Thursday, November 15, 2007

Improvising While Black

I’m an improv groupie.

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. ...


NunaOni said...

“[A] “multiracial” consciousness is different than a “black” consciousness.” Howso? Keegan’s thought process would be the same as a Black person’s process. His questions are the same as any Black actor “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?” The race he is speaking of is the Black race, not the multicultural race, whatever that is.

His guilt about not spending more time with Blacks may be in his psyche, but a Black person could have written the majority of this article. I see no difference. In the social dynamic that exists in the US he is Black even if there is something in his psyche that ties being Black to a bunch of silly social constructs which in and of themselves do not necessarily identify one as Black...

"I don’t listen to Erykah Badu or Ja Rule every day (me neither). I don’t play dominoes (I do, but not a lot). I don’t wear baggy jeans (me neither nor does my brother). I married a white woman! (He’s kidding right!? This has to be the last thing that disqualifies your Black card lol!)"

Your ticket to any culture extends beyond a meager list of qualifications. If I listed everything that my life encompasses, I would be disqualified too. The only thing that separates my brown skin curly-haired self from the so-called multicultural people is that when someone asks me what I am I state that I am Black. It would be nice if people didn’t judge books by their colorful covers, but we live in the US. The reason multicultural has been disregarded as an identity is because almost everyone can claim it and how could the US operate without the racial divide.

Yes there are some differences between Blacks and the so-called multicultural people, but differences exist between Black people and Black people. As long as one has a bit of melanin and slight curl in their hair, they will be identified as Black (or at the very least not White) and therefore develop a similar, if not same consciousness as Blacks.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for the comment, Nunaoni.

The essence of black consciousness is the declaration, "I am black."

Keegan-Michael Key says, "I'm half black and half white."

That says it right there. His identity is something other than black.

I'm not knocking it. I'm just pointing it out because the multiracial identity I think will complicate American racial politics in a lot ways.

Key has more Africa in his DNA than I do. But both my parents were (light-skinned) black people (i.e., "colored," "Negro")... and when you get to cousins and uncles and in-laws, all different shades in my family. So there's no confusion as to cultural identity.

But raised by a single white woman?

odocoileus said...

Thanks for the book rec. I'll have to check that out. 2nd City has produced so many big timers over the years, it's almost our (America's) RADA. ; )

KM Key certainly didn't grow up in black American culture. In cultural terms, he's like a half French, half German kid who grows up in Germany. Speaking German, eating German food, going to school with Germans, etc. If he speaks French at all, it's only haltingly, and only when relatives come over.

So he isn't necessarily a black American, anymore than West Indian or African immigrants are black Americans. Different history, different language, different culture. (Good luck getting white Americans to see that, though.)

I don't know where he grew up in Chicago, Evanston would be my guess. There are many parts of Chicago where his identity wouldn't be that much of an issue.

He'd be exclusively black because his white neighbors would remind him of that fact every day. Passively, by shunning him and his mom, or actively, by calling him out of his name, and beating his behind whenever he crossed one of the many invisible lines that demarcate black and white in Chi town.

I also suspect that we don't get the whole story in this blurb. Just how happy were his mom's parents to see either his dad or him? Just how happy is his wife's family to see him?

NunaOni said...

This explains a little bit of my POV. The African American experience in the US spans across so many lines we do not operate under one consciousness. Keegan's early life with his white mama is just another Black experience as I see it. I must state that Keegan has the right to define himself as he pleases...I just see it differently. Poll: Education, Income Segregates Blacks

dez said...

Keegan-Michael Key is one of my fave MADtv cast members (I love his character, "Coach Hines"). If he identifies as white, black, or half-and-half, I say more power to him.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ "Coach Hines" is about the only character he does that I can half-way tolerate.

Let me make clear: Mr. Key can define himself as he chooses. His racial identity is his own business. But 50 years ago -- single white mama and all -- he would've had an unambigiously black consciousness. Because American social norms would've imposed that on him.

Today, different norms. And my guess is that a "biracial" or "multicultural" identity -- as distinct from a black identity -- will be more and more commonplace.

I suspect this will have sociopolitical repercussions.

dez said...

^It's going to take it to a whole. 'nother. Level!

Sorry, I couldn't resist :-D

Lola Gets said...

I love that coach character too, always talkin smack and not doin nuffin, lol. I think that Keegans biggest problem with identity rises from his socialization. He wasnt socialized Black, as he was raised by a white mother in a rural area (Im assuming there werent a lot of Blacks there). That doesnt mean he isnt Black. Ive known folks of other ethnicities who were socialized differently, especially those who were socialized Black (think "whiggers"). It only affects how they, and sometimes others, see themselves, not what they actually are.


Undercover Black Man said...

Hey Lola. Here's a thoroughly modern thought puzzle:

If Keegan-Michael Key were to say "I'm not black"... would he still be black?

Wow... that's some sound-of-one-hand-clapping shit right there...

NunaOni said...

(sorry, butting in)
If he said that he was not Black, then he would be whatever label he decided...he would just have a lot of 'splaining to do.

Heck, if I had to describe him to someone I would say that he is a bald Black dude. I seriously doubt that anyone would overlook him.

Funny thing is he cannot define himself as White, even though culturally he is pretty much a mid western white dude. He can define himself as Black, African American, Mulatto, multicultural (which when you think about his upbringing he really isn't), mixed (ah yes that's more like it), but the man cannot define himself as White. A chocolate-toned Arab or Indian man is White according to US policy, but Keegan cannot claim it. I often wonder what would happen if "mixed" children could check the White box...hmmm.
While we are at it, since clapping involves a hand hitting something else i.e. another hand or some other surface, one hand clapping sounds just about the same as two:)

dez said...

While we are at it, since clapping involves a hand hitting something else i.e. another hand or some other surface, one hand clapping sounds just about the same as two:)

I thought Bart Simpson already gave the definitive answer on this :-D

writerwoman said...

As a person with a multi race background, I think you are kidding yourself by even asking if this man is black. Its the same as asking if Barack Obama is black enough. It is actually mildly offensive.

It is only natural for him to ask himself about how black he is, yet it is an entirely different thing for you to question it. He is not just black, but he is black. I idenitfy as multiracial myself.

But if I had to fill out a form for the government I would identify as black, for political reasons. That is my personal choice.

If I had to fill out a form for anyone else I would check both black and white, and if that screwed up their labeling system so be it. That's my right and anyway I deem to identify is my business.

I do think it is healthy to bring up this subject but tread carefully because race is a volatile subject.

All those things that Keegan mentioned that he questioned about if it made him sterotypically black are just silly, and really have nothing to do with identifying a black person in America. But it is normal for him to think about these things and how the world uses them to judge him, and how he uses them to judge himself. I just don't think you should use his confusion against him.

Thanks for submitting to the Soup to Nuts Progressive Dinner. This entry certainly did get me thinking.