Review: Satirical Race Theory at iO Theater Gets Better As It Goes

Improv comedy is the performative art closest in energy to a sporting event. No one—not the audience, not the performers—knows the outcome at the beginning, and both can expect successes and failures along the way. Whereas we (reviewers) weigh scripted theater based on its approximation to perfection, in improv comedy we expect a few flubs; sometimes it’s the best part. We count the hits and misses, balls and strikes, laughs and cringes, and grade accordingly.

iO Theater’s Satirical Race Theory, directed by Adonis Holmes with musical direction by Tony Belsito, is Chicago’s latest comedy improv spectacle. It lacks the seamless polish of great improv, but perhaps it’s not fair to compare these fresh comedians to the famous. The performers pulled off excellent scene work and hit more than they missed, especially as they handled less structured games toward the evening’s conclusion.

Opening night began with a brief but excellent hip-hop performance by the Emmy-award winning dance troupe The Puzzle League. With the crowd properly warmed up, the six all-Black performers Elim Almedon, Andrew Baldwin, Cyntisha Coats, Coco Fernandez, TJ King and Kim Whitfield took the stage.

Baldwin started the program by addressing the theme: school. “Like your favorite schoolteacher,” he said, “we will be making up (the lesson plan) on the fly.”

Given the current discourse about teaching race in schools, it makes sense that Satirical Race Theory’s running throughline is a classroom setting. But the concept doesn’t stretch much further than Baldwin’s introduction. Unfortunately, the show dabbles a bit in false advertising.

People expecting race theory or satire might be disappointed. Though the performers referenced race often, never was the topic explored too deeply or originally. Their comments about police brutality and white privilege were no more biting than what one can see on late night talk shows. Of course, in improv the topics and jokes change every evening. If things were a little tepid, maybe we can chock that up to opening night jitters. Regardless, the laughs did come, especially during the final few games.

The first couple segments evinced the most strike outs. To start they performed a line-by-line story game wherein each actor shared one sentence of Beyonce’s biography, a topic chosen by the audience. This exercise felt a little amateurish, more like a warmup than true entertainment. The kind of thing you’d expect from people actually in high school. There were too many constraints to allow for real inventiveness.

By the third game things really picked up. They explored unstructured scene work with fluid, sparky imaginations. Bits like the first crump majors at Juilliard were especially inspired. “They tried to kick us out, but we just crumped our way back into class.”

As the evening wore on, the scene work became clearer, the situations funnier. Laughs erupted during a bit between two friends who “definitely have no tension,” even though one is married to the other’s ex-husband. A townhall meeting where everyone was somehow related left the audience in stitches. Bizarre relationships like these make for the best laughs, and Satirical Race Theory should strive to find those situations throughout.

The team finished on a high note. For the final game the performers asked a volunteer from the audience to explain a day in their life. After learning a few details—he had a dog, a remote job as an editor, a mysterious female enemy, a strict workout routine, an “ambitious” friend in LA—they presented the story with their own interpretations. Watching them mix and match bits of information into a wild narrative was one of the joys of the night. The gym was a place for hilariously graphic pick-ups. The dog peed on the enemy. The ambitious friend made a surprise Chicago visit intending to “get into everything.”

Special praise goes to TJ King whose high-pitched distinct voice enhanced stellar comedic timing. Elim Almedon seemed the most comfortable on stage, the least fidgety or strained. All in all, each performer had a chance to shine. Though they occasionally talked over each other, they put together an improv showcase more professional than most. Satirical Race Theory deserves a passing grade.

Satirical Race Theory will be at the iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury St., Saturdays 8pm through July 1. Runtime is 90 minutes with an intermission. Tickets are $30 and available online and at 312-300-3350.

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Adam Kaz
Adam Kaz