C. Michael Menge, an organizer of this year’s Black and Funny Improv Festival, remembers the first time they saw a lead character onstage who looked and talked like them—they started sobbing. “Weeping, publicly and uncontrollably,” Menge says. “I didn't know that I needed to put down my own survival sword and shield for a second and feel what it was like to have other people value and respect people like me.” This kind of validation through representation is exactly what Black and Funny founders John Gebretatose and Alsa Bruno hoped to facilitate when they put on the first festival four years ago after noticing a racial disparity in the Twin Cities improv community.
In the midst of a predominantly white improv scene, the festival works to spread Black joy and create awareness that improv is an art form at which Black people can excel. “This festival is so rare—it’s like finding a unicorn, but a Black unicorn that does amazing improv,” says Gebretatose, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at HUGE Theater. “I want Black people to walk away with more pride in themselves and with a deeper knowing that they matter.”
The festival serves this mission with panels, workshops, and performances by Black and other artists of color from around the country. New this year is an all-star ensemble of Black women and non-binary performers directed by local improviser Alexis Camille of Blackout. The ensemble, created especially for the festival, will perform Saturday and Sunday nights, which Gebretatose hopes will help “shine a light” on an especially underrepresented group that he wants to see more of onstage in future years. Accomplished DJ and MTV VJ Cipha Sounds, who creates a freestyle hip hop show based on the stories of real hip hop figures, will be another festival highlight. Gebretatose is especially excited for a panel discussion, “What to Know About the Business,” between Cipha Sounds and local activist Nekima Levy Armstrong. Another panel, "Making Space, Taking Space," moderated by Menge, will focus on intersecting identities such as race, queerness, and religion, and how the community can show up for these identities. Many of the performing artists will also be teaching workshops during the day.
While the festival was created to center around the Black improv community, everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend the workshops, panels, and performances. Gebretatose hopes white and non-Black people of color will take advantage of the opportunity to learn from and support talented artists whose points of view are underrepresented in the improv world. Menge also encourages the wider community to attend as a practical means of supporting Black art. “Your body is a vehicle for love and change, and where you go with it is an endorsement of what deserves focus, respect, resources, and new patterns of thought,” they say. “These bomb as hell artists matter. Being together as a community matters. Radical joy in a political shit storm matters.”
The Black and Funny Improv Festival will take place March 22nd through the 24th at HUGE Theater in Minneapolis.