All improv comics live or die—figuratively, onstage—based on their ability to react to complex, changing circumstances. But, as comedian Monet Marshall notes on the Improv Noir website, the same is true, literally and offstage, for African Americans. Marshall calls being black in America "a constant improvisation."
"It's very real," she adds. "At any moment, I have to be prepared to say, OK, this is the new reality. What do I do now?"
Marshall is one of the founding members of Improv Noir, the region's first all-black improv comedy troupe. She knew a number of black improv comics who performed on predominantly white teams but who had never gotten together. Moses Ochola—owner of The Vault, a Durham event space devoted to cultures of the African diaspora—suggested that Marshall create a monthly improv event for black performers, catering to black audiences. She contacted Jack Reitz, cofounder of the comedy collective Mettlesome, who agreed to serve as what he calls "a placeholder coach" until the group could find a black coach for the team.
After three months of rehearsals, Improv Noir makes its formal debut in a dinner performance at the Vault on Sunday evening, which will recur on the last Sunday of each month. If you're wondering why such a development was necessary, you probably haven't been to a regional comedy club lately, where predominantly white performers play to matching audiences.
"People of color are the other in those spaces," Reitz says. "I think they feel like visitors."
The cultural divisions in comedy clubs sometimes prove too great even for artists interested in bridging the gaps. Marshall recalls feeling like she needed to leave an improv intensive held last July at DSI Comedy Theater during the week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed.
"I just couldn't be there," she says. "It was clear we were in two different moments, two different cultural contexts, at the time."
Because improv involves representation, performers invariably mimic the work they see. In spaces that are predominantly white and male, "it's harder for women and people of color to see themselves," Reitz says. He and Marshall both thought that a black improv troupe needed to perform in a space where its culture was more central.
At The Vault, where the group has had unfettered access to black audiences while rehearsing—and hasn't had to deal with white colleagues or spectators misinterpreting or dominating the conversation about its work—team members say they've made more progress than they expected.
"We feel a lot safer going out on a limb with identity-centered work," Marshall says. "We're less afraid to mine our lives and our identity."
When people from different cultures take the stage, different stories come out. Company member Terryca Taylor-Bynum cracked up during a recent rehearsal when comedian Lauren Foster portrayed an angry Nigerian man who believes that women are obligated to make more African babies. The routine was based on a recent incident in Foster's life.
"It's comedy, but it's real life," says Taylor-Bynum. "We can take things that happened or can happen to you, turn them into joy, and send them back to you."
Black people can easily and understandably feel they have insufficient political and social agency, but improv comedy provides almost total freedom. An actor can be anywhere, be anyone, and do anything they can imagine. Taylor-Bynum revels in the feelings of control she experiences in the form.
"Whatever I say onstage, it is," she says. "In that moment, a black man doesn't have to die. There and then, nothing bad has to happen if I don't want it to."