“That’s how you intro some shit.” He was right. “He” is Warren Phynix Johnson, one of the four members of BLACKOUT, along with Sherman Edwards, Ramon Smith, and Darwin Smith. He had just finished introducing the night’s opening group, Challenger, and as he was walking back to the green room, he stopped to meet me at the bar to tell me tell me that what I had just witnessed was a proper introduction. Again, he was right. Johnson gave one of the loudest, and most energetic introductions I’ve seen on an iO stage. This, however, was not an anomaly. Rather, it was just the BLACKOUT way.
BLACKOUT is a unique group within the improv community. “Other groups look for form, we try and break it. We’re high energy,” said Darwin Smith. Most every other group claims to be energetic, but if Johnson’s intro was any indication, BLACKOUT takes it a step beyond. Their show included no less than 6 musical breakdowns, high-physical transformations, people stacked on top of each other, and chair f-ing.
But if we’re talking about what sets BLACKOUT apart from most every other improv group in the city, there is an obvious answer. In a community dominated by white guys in button down shirts, BLACKOUT is something, to borrow the Python’s phrase, completely different. All four members are black, and Darwin, who grew up on the West Side, never knew there was a place called Second City, or that there was such a thing as improvisational comedy.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a black performer,” said Johnson, when asked about how race factors into their show. Everyone in the group had stories about being cast in a show simply because the theater was looking for a “new black guy,” or about how invariably, someone on stage will say “But Senator/Officer/Sir/Captain you’re black,” in an attempt at a clever bit. Darwin Smith told me that “You always have to be ready, and you always have to have a response.” His personal favorite: “Yes, and you’re Asian!”
BLACKOUT formed in 2008 playing at the Green Door Speak Easy. In the beginning they didn’t even like playing with each other, as they had competing styles of improvisation. But soon they bonded, over both shared experiences and love of the art. “You get close to one another when you play for houses of 6 people, or 26, or 56 people,” said Ramon Smith, “that’s when you really got to know one another.” In 2009 the group got the midnight on Saturday slot at iO, and they’ve held it ever since.
BLACKOUT calls their show at iO (which celebrated its one-year anniversary this past Saturday) “White People,” which doesn’t refer to the racial group, but rather, to anyone that isn’t part of BLACKOUT. Every show includes a “white person” as a guest, and this time around it was recent Second City Touring Company cast member Kate Duffy. Past guests have included Tim Baltz, TJ Jagodowski, Jet Eveleth, and Joe Bill…just to name a few
In both my interview with them, and the following show, the group was brutally honest. Whether they were telling me stories about getting angry on stage, racial stereotyping, or an opening monologue about a love of 80’s pop culture, BLACKOUT thrives on tapping into something real. They’ve since expanded this particular brand of comedy to include not only performances around town, but a radio show with NPR affiliate 89.5. It’s clear that in all of these media, they’ve cultivated a fan base that is just as energetic as BLACKOUT itself. When Challenger left the stage and the BLACKOUT show started, the lights began to flash, the audience started clapping, and through the speakers came the chant, “BLACKOUT BLACKOUT!” Everyone in the theater joined in, and so began the show. Now that, is how you intro some shit.
You can find out more about BLACKOUT at www.blackoutcomedy.com. Their radio show can be heard on 89.5FM.
Venue: iO Chicago Theater