It’s been almost 25 years since I started writing sketch comedy and performing improvisation. Many of my early shows were pretty good, but I was always striving to identify the elements that would make our work a little better by playing smarter. When I came to the Second City I was taught the power of finding your Voice, how to express your thoughts and feelings through comedy with honesty and vulnerability, and then sharing your Truth, which is owning your unique point of view that no one else can have. Our ensembles perform best when everyone shares their Truth through their Voice, their singular perspective.
“Our ensembles perform best when everyone shares their Truth through their Voice, their singular perspective.”
A recent episode of ABC’s Blackish captured America’s Voice with perfection. The episode “Lemons” showed how the sitcom’s characters are dealing with the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election by representing Truth from all sides – Black and white, men and women, Trump voters and Trump opposers, Clinton supporters and opposers and just about every combination of these groups you could think of. As they dealt with pain and conflict of ‘where do we go from here” I went from laughing out loud to getting choked up in the space of a few minutes.
When the show was over I posted on social media encouraging people to watch the episode. In reply I received a message from an improvisor I’ve known since I started performing. He included a link to a video and asked if I’ve seen the interview with Morgan Freeman where he suggests we don’t need a Black History Month, that he finds it “ridiculous” and we can get rid of racism if we just “stop talking about it’. While I’ve been an actor for most of my life I’ve been Black for much longer. The friend who sent the message is white. It doesn’t feel like he sincerely wants my opinion on what Mr. Freeman said. It feels like he’s trying to use it as justification to shut down an uncomfortable discussion. “This famous Black guy says we don’t need to talk about race issues so why are you?”
“We practice agreement (Yes,and), supporting each other, taking risks and accepting failure, listening, and so much more.”
As an improvisor there are some skills I’ve mastered, many I can do well and a lot I’m still trying to improve. We practice agreement (Yes,and), supporting each other, taking risks and accepting failure, listening, and so much more. I didn’t get better by only practicing these skills when I was in class or on stage. I had to consciously work at actively listening to my family, taking risks with co-workers and finding opportunities to agree with and support people in all areas of my life. Practicing these skills made me a better person, which allowed me to be more honest and vulnerable onstage so I could tell my Truth with my Voice. I’m a very different artist now, in part because I’m a better person. I hope to continue getting better at both.
“Difficult issues of race and diversity can’t be improved with just a few weeks of focused attention.”
Black History Month is a great moment to celebrate our heritage and educate everyone on the contributions of African-Americans to our country. Even if February is the shortest month of the year (no we’re not going to let that go EVER) and it’s one of the coldest months of the year so we can’t have a parade (cause The Man doesn’t like the sight of Black people marching through the streets). Difficult issues of race and diversity can’t be improved with just a few weeks of focused attention. The skills of appreciating diversity and being inclusive have to be practiced every day to affect change in us individually and collectively. It starts by choosing to actively and repeatedly engage others on issues of ethnicity, cultural experience and identity.
“The skills of appreciating diversity and being inclusive have to be practiced every day to affect change in us individually and collectively.”
The Blackish episode aired a few days before the Martin Luther King Holiday. They used Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a subplot. In the 2016 presidential election we witnessed the nomination of the first female presidential candidate by a major party and said farewell to our nation’s first minority president. Through fifty years of struggle and intentional effort America achieved some of what Dr. King hoped for. The rancor and divisiveness of the ensuing weeks highlights how much more we need to get better at.
Decide to use Black History Month as a time to practice appreciating diversity and being inclusive. Then do it the next month, and the next month, and the next.