“Subversive minstrelsy.” That’s how Brandey Chandler describes the inspiration for an upcoming performance at the Kansas City Improv Festival.
Chandler is one of nine members of the troupe U People, which was formed in February by a group of Kansas City-based black improvisers.
The troupe specializes in long-form improv comedy, which usually consists of a series of interrelated scenes inspired by an initial suggestion (a style different from the often game-based short-form featured in the show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?").
They're set to perform alongside 34 other local and touring acts during the two-weekend Kansas City Improv Festival. Headliners include Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall and Chicago’s Matt Damon Improv, whose cast is entirely women of color.
“There’s all kinds of people doing improv,” says Tiffany Chappell, one of the festival's co-directors. “We really (maintain a) purpose to be inclusive in our representation of who’s an improviser.”
The Kansas City Improv Festival is one of the longest-running improv comedy festivals in the nation; after starting in 1994, this is its eighteenth year after several breaks. As Chappell points out, many festivals across the United States rely heavily on volunteer work, and are commonly forced to take gap years when organizers are unavailable.
This year, the festival is being run by a board of six volunteers, with Chappell and Brandon Durkes co-directing for the second year in a row. “We couldn’t do it without each other,” Chappell says.
By spotlighting a combination of local and touring talent across experience levels, the festival provides a unique opportunity for Kansas City’s improv community.
“Bringing out-of-town people to see the passion and talent here allows people to build a nationwide buzz around our city, and it allows our local talent to be exposed to new ideologies … that will make them grow,” says Chappell. “It’s an influx of resources into our city.”
While the festival lineup is filled with talented groups from across the country, Chappell says there's a particular buzz around U People.
“There’s a lot of excitement around getting to highlight this amazing group of improvisers,” she says. “They’ve been working really hard and been doing some amazing shows.”
For its Thursday-night performance, U People's Chandler says the group plans to perform an original format called The Cakewalk, inspired by a subversive dance created by enslaved people in the South.
“It was originally invented by slaves who were making fun of the way their owners danced," Chandler explains. "Owners saw it, didn’t know they were being made fun of, and started paying them to do it.”
Chandler says the history of improv is, in some ways, parallel to the cakewalk.
“Improv is primarily white: 'We’re going to do the thing white people do and be awesome at it,'” she says.
But she's not surprised by the enthusiasm other improv artists are showing for her troupe's work.
“I think generally the improv community is good at being uncomfortable,” Chandler adds. “When they hear something that isn’t comfortable, they’re still open to hearing it and want to try to make everybody feel comfortable and welcome. Improv people are going to sit with that differently.”
Looking forward, she says, U People has plans to explore genres outside of improv.
“We are thinking about a YouTube channel, and submitting to festivals within reach,” she says, adding that U People is also considering a show that combines sketch comedy, improv and trivia.
Chandler says she hopes that U People can encourage other performers of color to pursue improv.
“We want to make sure that we’re there to be visible and included, and showing people that this isn’t just for white people,” she says. “It matters.”
The Kansas City Improv Festival begins on Thursday, August 16, at 7 p.m. at the Kick Comedy Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, Missouri 64111. For tickets and additional information, visit KCImprovFestival.com.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Brandey Chandler's use of the phrase "subversive minstrelsy."