When comedian Jordan Black started doing improv comedy in Los Angeles, he was often the only African-American performer on stage.
He dreamed about one day starting an all-black troupe, but first he had to solve the problem of meeting enough other black people that did improv.
Eventually, he teamed up with Daniele Gaither, Phil LaMarr, Gary Anthony Williams and Cedric Yarbrough to create "The Black Version." Directed by Karen Muruyama, the troupe launched in 2010 at the The Groundlings Theatre, performing sets during which audience members shouted out the names of iconic movies, and the cast performed, well, the black version of it.
If the concept sounds racist, the troupe is the first to admit to it. As Phil LaMarr told The Frame:
Our premise is essentially racist. And we go down from there. [laughter] Because the idea that there is a "black" version of a voice, a character, is not real. But we take those stereotypes that have been lain on us, and we lay them over the movies, and use that to explode the stereotypes into comedy. It's very politically incorrect. But there's something freeing both for us and for the audience in that way. Not in a Donald Trump-y kind of way, but you get to not be afraid to laugh at these things that are potentially tasteless. But in our hands, we take it so far that it becomes fun again.
In traditional improv fashion, the cast encourages the audience to get involved. After a film is decided upon, the audience then has to pick the "black version" of the title. For instance, "Psycho" turned into "Cray Cray." "The Silence of the Lambs" translated to "Why You Eatin' People?" And "When Harry Met Sally?" That became "When Ray Ray Boned Keesha."
Occasionally, the troupe runs across a film that doesn't really work, like Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Jordan Black explained:
"Pulp Fiction" is a white version of black movies, of blaxpoitation films. So to me a lot of the stuff we were trying to do was like, Oh, this is black already. Everybody in that movie's just being a black dude.
Do they worry about running out of movies to parody. Jordan Black says he fields that question on a regular basis, but it's not something that concerns him. His show brings to light the fact that so many of the films that are considered "classic" or "iconic" can be made into black versions in the first place, meaning they started out otherwise. According to Gary Anthony Williams:
I think that's one of the poignant parts of this show. The movies we do are these huge movies that everyone knows, and [they're] stereotypically white. Many of them don't have a black person in a major role at all.
Not having major roles for actors of color is an issue that's in the cultural conversation, but for the members of "The Black Version," it's been fodder for their comedy for years.
Ultimately, the troupe's members say that performing this show is a way to remedy the lack of substantial acting roles for people of color in Hollywood. As Phil LaMarr says: "The wonderful thing about this show is we get to say more lines in this show than we do in most of the stuff we're hired to do."
And Gary Anthony Williams says that by creating their own monthly show, they aren't waiting around for a studio or a network to create roles for them. They're taking matters into their own hands.
This is exactly what we should be doing. Somebody black — Jordan Black — created this show that we are all in, that we're doing for ourselves if nobody else is going to do it for us. We're out there making it happen for ourselves and that's all you can do to make things change.
The actors also add that, as they go out for auditions this TV pilot season, they often meet fans of their improv show, so it elevates their profile in the industry and gives them a creative outlet to boot.
Hear the full, unedited interview here: