The Truth About Color, Comedy & The Second City

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The Truth About Color, Comedy & The Second City

The phone rang. It was a producer from The Second City Detroit. I’d just received a callback from a week-long audition to perform on the Mainstage.

If anyone would have told me back in 1995 that this one call would begin a 14-year-long journey for me– from young 20-something performer to my current role, Director of Outreach & Diversity– I would have shook my head and said, “Not me.”

365 days a year, I champion and advocate the work of diversity, promote inclusion and bring real numbers to the current hot-button conversation about how improvisers of color are represented in the business.

Here’s the black-and-white and every color in the rainbow truth:

Diversity is always on speed dial; it calls everyone in the industry.

When the phone rings, answer it– and do the work.

Pass the Torch 

The Second City was serious when it came to diversity, as I learned early on, and it came from the top down. Every person of color that has performed on a Second City stage has been instrumental in helping another person of color.

One of my favorite ”passing the torch” stories comes from Angela V. Shelton, who would call herself “black” in every scene: “As a black woman, I believe…” 

This ensured another black female would get hired in her role after she left.

It worked. That’s how I became her understudy before I joined a resident stage.

It wasn’t coincidence that Second City became a talent pipeline for some of the theatre’s best and diverse performers of color, who later went on to perform on the resident stages of Second City and later, in TV and film.

They include:

Keegan Michael-Key, Horatio Sanz, Tim Meadows, Angela V. Shelton, Frances Callier, Judith Scott, Jerry Minor, Nyima Funk,  Christina Anthony, Brandon Johnson, David Pompeii, Ali Farahnakian, Mary Sohn, Sam Richardson, Ithamar Enriquez, Martin Garcia, Amber Ruffin, Aaron Freeman, Catherine Worth, Cheri Vanden Heuvel, Anthony LeBlanc, Antoine McKay and Rico Bruce Wade… to name several.

Our current talent–working on our stages, touring, or performing on the high seas– includes (picture L to R):

Tawny Newsome, Edgar Blackmon, Punam Patel, Chris Redd, Neal Dandade, Eddie Mujica, Brianna Baker, Niccole Thurman, Claudia Wallace, Travis Turner, Holly Walker, Nate Sherman, Christine Tawfik, Marlena Rodriguez and Jasbir Singh.

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Say What You Mean & Mean What You Say

In 1992, under the direction of Frances Callier, Diversity & Outreach fulfilled a mission to provide new voices of color to a community– and a space to learn improv and take classes at Second City. What later developed were GayCo Productions, Stir Friday Night and Salsation Theatre Company, spearheading improv in the gay, Asian and Latino communities.  A group of African American performers also formed a troupe and opened their show “Kill Whitey” to critical acclaim.

In 2002, The Second City Outreach & Diversity division expanded to a full-year program– dedicated to cultivating new talent of color in improv and sketch comedy.

Although race has been a hot button here at The Second City from time to time, no whites have actually been killed (or blacks, for that matter).

A Good Investment in Actors of Color = Good Return 

“How can we bring more [black] people and audience to our theatre?” Second City CEO & Co-Owner Andrew Alexander asked, watching one of our black history shows in the studio theatre.

“We need programming and resources for diverse talent,” I answered. “Improvisers need to see more of them in the work that you want to cast them in.”

And in good fashion, a mandate was given that the Outreach & Diversity division be funded without making a profit. The Second City currently has actors of color performing on all of its stages.

The Stats  

  • 21 years of commitment to diversity since the program’s inception in 1992
  • 11 years of talent development, specifically targeted to developing & cultivating talent of color in sketch comedy & improv
  • 20+ scholarships and/or work-study awards are granted to qualifying talent of color each year
  • 50% of the talent developed in-program are hired to work for Second City and various divisions within the company
  • 90% of actors of color working on a resident stage, touring company or theatrical division were identified by the program
  • 1/3 of actors of color hired are classically trained theatre actors from outside the improv community
  • 48 performers representing actors of color, the LGBTQ community and multidisciplinary artists showcased their work in the Outreach & Diversity’s 2013 R.E.A.C.H. shows
  • In 2013, Second City General auditions saw the highest-ever number of Conservatory grad actors of color (43)

Advice for the Next Generation

“My journey is a good example of the many roads you can take through Second City!” –Danny Pudi, Second City Training Center grad and star of NBC’s Community

“Being black in comedy is the same as in life– that every black kid on this earth has heard before– and it’s simply, ‘You gotta be TWICE as good.’” –Chris Redd, Second City Touring Company Ensemble Member

“It’s easy to get caught up in talks about how race can work for and against you, but remember that you are a comedian, first and foremost. Trust your talent.” –Punam Patel, E.T.C. Ensemble Member

“Don’t be the white man’s bitch, but make Her laugh.” –Angela V. Shelton, Second City Detroit, Toronto & Chicago alum

“You could be the only black woman in your class, team or Touring Company, but don’t let that scare you. Let it prepare you.” –Christina Anthony, E.T.C. Stage alum

“As a bi-racial woman in comedy, which is an even smaller minority, all I have to say is fight for your voice.” –Catherine Worth, Second City Detroit alum

“I believe the demographics of comedy should more closely match the demographics of our society, because let’s face it: no matter who you are, we’re all weirdos!”  –Neal Dandade, Second City Touring Company Ensemble Member

“Everyone at our workplace is ‘we.’ The rest of the world is ‘them.’” –Aaron Freeman, Second City Mainstage alum

“Don’t try to be what you think ‘they’ want you be. Be yourself. Use your voice, your perspective.” –Claudia Wallace, Second City Chicago Mainstage alum

“Be brave. Take every opportunity to learn a new way of doing your craft. Stay away from dairy.” –Brandon Johnson, Second City Detroit alum

“Focus on improving yourself through hard work and practice. Don’t be afraid to fail. Try dairy, you never know…” –Nyima Funk, Second City Detroit and Chicago alum

“We need to hear your unique voice. Invest ruthlessly in discovering and sharing that voice. Also, soy milk does not work in coffee.” –Rico Bruce Wade, Second City Detroit alum

“You are unique in the universe. No one has ever been or will EVER be quite like you, so present YOU in everything you write, perform and create. That is what an audience wants from you– that element that is unique and singularly yours. I am the DAIRY QUEEN!” –Frances Callier, Second City Touring Company alum

“Always do what feeds and inspires you.  The color part is already taken care of.  You tell your story your way, and others will glean what they need from it.  This is being written whilst on the toilet.  I blame dairy.” –Keegan-Michael Key, Second City E.T.C.  & Detroit alum; star of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele

Represent the World We Live In 

The Second City is the only comedy institution in the world with a full-time diversity division working to increase the talent pool of improvisers of color in sketch comedy. Can we increase our efforts and level the “playing field” even more? Yes. And for those players in the game, the “people who make the calls”, I highly recommend it.

Diversity is everyone’s work.

Dionna Griffin-Irons is Director of Outreach & Diversity and a Second City Detroit alum. She produces, teaches, recruits and mentors diverse talent in the comedy community and beyond. 

Visit secondcitydiversity.com for more info and resources for talent. Follow @SecondcityOD and like us on Facebook.

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