When we use the word “genius,” it is often to describe people who make tangible breakthroughs in math, medicine or technology.
But the term also applies in the performing arts, the realm of the ethereal. Genius in this context often means something virtuosic and wowing, however fleeting. And it is an apt term for some performers in the New Griots Festival, which opened at the Guthrie Theater over the weekend and continues through Sunday.
The lineup includes solo shows and ensemble work by young, genre-bending black artists. The festival, co-founded by producer/director Jamil Jude and playwright/actor Josh Wilder, has comedy and drama, dance and music, plus spoken word and photography. Many of the performers, including actor/writer Jasmine Hughes, singer/dancer Vie Boheme and drummer Arthur “LA” Buckner, also lead free classes and workshops.
Blackout Improv, which staged a late-night show Saturday, is emblematic of the festival’s fluid creativity. The new company is creating sparks in a town that is home to the nation’s oldest sketch comedy troupe, the 60-year-old Brave New Workshop.
Blackout uses a simple structure to launch “The Minority Report.” Audience members are invited to suggest topics — “love,” “intersectionality” and “pasta salad” all figured Saturday — which are pulled out of a hat and read aloud, giving the CNN-style panel of performers something to riff on.
As they discussed the subject at hand, performers John Gebratatose, Alyssa DiVirgilio, Ashawnti Ford, Theo Langason and Derek “Duck” Washington offered revelations about their childhoods, their relationships and their dreams. The panel shared their worldviews.
Reflecting on “love,” Gebratatose said that once he felt loved, he could no longer blurt out the N-word on the bus. Washington added that he doesn’t use that slur, period, because it felt like a betrayal of those who invested their talents and dreams in him. DiVirgilio spoke about her own upbringing as a biracial child in an all-white environment, and how she met rejection when she had crushes on (white) boys. The idea of love caused her to react in a physical way that she’s still trying to process.
The performers all spoke about food and potlucks as opportunities for families to gather and celebrate, even if an aunt does not seem to realize that no one wants her subpar salad.
The troupe — actors who are becoming known about town for traditional stage work — then performed scenes that seemed prewritten and well rehearsed. Of course, like jazz masters or hip-hop rhymesayers, they were creating it in real time before our eyes, with a mood-setting assist from keyboardist Khary Jackson.
Improvising a scene between a traditional, sports-loving father and his nontraditional, sports-averse son, Gebratatose and Langason tossed an imaginary baseball back and forth in a living room while demonstrating how difficult it can be for a dad to say “I love you,” with lots of deflections and dead ends. The vignette felt authentic and in the moment.
The danger of the pursuit — these performers can easily fall flat on their faces — heightened the effectiveness of the vignettes. On Saturday, the troupe never faltered. They performed sure-handedly and in a polished rhythm, milking moments for laughs while showing hipness, heart and vulnerability.
After the show, festival co-founder Jude remarked that the nation is in the midst of a new black renaissance. Blackout, which will perform again at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, hopes to prove him right.