Between 1983 and 1985, I spent about 13 months in Chicago. And I spent maybe 50 hours at the Second City Theatre, having either paid for a scripted show or gotten in to a free late-night improvisation session.
I saw Bonnie Hunt, Dan Castellaneta, Richard Kind and other now-familiar faces.
I love the history of improv. I can rattle off a long list of Second City alumni going back to the 1960s; Alan Arkin, Peter Boyle, Robert Klein, Joan Rivers, Burns and Schreiber, Shelley Long...
One can’t help but notice... improvisational theater is an almost lily-white art form. I’ve always wondered about that.
Diana Sands and Godfrey Cambridge did some early improv work. But only since the ’90s have black actors of my generation such as David Alan Grier and Wayne Brady excelled at this most difficult comedic team sport.
Which brings us to a very cool book – “The Second City Almanac of Improvisation” by Anne Libera [Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2004].
Basically a handbook for actors, “The Second City Almanac” contains golden nuggets for fans and students of improvisational humor, including short essays by Tina Fey, Fred Willard, Tim Kazurinsky, Avery Schreiber and others.
One essay – “Finding Your Voice” – is by Keegan-Michael Key, a “MADtv” cast member since 2004. Key got his start at The Second City Detroit.
(Click here to check out one of his “MADtv” recurring characters.)
I’m not a Keegan-Michael Key fan. I’m not a fan of “MADtv” period. The show has always been heavy-handed and kind of smutty.
But I want to share with you what Key has written. Not just to explore the racial dynamics of improv culture, but to illustrate that a “multiracial” consciousness is different than a “black” consciousness. And that’s a sign of our times.
After reading this, ask yourself: Is Keegan-Michael Key black? And if not, so what?
My thanks to Northwestern University Press for permission to use this excerpt:
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: How do you find your voice as a person of color in improvisational theater? As I began to contemplate this inquiry it was met with anxiety. Why are they asking me this question?
I am a thirty-one-year-old male. I’m half black and half white. I was primarily raised by a white woman who grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. I spent my formative years in a mostly white, definitely suburban high school. I have often felt guilty about not spending more time with African American people. I don’t listen to Erykah Badu or Ja Rule every day. I don’t play dominoes. I don’t wear baggy jeans. I married a white woman! In fact, I have felt guilty about not experiencing more racism in my life.
As I began to reflect more on the answer, something a colleague of mine once said popped into my head: “If you’re black and in a scene then the scene is about race.”
I agree with this statement. Whether conscious or otherwise, your ethnicity will resonate with an audience. Due to the sociological underpinnings of our culture it is unavoidable for an American to ignore the dynamic of a black person and a white person onstage together.
My guilt about not being “more black” is part of my black experience. With that said, my initial response to the above question is find your voice by being yourself, no matter what your melanin count is. No one person’s experience is “blacker” or more Hispanic than the next. You are not more Chinese than your neighbor. Life experiences are intrinsically filtered through how you appear, just as much as how you were raised or taught.
Therefore, how you improvise should not be compromised. Improvisation as a culture strives to find some absolutes within itself. We all agree that there is some form of agreement, that we are creating and establishing something together. No matter what nomenclature you use, the basic concepts are the same. So bring your voice to your skill. ...
When you are trying to find your voice, I caution you not to hold on to notions of what you may think you are supposed to do. “I’m Hispanic, but I don’t speak Spanish, so why should I perform scenes about my ethnicity?” Your experience is your experience. How do you struggle with not speaking Spanish? Use the improvisational tools you’ve learned to dramatize that.
Sometimes, we feel we must show a blind deference to our elders or try to duplicate their experiences. I say put forth your reactions to your elders and their lives. Do you admire them or disapprove of them?
One of the best ways for us to seek our voice is to observe your reactions to what other people do, and if you are aware enough, others’ reactions to what you do. How we feel about a given word or action informs us as to what our opinions of life are.
When I have been in the process of writing a show, I often meditate on certain questions to get my mind working in a particular way. These questions typically deal with my natural impulses toward what I witness and observe in this life. What do I think people’s expectations of me are? What makes me angry about being a person of color? What about stereotypes do I believe are true? Are there generalizations about my race that I think are true? As you ask one question of yourself more will start toppling out of you.
I think it’s important to mention that when you are improvising you should not force these questions or answers to the forefront of your mind. If you find yourself in a position where your race may enhance the scene then react accordingly.
You will find that you react from your own truth. There is no right way to do it. There is no quota of how many angry young black men you have to play in a week’s worth of sets; if that is what comes to you, then pursue it. ...