shabazz, "Black Panther" and Steve Urkel, with knowing yelps from the audience.

Casually Dope had great fun playing off a suggestion for material based on a Minnesota politician's atttempt to ban "Bachelor" Arie Luyendyk, Jr, from the state after reneging on his commitment to Prior Lake's Becca Kufrin. During the following half hour of skits, the Baltimore players managed to bring up both Fantasia and Ruben Studdard. But when Clay Aiken's name came up, one member acted as if he was a football star, not an "American Idol" champ. It was hard to tell whether the comic was pretending or not, but his castmates played along, excusing his faux pas by saying his character was part of the Make-A-Wish foundation.

The festival helped put a spotlight both on the Twin Cities' growing commitment to improv and to diversity in comedy, Here's hoping for many more such festivals in the future.

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