Tai Campbell: Why aren’t there more black people in improv?

Tai Campbell
Tai Campbell
Tai Campbell is a writer, director, comedian and improviser.
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Black people don’t exist in improv. Well, there are about five of us. In a world where talking unicorns are real and time travel is possible, we don’t exist. We don’t exist as characters (even off stage), as performers, teachers or as prominent voices in the improv world. Here’s an interesting question: how many white improv performers have you seen play a black character on stage or even refer to anyone who is black? It rarely happens. In fact, most people are afraid to play a black person.

The vast majority of shows I’ve seen will too often avoid topics like race because they don’t want to offend the audience who are, you guessed it, predominantly white.

The existence of race has become suppressed in the worlds that performers create. What we end up with are white performers, playing white characters, doing white humour for white audiences. By creating this ‘safe, let’s avoid offending people, space’, improvisers have accidentally excluded a group of people, making race a taboo subject – in 2017.

Sometimes black people can be excluded due to an improv group’s format. There are a few shows exclusively set in and inspired by the ‘good old days’ of the 1800s and early 1900s. A time where life was simpler, you know, as long as your skin was white. I have heard performers say they’d rather keep race out of it and just have fun. To that, my response is: “Easy for you to say – you’re white. If I keep my race out of it, I don’t get to be a part of it.”

Whether you admit it or not, race is important – and guess what? Race can be funny and you can even play a black character.

Dos and don’ts for playing a black person on stage: a guide to working in improv

Don’t:

• Give yourself a stereotypically black name like Lequaan or Chaniqua.

• Adopt stereotypical mannerisms like swaying, screwing your face or finger flicking.

• Use cliched ‘blackisms’ like sucking your teeth, calling people ‘fam’, ‘cuz’ or ‘bruv’.

Do:

• Use names from any region.

• Use the same mannerisms you have normally.

• Speak in the same accent you already have.

Basically, just act like a black friend you have and not the stereotypical ‘rude boy’ you see on the street or on TV. Notice I said ‘friend’ because the chances are someone you are friends with won’t be anything like the negative stereotypes we are often bombarded with. However, if you unfortunately do not have any black friends, then improv may not be the place to find one.

Now some people do attempt racial humour. I’m glad to see they’re brave enough, but unfortunately most end up doing ‘white black jokes’. To understand this better, you have to look into the psychology of race in humour, the first being:

The comedian: white black jokes and black black jokes

To put it simply, a white black joke’s humour is based on perpetuating a negative stereotype or black being the thing that’s different, therefore it’s negative, therefore it’s funny. It isn’t. Have you heard that joke about Stevie Wonder being glad he’s not black? I don’t know a single black person who’d find that funny. On the other hand, a black black joke either points out the ignorance of other people or brings you in to our own experience.

Here’s a joke I wrote: “How do you get a white guy to move really fast? Get a black guy to talk to his girlfriend in a bar.”

No, I’m not calling everyone a racist, but I have definitely experienced nervous white boyfriends introducing themselves, not so discreetly trying to ask why I’m talking to their girlfriend (who by the way is most likely an old university friend). Now you know. That’s the comedian’s perspective. When it comes to the psychology of the audience, things get really interesting…

The audience: content and context

Ask a bunch of people from the north who their favourite comedian is, and they’ll probably say a northern comedian; ask a woman and it’ll probably be a female comedian; ask a black person and it’ll most likely be a black comedian. Why? Content is important, but the most relevant thing is the context. People gravitate to the comedian who sees a situation in the same context as them; their perspective is one they identify with.

You’re probably thinking, ‘That’s really clever but what relevance does this have in improv?’ Whether conscious or not, the scenes we create as improvisers come from our experiences, our point of view of those experiences, and the context in which we experienced them. So the vast, vast majority of scenes on stage reflect the experiences of, that’s right, white people.

I sometimes joke about how white some people are. By that I’m not talking about their skin colour – what it means is an individual who doesn’t know about, embody or understand anything outside of white English culture. Now that’s not a bad thing, be who you are. But… I could be watching a show, the performers are killing it, the audience is loving it, meanwhile I’m sat there thinking, ‘This is some white people shit’. It’s all about context and it doesn’t always include people like me.

A quick acknowledgement

I have to acknowledge that although black people have it bad in improv, people in the LGBTQ community have it worse, as do people whose first language isn’t English and disabled people. I think it’s important to fight your corner, while still acknowledging the people we also affect negatively.

Thinking black yet?

Here are some of the things I hear a lot: “We need better representation of women in improv”, “That group needs a woman in it”, “That group can do with another woman”. These are statements I wholeheartedly agree with, but how many times have you watched a group and thought, ‘That group needs a black person’ or ‘That group can do with someone who isn’t white’? Be honest, I won’t get mad – but I’m guessing the answer is never. Funny, isn’t it?

How do you tell when a group is in greater need of diversity? It all goes back to context. You can have a scene with two men buying trainers, only talking about trainers but still be aware of how phallocentric it is. You can watch two Americans playing frisbee in a park and feel that the scene is very American. In the same way two white people playing white characters in a cafe can be very white. Context, context, context.

Now, I’m not saying you have to change what you do; what I’m saying is, these are the effects of some of the things performers do. There aren’t any easy fixes or easy answers but you have to acknowledge that black people exist. Even writing that sentence felt strange – it’s 2017.

Don’t be afraid of race, embrace it. Feature race in your shows, let us be a part of it. Don’t worry about offending people. If what you do comes from an intelligent, enlightened place, the context of what you’re doing will speak for itself. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but it certainly beats the current state of things.

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