Blackout, an all-Black, Minnesota-based improv comedy troupe, will perform in Madison for the first time ever tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 8, at 8 pm at Robinia Courtyard.
“What we have in Minneapolis and Twin Cities is a whole lot of rich improv and theatre. We just didn’t see any of us on stage,” founding member John Gebretatose told Madison365.
He said he would often notice one or two Black people performing in a majority-white improv group, but he and other improvers thought it would be fun to have an all-Black troupe. Blackout began with three shows a month. The group blends traditional improvisation techniques with African-American cultural references and real-life conversations.
“If we were to prioritize it, we’re a comedy group first, and second an advocate for underrepresented groups, specifically Black,” Gebretatose said.
In their comedy, the group references 90’s sitcoms and other forms of Black artistic expression but also manages to tie in social issues as well. Gebretatose said during times where there were shootings of unarmed Black men, the group did not know how to perform. Instead, they found a place to talk about individuals like Jamar Clarke who was shot by Minneapolis Police and Philando Castille who was pulled over and fatally shot while driving in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on stage.
“You can see how this is like our Black narrative throughout the world; internationally, this is a thing, but specifically in America, this is an issue in every city,” Gebretatose said.
Sometimes the group struggles with finding a balance going back and forth between light-hearted comedy and serious social issues but hopes people learn something. Gebretatose also thinks it’s fun to poke at Midwest niceness in shows. He said the overall goal is to make sure people laugh and have a good time.
Improvisation is all about feeling the moment, Gebretatose adds, meaning the audience members do not determine the references or material. He added that even if the audience may not completely get a reference from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album, it’s okay, but it’s great when they do.
“Each show is different. One thing that we learned is that if they don’t get it, we still enjoy each other. We don’t change it,” he said.
The group has performed in front of largely white audiences and in front of people of color from all walks of life. Blackout’s cast includes improvisers, stand up comedians, musicians, actors, dancers, poets, writers, storytellers, and educators.
Gebretatose performed stand-up comedy in the Twin Cities for over nine years and currently works as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for HUGE Improv Theatre while also teaching young Black kids improv. He said he loves working with the Blackout cast.
“It’s great. It’s like church in a sense it’s life-giving, affirming. It’s challenging at times but a good challenge at times, especially in Minneapolis,” Gebretatose said.
Doors for Saturday’s show will open around 7 p.m. The show begins at 8 p.m. and will go until 1 a.m. The event will feature musical entertainment from Madison DJs Bruno Zaire and Bruce Blaq. Tickets are $10.