Five minutes into a recent conversation with Joy Dolo, an actor and comedian with the Blackout Improv troupe in Minnesota, I could see she had a gift to make people laugh.
"I'm going to send you my stuff on stage," said Dolo, one of the founders of the comedy group, which started in 2015 andfeatures Black performers. "I'm funny as hell."
When I laugh, I'm demonstrative. I throw my hands in the air. I pump my fist. I clap. I'm that person at the party. My greatest memories from my childhood involve laughter in Black spaces: at the dinner table with my family, in the church basement with my cousins and on the basketball court with my friends. I try to pass that joy to my children, too. Our morning car rides to school are really just an opportunity to workshop my rough standup routine.
Over the last few years, however, every chuckle has been muted. I do not believe I am alone in that. I wonder now when we should laugh and then, for how long, as notifications on our phones too often stymie our gregariousness.
That's why I called Dolo.
Dolo is a Black woman who gets on stage and makes an effort to entertain her audiences. She and the other members of Blackout Improv also make space for vulnerability without sacrificing the jokes.
"One of those nights [after a recent police killing], we were doing a show and we met downstairs and we were just looking at each other like, 'How are we going to do a show right now?'" Dolo said. "Like, 'How are we supposed to go out here and make these people laugh when we're dying?' And we went out on stage and we didn't try. We just sat there and talked about what we were feeling. There were a lot of tears and a lot of anger. There was just a lot of processing that we did in front of this mostly white audience at the time. And when we were done, not only was the audience crying along with us, but we had lifted it off of our spirits, so in a way we found the levity afterward."
Dolo stressed that laughing is not ignoring. I paused when she said that to me. It made me think about laughter in a different light. It helped me remember that laughing is not disconnecting. It's part of our humanity and an extension of our emotional palette.
Still, we both agreed that it has been more difficult lately to enjoy some of our favorite TV shows. For Dolo, it's the drug cartel dramas Netflix seems to release once a week. For me, it's "Dateline" and "48 Hours."
Dolo is the daughter of Liberian parents who emigrated to the United States when she was young. During one tough stretch, her family was homeless. But her mother never lost her sense of humor. That shaped Dolo and her perspective on the value of laughter.
To Dolo, laughter is a responsibility, the elixir through the chaos.
"Part of improv is just learning how to be realistic in imaginary situations, just learning how to be yourself, regardless — authentically, unapologetically yourself," Dolo said. "And then you find the joy, you find the way to keep laughing. You find the jokes."
John Gebretatose, Dolo's colleague at Blackout Improv, has been a stand-up comedian for more than 15 years. I told him that I'm jealous of comedians. It's one thing to be the funniest person in your family, but Gebretatose is scientific about the craft. He writes hundreds of jokes just to get one to land.
"Man, I wish I had a joke right now," Gebretatose told me as we talked.
Gebretatose has always valued the opportunity to make people laugh. But the laughs mean more to him today than they did before police killings of unarmed Black men in the Twin Cities became a frequent event.
"There is nothing more accomplishing than the feeling of hearing the laugh in the space that's the loudest it can be in that space," he said. "That's our only gauge, in terms of interacting with the audience. … It does mean much more. It means more that, on a personal level, I feel like me making this choice to do comedy years ago is even more correct. What I also love? It's an involuntary reaction, so now more than ever, I love honesty. And what can get more honest than that?"
I enjoyed our conversation about the joy of laughter within the Black community and beyond.
While we talked on Tuesday, however, a CNN notification crawled across my phone. The toll of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas had risen dramatically. First there were two confirmed dead, then 14. Then eventually 21.
After I hung up the phone, I turned on the TV and I watched some of the coverage that followed. Then, I used most of my allowable characters to tweet about gun violence in America.
It was all overwhelming, so I turned on "Money Talks," a comedy that features Chris Tucker, one of my favorite comedians, and I tried to laugh.
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.