Joy Dolo didn’t mean to become an improv comic.
A veteran of the Twin Cities theater scene, Dolo has earned acclaim for bold performances with Children’s Theatre Company, Ten Thousand Things, Jungle Theater and a host of others. Even with that impressive pedigree, she got cold feet five years ago when a couple of comedian friends encouraged her to audition for the Theater of Public Policy, an improvisational collective that riffs on civic issues.
“Of course I didn’t [audition],” Dolo said. “Improv is scary and terrifying and all of the horrendous nightmarish fantasies that an actor could have.”
Not long afterward, though, Dolo was asked to substitute for a shorthanded Public Policy show. “I had never been more afraid,” she said. “But I did it, and shortly after the show I informed them that I had never done any type of improv before. They said I was a natural, and the rest is history.”
She will showcase her growing confidence and skills this weekend at the Black & Funny Improv Festival, a showcase for improvisers of color that is drawing teams from far-flung locales like Atlanta, Baltimore and Portland, Ore.
As Dolo dug deeper into the improv scene, she often found herself feeling like the odd woman out. “The more I worked in the comedy world, the more I realized it was oversaturated with white males, most with beards of some kind.”
That sense of otherness only intensified after a long discussion with actor and director Kory LaQuess Pullam. “We had an incredible conversation about black people in comedy. Why were we the only ones in these improv spaces? Aren’t we funny? Do we not bleed?”
The two soon joined forces with performers Alsa Bruno, John Gebretatose and Andy Hilbrands to form Blackout, an all-black improv collective that has become one of the more visible and celebrated forces in local comedy.
As Blackout’s acclaim has grown, Dolo has also continued her more traditional stage work, including recent turns in Frank Theatre’s “Revolt” and Jungle Theater’s “Fly by Night.” She has found that each discipline informs the other.
“Improvising is a skill and tool that everyone uses daily,” Dolo said. “Being able to think on your feet during an interview, in the office, lying to your spouse, all of it requires quick thought, a realization of context and awareness of space. I use these tools on and off stage constantly. It helps me in the rehearsal room because I feel uninhibited in trying new choices for characters. I never feel locked down to one specific idea.”
To Blackout co-founder Bruno, performers like Dolo and Pullam are evidence that experienced stage actors often make exceptional improvisers.
“A quality, seasoned actor brings depth to improvisation that cannot be shaken,” Bruno said, “a true, complete commitment to being a different character or examining a situation, giving the story an arc and bringing honesty to every detail. All of the attention typically focused on the script is paid to the machinations of the scene and character.”
A revolution that’s overdue
She and Blackout will demonstrate that range this weekend at Black & Funny, founded in 2016 by Bruno and Gebretatose. Dolo sees the festival as much more than a weekend of fun and laughs. She envisions it as a jumping-off point for an overdue movement.
“There are people of color who are trying to do similar things all over the country, and now we are combining forces,” Dolo said. “Just three years ago, we had all of this talent sitting on the sidelines in the Twin Cities, barely going to these comedic events that were all white on stage and all white in the audience. Blackout started a revolution of changing this ideal here.
“John and Alsa created Black & Funny out of the seed of Blackout. Now they are bringing people of color from all over the country to share in their collective experience as comedians and writers and storytellers. We are enhancing our comedic culture.”
Bruno agrees that spreading this level of representation is one of the greatest things Black & Funny can hope to accomplish. “We don’t have to wait three years to see another POC improv troupe perform the same night we do. We aren’t a rarity or a delicacy or a treat because we’re brown. Our value isn’t tied to our being scarce on the stage.”
Ultimately, Dolo hopes audiences and visiting performers of color alike can take her career and the success of Black & Funny as inspiration to become more visible in their own theater and comedy communities. “I hope they take with them that they can do something great in their city. … We are creating tribes and relationships.”
She laughed. “It’s very Wakanda-esque.”
Ira Brooker is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and editor.