In the white world of improv, a black comic finds healing in humor

by | Sep 22, 2016

As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, John Gebretatose relied on his quick thinking and sense of humor to survive. That knack for improvising proved especially useful one day while sitting on the school bus near an older, tougher-looking boy.

That’s when Gebretatose took a risk.“I’m gonna say this really funny thing, and I hope this Crip who’s sitting really close to me in the back of the bus enjoys it.”

To his relief, Gebretatose remembers with a grin, “Rashad liked it.”

Today, Gebretatose, 33, is a professional comedian and one of the founding members the Twin Cities all-black improv troupe Blackout. Humor has played a huge part in his life since childhood — not that his experiences were always funny.

His parents fled their home country, Eritrea, during the Eritrean War of Independence. Gebretatose was born in a refugee camp in Sudan in 1982. Later, his family was sponsored to come to the United States. The family moved to a high-rise tower in Riverside Plaza, an apartment complex on the West Bank of Minneapolis that outsiders commonly referred to as the “crack stacks.”

Gebretatose’s mother suffered from schizophrenia, and his father, a cab driver who spent many nights away from his family, fought depression and alcoholism. Both parents struggled to acclimate to life in a new setting.

In the white world of improv, a black comic finds healing in humor

by Leah Donnella | Next Gen Radio

Even though Gebretatose used humor to feel more comfortable, that wasn’t always the safe route. He was a sarcastic kid and loved seeing how far he could push boundaries.

“I liked that gamble,” he says. “I was either making the room laugh, or running down the block getting chased.”

Today, Gebretatose’s humor still walks the line between funny and taboo, especially when it comes to race. He first started performing stand-up in 2006, often to what he describes as “alternative, liberal, coffee-shop white people.”

In front of those crowds, he says, his identity as a black man came up even if he never mentioned race in his jokes. Any time he did bring up race, he felt like the crowds were strangely relieved.“You get laughs for doing things that you know as a black person are easy, obvious. But the audience is loving it,” says Gebretatose. He walked away from those early sets feeling conflicted.

After years of performing stand-up, Gebretatose started getting into improv comedy, where performers make up their lines while on stage. He loved the playfulness of the form and the chance to work with a team. But after a while, that too became uncomfortable.

 

Blackout rehearses at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis. (Photo credit: Leah Donnella/NextGenRadio)

We’re so used to, as black performers, being forced to shuck and jive or tap dance or whatever, historically. So for us recognizing that we have our own space, which is what white people have had this whole time, for us to realize that was a learning curve.”

John Gebretatose

Comedian, Blackout

John Gebretatose recalls visiting his parents' homeland of Eritrea

by Leah Donnella | NextGenRadio

When he performed, he was often the only person of color. In an art form meant to let people dream any character imaginable, he was constantly called on to play “the black guy.”

“I wasn’t represented on stage,” he says. “And when I was on stage, I didn’t feel the freedom to say and do the things that I wanted to.”

By the summer of 2015, Gebretatose was on the verge of leaving comedy altogether. He figured he would ride out the end of the summer and then call it quits.

But one night in late August, he got a text from Andy Hilbrands, another black improviser, asking him to be in one last show with an all-black group of comedians. They’d call the group Blackout, and their hour-long showcase of sketch, stand-up and improv comedy would be called “Minority Report.”

Gebretatose agreed, figuring he had nothing to lose. The first performance was September 18, 2015.

“When Blackout started, I said, ‘All right. This could be cool,’” he says, remembering the excitement of their debut show at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis. “The next show, we sold out in October. Packed house. No more room. Standing ovation. And it felt easy. It felt fun. It felt like, maybe this is what white people feel when they’re doing improv and having a great time.”

Gebretatose has been all in ever since. The freedom and power that came with being himself on stage — not feeling like he had to represent a group — was addictive.

“We’re so used to, as black performers, being forced to shuck and jive or tap dance or whatever, historically. So for us recognizing that we have our own space, which is what white people have had this whole time, for us to realize that was a learning curve. To recognize our own worth.”

Blackout’s 10 performers take on all sorts of difficult material in their comedy, from police shootings to political campaigns to race and technology. (Recently, they joked that Uber’s new self-driving cars will have an “anti-black sensor” to avoid picking up African American riders.)

Joy Dolo Anfinson, another of Blackout’s founding members, is proud of how much the group has grown since its inception.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, it’s a lot of, ‘Is this funny enough, is this good enough?’” she says. “But I love that we are still here a year later, and able to give people a platform, and able to give people of color a face. We are not only funny, we have opinions, we have insight… This is not only a comedy troupe. We are a group of people on a mission.”

Last Friday, Blackout had their one-year anniversary show — a birthday party of sorts.

In the midst of that show, a technical glitch caused a Fall Out Boy song to start looping. Always ready to go with the flow, members of the team started singing along, and for a few minutes, the Phoenix Theater in uptown Minneapolis was rife with the sounds of eight black comedians jamming out to early-aughts emo rock.

Driving home from the show, Gebretatose reflected on what the past year has meant to him and the group, as people of color trying to find their place in a mostly white comedy scene.

“Even though it is an all-black show, it’s a platform too for white people to come and learn in a way that isn’t scary,” he says. “So as much as I would like personally to have an all Black Panther blackety-black show, the reality of that is the audience isn’t all blackety-black-black all the time. And we have a range and variety of performers.”

But, he says, “If I have to do one more Fall Out Boy scene, I’m going to kick a cat.”

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