Review: An Abundance of Black Joy in Second City’s Dance Like There Are Black People Watching
“After a meeting with several Black alumni and current Second City employees, we have come to the conclusion that the erasure, racial discrimination, manipulation, pay inequity, tokenism, monetization of Black culture, and the trauma-inducing experiences of Black artists at The Second City will no longer be tolerated. We cannot and will not let this abuse continue. As the artists whose names, images, and written material you still profit off of, we demand change,” said a group letter to the iconic Chicago institution in 2020.
Longtime CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander stepped down that June, stating that he had “failed to create an anti-racist environment.” The remaining administration hired an HR consulting firm and added a diversity, equity and inclusion representative. Second City appears to continue to strive to amplify those previously marginalized, melanated voices with the revue Dance Like There are Black People Watching, running through April 1.
The March 18 audience had a better (and welcome) POC-to-white audience ratio than many previous shows at the venue. The call-and-response ethos of sketch and improvised shows also parallels many Black church experiences, a trope well-utilized by director Rob Wilson and musical director Tony Belsito. The youthful, talented cast of Kennedy Baldwin, Karl Bradley, Arlieta Hall, Spencer Hodges, Adonis Holmes, and Jason Tolliver easily inhabited scenes, songs and blackouts throughout the show. They wore more casual clothes such as track suits rather than the typical stiff combo of shirt and tie, in order to be nimble and comfortable for the production’s effervescent physicality.
Scenes included a Family Feud snippet, a CTA ride, and Eve contemplating the apple. Several sketches included medical professionals, including the first foray into Black therapy, which addressed the community stigma about seeking mental health help and how religion impacts the science. The differences between Black and white nomenclature was plumbed too, starting with suggestions that the audience wrote on paper and dropped into a bucket, which asked “Name an everyday task and/or favorite hobby.” The cast shared that Black people say “punishment” while whites say “grounded,” a crucial distinction. And that Black people should never call 911, as Public Enemy warned in 1990. “Medium dicks” were explained, phone sex workers were spied upon, and parking ticket writer guys celebrated that digital tickets cannot be ripped up.
The audience was asked to play along with “Do you remember…,” a quiz about certain anthemic songs by Black artists, like Diana Ross and Mary J. Blige. In another sketch, a patient awakens after a 30-year coma to learn about African American successes like the TV shows “Blackish” and “Abbott Elementary,” alongside dizzying downfalls by Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Other pop culture remnants celebrated included the Magic School Bus driver Ms. Frizzle.
The revue’s energy and pace is electric, and the feeling that Black joy is finally being given some breathing room in a white institution is palpable. The show ends with musings about “if our ancestors could see us now,” which also feels like a new beginning. In the current moment when “corporate America is no longer pretending to care about diversity,” providing a space for BIPOC creators remains necessary, by any means.
The Second City’s Dance Like There are Black People Watching runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through April 1, at the UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave., Third Floor. Tickets start at $29, and are available at 312-337-3992.
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