A few years ago, Kory LaQuess Pullam had a moment of inspiration while improvising a scene during a class at HUGE Impov Theater. He was playing a matriarch to a family beset by hard times. “Damn, damn, damn!” he shouted, referencing an iconic moment from the ’70s sitcom Good Times. Thinking he’d get a laugh from his fellow improvisers and the instructor, Pullam was instead surprised by silence. “I just kind of looked around the room, and it was crickets,” he recalls.
Aside from Pullam, the only black person in the room, nobody knew the reference.
“I loved [taking classes at HUGE], but I saw that there were no people of color onstage at all,” he says. “In the audience, there were no people of color. At the front desk, there were no people color. It's like, 'I'm the only person of color in this entire theater.'”
When Jenna Papke at the Phoenix Theater reached out to him about putting together an improv show, he already had the idea for an all-black troupe. He recruited Alsa Bruno, Joy Dolo, John Gebretatose, and Andy Hilbrands to join the cast of what would become Blackout. In October 2015, they hosted their first late-night show, called the Minority Report. It was a mix of monologues, sketches, and improvised scenes, often exploring race-related concerns in culture.
By their second show, they were selling out the theater.
Two months after their debut, they were wrapping up a rehearsal when news broke of the death of Jamar Clark. While police shootings had come up in prior shows, “you could just feel the whole room be like, ‘And now it’s in our town,’” Pullam says.
“We just ended up deciding that, in everything that we’re doing, we just have to be completely honest,” Dolo says. Anger, frustration, and sadness came up throughout that week’s show, which stretched to two hours. “It almost felt like a town hall meeting in a way,” Pullam says.
Since their debut, the group’s audiences have grown increasingly white. Pullam accepts that for many of those white audience members, guilt is likely a motivator. He describes it as a catch-22. “I hate it when I see someone say we’re presenting ‘the black perspective’ or ‘the women’s perspective’ or blah blah blah. It's like, how could you possibly represent an entire culture or an entire race or gender? That's impossible, dude, there are so many different facets to people.”
Sometimes the racially charged nature of the show brings out less than positive feelings from audiences. For example, after one show, “a white man and his white friends [complained] that we said ‘nigger’ too much, and he was offended by that,” Dolo says of a conversation she overheard one night.
Ultimately, Pullam doesn’t feel like it’s their place to say why people should see their show. “You’re here, so all I can do now is take advantage of you being here, try to get you some nuggets of truth and wisdom and levity — or just uplift your spirits for a second so you can be kinder and better to the next person you see.”
Since its debut, Blackout has expanded its cast, adding nine new members, including four women. (Bruno and Hilbrands moved out of state.) They hope to inspire other improv groups formed by people of color. “There should be an Asian equivalent of Blackout, a Hispanic equivalent of Blackout,” Pullam says.
IF YOU GO:
10:30 p.m. every third Friday of the month
2605 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis