Black Takeover of improv show brings awareness to black persons in comedy
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
“I’m here to move and rearrange systems—and as a result: hashtag solidarity. I’m pro-black and I believe in white and black people working together.” These words came from comedian and director of diversity and inclusion at HUGE Theatre, John Gebretatose, succeeding his Black Takeover of improv livestream The Sunday Service.
The Sunday Service is a Vancouver-based yet internationally praised improv show. It previously functioned on-stage at Main Street’s Fox Cabaret. However, like many other components of our current lives, it too has become virtualized, and now livestreams every Sunday via their YouTube channel. One benefit of the show operating from the comedians’ homes is that its guests are no longer limited to those who are physically in Vancouver.
On Sunday, Minneapolis-residing Gebretatose co-hosted the show with one of the improv troupe’s members: Taz VanRassel. VanRassel as well as the other Sunday Service members are, at their forefront, white. “Taz knew that I was going to do a black history month takeover which implied that I would bring a black guest and we would do segments of my choice […] and that’s all he knew,” Gebretatose tells the Other Press during a Zoominterview.
Gebretatose did more than what he’d lead on to the Sunday Service members; what wound up happening was monumental. During the first skit, Gebretatose had asked each of the comedians to improv with their eyes closed, seemingly for comic relief. While they performed with their eyes shut, however, improver upon improver began entering the Zoom call until the screen was filled with a mosaic of Zoomsquares, all of which, were black. Gebretatose explained: “This is a takeover for Black History Month […] the point I want to make is that for all of us—when we play with white people, this is what it is—this is what it looks like. From your vantage point, you’re seeing a sea of beautiful black people, we see a sea of white people.”
Sunday Service comedian Aaron Read expressed his reaction to the Other Press during a Messenger interview: “I thought the gesture was really powerful. It took me by surprise, and I thought John’s message was clear and I felt it!”
The show then continued with an homage to Ese Atawo a talented, Vancouver-residing black comedian by Gebretatose: “Ese has been holding it down for so long in Vancouver. For those of you who don’t understand what it’s like to be the only one in the room: it’s a lot of work. And also, to show up and be Ese’s authentic self, and funny as hell, and talented consistently for so long—that is something that should not be going on without any sort of recognition.”
Atawo is a minority in her artform but aims to see vaster representation within it. “When I saw my first show, I realized that all the stories performed were the same, repeated over and over and over and over and over again with some slight variations. I wondered why I hated watching improv shows and would rather be learning improv with my classmates,” she tells the Other Press during a messengerinterview. “My class consisted of three people of colour (myself included) and yes, still very fucking small in terms of representation but more than enough to have different perspectives, characters, and stories to realize that this artform called improvisation is lacking so much because so much is being missed, ignored, pushed aside, and silenced.”
Gebretatose used the example of hip hop, deducing its greatness to the fusion of different sounds. Using this metaphor, he elucidated why improv would be improved if it were more inclusive. “Improv is best if there’s a mix of people from all over […] it’s so cool to watch when you have all these different flavours.”
He elaborates on his intention of the Black Takeover, “I would like BIPOC people to feel absolutely safe—truly safe, not just when in a ‘safe space,’ I want them to truly feel safe and trusted to do whatever they need to do. I would also like BIPOC people to feel that they don’t need white approval to do whatever they need to do.” When asked how that can be made possible, he replies, “It just comes down to the generic life principle: love and understanding.”
Recently, a poet told me that there is power in writing from the vantage point of revenge, it aids in reclaiming what has been lost. In a non-aggressive sense, and through a different medium, and I think this is exactly what Gebretatose did on last Sunday’s show. Fighting for the representation of different demographics in improv has been an intention of his for some time. “Representation is important, […] I’m the product of seeing someone who looks like me thrive in improv.”
“John’s Take Over of The Sunday Service” highlights how improv is richer with more inclusion and diversity. Improvisation is rooted in acceptance, what I pray to see for the future of improv is that.” How can you support black persons in improv? Donate to Black Improv Alliance: Black Improv Alliance Venmo: @blackimprovalliance. Donate directly to the Black People in Improv Comedy Safety Fund. Peep the Black Takeover episode here: The Sunday Cyber Digital Service! February 21, 2021. Check out John’s podcast, The Elise & John Show.