On February 20, 2016, the Twin Cities-based improv troupe Blackout — the first all-Black improv troupe in Minnesota — made local history by producing, directing, hosting and headlining the first Black improv festival in the Twin Cities. The show entitled “Black and Funny” took place at HUGE Improv Theater in South Minneapolis to a sold-out crowd.
The Black and Funny Improv Festival was an all-day affair that ran from 10 am to 7 pm. Co-directors John Gebratatose and Alsa Bruno kicked-off the festival with an introduction, followed by two 45-minute workshops before and after lunch. A panel discussion entitled “Black to the Future” took place after lunch. The discussion was led by comedian Greg Coleman, comedienne/radio host Miss Shannan Paul, and actor Rex Isom, Jr., who explored the state of Blacks in Minnesota through their stand-up comedy.
Later that evening, all of the workshop participants geared up for the student showcase performance prior to the grand finale by Blackout. The workshop students delivered a steady paced performance that flowed and kept the crowd laughing.
What is improv, you ask? In short, it’s another form of live theater, and by definition, the art of improvisation. When you say the word “improv” in Minnesota or around the United States, the legendary Dudley Riggs, founder of the Brave New Workshop (BNW) comes to mind. Since 1958, the BNW has been performing original sketch comedy longer than any other theater in the country.
Riggs, a former aerialist with the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, cheated death falling from a trapeze. This harrowing experienced influenced Riggs’ decision to start his own Instant Theater Company in New York, just to play it safe.
Riggs’ shows allowed the audience to give input and interaction, which sparked the start of comedic improvisation. After touring, Riggs settled down in Minnesota and the rest is history. The BNW produced a few Minnesota notables like Louie Anderson, and Al Franken, former Saturday Night Live writer and cast member and current U.S. Senator.
The Black and Funny Improv Festival was directed by troupe member Gebretatose (pronounced Gebra tat tee ous), who is the son of Eritrean parents, but born in Sudan due to the war in Eritrea at the time. Gebratatose arrived in Minnesota at age one and has been here for 33 years. “I consider myself an African American and I feel very Black,” said Gebratatose.
When asked how long he has been doing improv, Gebratatose said, “I started doing stand-up in 2006, and later got a job at the Brave New Workshop. A woman named Laura Anderson, who worked the main stage at the Brave New Workshop, pulled me aside and suggested that I take the improv classes because they were free for employees. So I took the classes and loved it.
“So about six months ago, Blackout director Kory LaQuess Pullman, pulled together all of our group members to form Blackout,” recalled Gebratatose. The Blackout cast members are: Joy Dolo Anfinson, Alsa Bruno, Kory LaQuess Pullman, Andy Hilbrands and John Gebretatose. Founder Pullman was unavailable for the Blackout festival.
Blackout took the stage to close out the festival. Their showcase began with a member of the audience selecting little slips of paper out of a hat with one word, a sentence, a song title or a phase written on it. The troupe started a discussion from there and squeezed the funny out.
The three slips selected were “ham” “Grocery Island” and the phrase “#All lives matter.” When “All Lives Matter” was selected, Hilbrands responded: “I mean that’s the point? That’s so stupid because ‘Black Lives Matter’ is really ‘Black Lives Matter, Too!’ So ‘All Lives Matter’ was already the default. That’s like going to the hospital and saying, ‘but I don’t have cancer —where’s my chemo?’”
Blackout’s performance was engaging, smart, thought-provoking, and funny, and made this attendee want to see more. According to a few audience members’ comments after the show, Blackout has a synergy that could easily convince anyone that the troupe has been working together for more than six months.
If you or someone you know wants to learn more about improvisational training or the Blackout the improv troupe, contact John Gebratatose at 612-255-7523 or the Huge Theater at 612-412-HUGE. For updates visit Blackout’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BlackoutImprov.
James L. Stroud Jr. is a contributing writer and photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.