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The most famous alums of The Second City, Chicago’s revered sketch troupe, are, for the most part, white. There’s John Belushi, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Steve Carell, to name just a few. Sure, Tim Meadows graduated from The Second City to a long-running Saturday Night Live stint, killing it season after season with his wildly funny, Courvoisier-sipping Leon Phelps, aka The Ladies Man. After seeing The Black Side of the Moon last week at Woolly Mammoth, I sincerely hope that Lorne Michaels and Hollywood talent-seekers are paying attention to the six black actors who comprise the cast: Each one of them is every bit as funny and skilled as the company’s household names.
The show alternates between stand-up, sketch, spoken word, and song, riffing on life in general, and black life in particular. Director Billy Bungeroth explains in the program notes that the show is unique among the troupe’s offerings, because while previous shows have been purely sketch-based, Black Side is “all from the actors’ perspectives. Whatever it is, it’s coming directly from that performer. It’s a much more personal show because of that.”
This personal touch lands an impactful punch when actors Dewayne Perkins and Torian Miller play a gay couple attending a high-school reunion in suburbia, their easy chemistry belying the stereotypes with which their characters struggle, and it’s totally refreshing to see love, humor, and mutual support transcend feelings of otherness by the sketch’s end.
On the stand-up front, Sonia Denis is a comic force in overalls. A blend of kindness and salt, Denis is clearly practiced in her energetic delivery, bounding around the stage with all the energy of Robin Williams, tackling tough topics (depression, therapy, a white woman’s crazed coveting of the comedian’s hair) like a compact, joke-telling prize-fighter. The other woman in the group, Angela Alise, is a fierce singer.
In terms of writing that gets to the heart of race and politics, two sketches stand out: one in which a white guy is selected from the audience to go on a twisted Dickensian “ghosts of nigger past, present, and future” journey; and a sketch featuring white people passionately protesting gluten, narrated with deft timing by Dave Helem. The Christmas Carol bit is a scream, albeit an uncomfortable one, where we see the race script flipped during a job interview in which the white job candidate sits opposite the hardest hitting satirist of the troupe, Felonious Munk, as Munk plays a condescending hiring manager who is “so glad that affirmative action lets me meet people like you.” Perkins shows the white guy how it’s done when the white guy fails to get the job; in the do-over, Perkins smiles and agrees with every racist comment, anguishing afterwards at his own shameless ass-kissing. You can practically hear his teeth grinding and his tongue bleeding from all the horrible but necessary biting.
There are too many good sketches and bits to call out here, and they add up to a night of theater that ends too soon. And the post-election climate was not ignored: It’s noteworthy that a picture of Michelle Obama graces the back wall, with a slogan that reads “Michelle 2020,” and Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director, added a note to the program on Nov. 11: “Overnight our nation has changed in frightening ways. There is no time for complacency. The role of art in the coming struggle is blazingly clear. We must keep the role of conscience alive. We must ask the hardest questions … six incredibly talented comedians from Chicago are swiftly updating Black Side of the Moon, which opens next week, so that it charges headlong into the cultural chasm that has revealed itself in our election.”
The cast ends on a frank, funny note that emerges from Munk’s satirical standup, calling out all the un-stereotypical ways in which they are “black as fuck,” (“I’m black as fuck and I’ve watched Amélie 20 times”). And with a cast that is far from vanilla in every way, Black Side of the Moon feels like the perfect post-election comic relief for the dark times ahead.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Jan. 1. 641 D St. NW. $20-$79. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.