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Tiffany Fenton, the artistic director for the Ocean State Black and Funny Improv Festival is pictured on the patio at the Contemporary Theater Company, where the festival will be held this weekend. Fenton will be performing during Friday's show.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Contemporary Theater Company is planning to edge out in its programming and subtly wade into current issues of race and diversity through its first-ever “Ocean State Black and Funny Improv Festival.”

Tammy Brown, CTC artistic director, said that the aim is to focus on Black performers in  improvisation.

“It’s a celebration of Black joy, really. A lot of time when we see Black people showcased in the media, it’s around the idea of fighting oppression,” said Brown.

Why Black Improv

Improvisation, or improv, is often done in theater or live television shows. In the performance, plot, characters and dialogue of a story or some other act are created in the moment, instantaneously. The improvisers take cues or suggestions from each other or the audience to spark their inspiration about what to say, how to react and what to do.  

Because of the structure of improv, there will never be another show exactly like it ever done again. It is different each time.

Black improv, through this structure, makes spaces for people to build worlds, create characters, and tell original stories – authentically and unapologetically. Through unscripted comedy, drama, and music, they are dismantling white supremacy, one scene at a time.

Brown said that approach is part of what CTC is aiming to achieve.

“One iteration of Black Lives Matter is that it forced all to take a step back and ask questions. What are we doing to promote civil rights, advance racial justice, create the society we want to live in,” said Brown, who identifies herself as Black.

Tiffany T. Fenton, festival artistic director and also Black, said, “Given the time we have been going through with COVID and the conversations on race we have been having as a nation, we are processing it. In Rhode Island we are trying to change the narrative with action and bring in these artists of color.”

“This kind of festival is big. It’s important because we are writing and telling through the festival and the performers coming our own cultural story. We are two Black women who get to present it as we see fit,” Fenton about their roles as artistic directors and Black women advancing an understanding of their culture.

The festival will feature groups from across the country performing on CTC’s outside patio in a wide variety of improv work as well as with local Black performers doing a mix of scripted and improvised work.

Running September 3 – 4, there will be nightly shows at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

What to Expect

Brown said what folks will see when they come to watch the shows are a variety of world-class improv groups from around the country. Each group will present a different format incorporating everything from shot form, to long form, musical improv, topical panel discussion and games.

For instance, she said, there will be Hold Up, an improv group based in Washington, D.C.

Created by Krystal Ramseur and Derek Hayes, Hold Up showcases Black performers dissecting literature in a way that wasn’t always comfortable in grade school.

“Full of laughter and energy, it this panel show also delves into poignant academic assessments of the text while weaving in modern context and individual perspectives,” Brown said.

A similar show performed in Madison, Wisconsin, brought the following description from The Cap Times about a Minneapolis-based comedy troupe: took “topics that others might tiptoe around. The players seemed free and vulnerable.”

In Minneapolis, the Black and Funny Improv Festival sets out to create an awareness in the Twin Cities that improv is an art form that anyone can do and benefit from.

Its vision is to see the improv scene as “a place where everyone is welcome to share in a space that is respectful to everyone, where we can celebrate ourselves, celebrate our differences, and build each other up while just enjoying ourselves,” according to that festival’s website.

Brown said that “theater is dynamic and changing and should be reflecting our community as that happens. It becomes engrossing and involves the audience.”

It is true that people often have preconceived notions about performances, storyline and characters who play in them, she said. “It’s good once and a while to shake up things and show something different, as with improv and this show.”  

“Theater is at its best when it keeps you in the moment..when you don’t know what your experience will be. That’s what makes it a fun, wild ride,” Brown said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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