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This Week at HUGE, Black & Funny Will ‘Rise From the Ashes’

The five-day improv-aganza is at its biggest since the festival started in 2016.

left: two men pose with a plush bear around a tea party setup, right: seven people stand and sit around a table, smiling for the camera
Provided|

Left: Twin Cities based Improv duo Brotha, Brotha; Right: local comedy troupe Blackout Improv.

The Black & Funny festival looked a lot different when it got its start in 2016. Back then, it began as a humble, single-day set of workshops and panels at HUGE Improv Theater. This year, the Minneapolis comedy festivities will stretch for five days—from March 22 to March 26—bringing performers from around the country to Lyn-Lake for a series of improv shows, workshops, and classes.

"Other places are really starting to celebrate improv by people of color," says Jada Pulley, who's co-directing this year's installment of the groundbreaking fest along with co-founder John Gebretatose. "It's definitely been expanding."

They're not kidding. In the seven years since Black & Funny debuted, multiple festivals like it have popped up around North America, both those that take up the Black & Funny moniker (in Ocean State, Rhode Island and Toronto, Ontario) and others celebrating Black improvisers like FAM Fest in Baltimore.

Pulley will be among the performers you can catch during the five-day improv-aganza at HUGE, which marks the festival's first return to blowout status since the pandemic sidelined it in 2020. Black & Funny never technically went away, it just pivoted online like so many other artistic events, returning last year with a joint festival at the Bakken Museum in coordination with the Twin Cities Improv Festival.

Pulley says lockdown actually provided a chance to virtually meet many performers who hadn't yet been to Black & Funny, creating a national network that includes folks like the founders of the Black Improv Alliance. Many of those performers, and some who were supposed to hit the stage in 2020 and never got the chance, will be at HUGE for this year's "rise from the ashes" fest.

It's not just performances, either. Black & Funny's fest includes a number of workshops with world-class instructors like Austin's Shannon Stott and Andy Hilbrands, the latter of whom is based in L.A. now, but taught and performed with The Brave New Workshop and Comedysportz TC during his time in Minneapolis. Workshops run $50, but the fest offers a number of scholarships available to folks who reach out via email.

"We won't make you do a big sob story or anything," Pulley chuckles. "If you want to be in the room, we want you to be in the room."

That "we want people to be there" energy extends to tickets, which are $15 per show, or $99 for an ULTRAPASS, which gets you into every show. It's totally fine to split that between people if you want to go in on it with some friends—and again, if there's a show you really want to see but can't afford it, Pulley encourages you to just reach out! They'll make it happen. "I think that white people, and other people of color, even, have a lot to learn from Black performers," Pulley says, stressing the inclusive nature of the event.

Pulley has been doing improv since returning to the Twin Cities after college around '16—"I'm not a theater kid!" they clarify—first with Gebretatose's BIPOC Improv Jam at HUGE.

"I just fuckin' fell in love," says Pulley, who now works as part-time house manager at HUGE. "It was such a great space. And since then, improv has really been probably my biggest source of community here in the Twin Cities."

The art form itself has been therapeutic for them, a way to open up, be more vulnerable, and access confidence they might have struggled to find otherwise. "I find things that I'm working on in improv are things that I'm working on in real life as well," Pulley says. Their hope is that other Black performers might fall in love with improv in the same way.

"I think it has gotten better," Pulley says, regarding equity in improv spaces. "And I think HUGE in Minneapolis has been a leader in that. It's my home—this is where I started doing improv and where I continue to do improv—but traveling a little bit and talking to other people, it seems like HUGE has been one of the models for being a more equitable place."

"Obviously, there's always so much more work to be done, but they've already started doing the work," Pulley continues. "So I've been spoiled, from what I hear."

Black & Funny Improv Festival
March 22-March 26
HUGE Improv Theater
3037 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

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