- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Second City for years has helped funny people find stardom, including Joan Rivers, George Wendt, John Belushi and Mike Myers.
Most have been white; the improvisational comedy troupe has been short on actors of color.
Now, Second City is on a mission to better reflect the cultural diversity of Chicago, where the company has been operating from a North Side theater since it was started in 1959 by a group of improvisational performers that included filmmaker Mike Nichols.
Plans are under way for a Second City training center on Chicago's South Side, not far from the University of Chicago campus where the comedy company has its roots.
"Our goal is to see more people in the African-American community doing this work," owner Andrew Alexander says. "We've been making the effort for a while, but we wanted more consistency. We realized we needed to be in the community on a more permanent basis."
The new center will be located in a once-thriving and mostly black area known as Bronzeville. It also will be just a few blocks away from the University of Chicago, where a group of politically active students, Mr. Nichols included, formed a theater club in the late 1950s that morphed into Second City.
The training center will teach the skills that give Second City its edgy brand of satire, steeped in the arts of improvisation and ensemble acting and driven by performers who write and present their own material. It will be similar to Second City's other training center in the mostly white Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and centers in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles.
Just 15 black members have joined Second City Chicago since Bob Curry in 1966, a time of political and social turbulence when the company needed a black voice.
"Blacks began to join in the '70s, but it was not until the '80s that we took more aggressive efforts to become more inclusive," Mr. Alexander says.
Second City Detroit, however, has been an incubator for black performers, including Dionna Griffin, now a Second City producer in Chicago, and actors Nyima Funk and Keegan-Michael Key.
"Detroit is a prime example of what I'm talking about doing in Bronzeville," Mr. Alexander says. "In Detroit, your urban population has a higher percentage of African Americans. Hence there's a talent pool that gives us a voice that wasn't being heard at Second City 10 years ago."

Now in Chicago, Miss Funk and Mr. Key take on an array of characters while lampooning President Bush, the war on terrorism and other topics in the Second City revue "Curious George Goes to War."
In the show, Miss Funk's parodies range from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to singer Tina Turner to actress Julia Roberts, while Mr. Key's portrayals include Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused accomplice in the September 11 terrorist attacks; and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.
The troupe also does a witty sketch that features an uncomfortable backyard conversation between a snooty middle-class couple and their new neighbors, who have relocated recently from a public housing development.
The audience usually is mostly white, but Miss Funk hopes that will change as Second City finds more minority performers. "Believe me, I want more black people at Second City so more folks can get my jokes," she says.
That's where Miss Griffin comes in. As Second City's minority outreach coordinator, she spends much of her time searching for blacks and other nonwhites.
"It's just so important to have a diverse cast onstage because that reflects America," Miss Griffin says.
One of her latest finds is spoken-word artist Orron Kenyetta Marshall, who recently accepted a scholarship that will cover nearly two years of training at Second City.
"I had no idea that Second City could offer me an opportunity until Dionna Griffin asked me to get involved," says Mr. Marshall, who began taking courses this summer and since has received three callbacks for auditions at the theater company.
Claudia Wallace, a Second City director, had not considered the comedy troupe as an option when Second City found her in 1993 as part of an outreach effort.
"I'd never seen them within the [black] community," Miss Wallace says. "I knew about Second City, but I thought, 'Well, that's not for me.' I was part of a wave, and it's good to see that they want to continue to get blacks onstage."

The Bronzeville center is a work in progress that probably will require about $1.4 million for completion, Mr. Alexander says. Some of the cost will be covered by an $850,118 federal grant that gives businesses tax credits and exemptions from government regulations for hiring local residents, particularly those from groups with traditionally high unemployment or longtime welfare recipients.
However, community activist Nate Thompson and others have questioned whether a white-run business such as Second City serves the best interests of Bronzeville residents.
"I don't trust the organization," Mr. Thompson says. "They've never had a track record or an involvement in the neighborhood or anything. So what exactly is it that they plan to train black entertainers to do present a white point of view?"
Not at all, Mr. Alexander says. He says the location on the South Side was sought specifically for the purpose of putting more blacks in decision-making positions and adds that Miss Griffin will serve as Bronzeville producer.
"To the community's credit, on the surface, I can see why there would be this concern, this white, North Side business getting all this money," he says. "Our goal is to increase our diversity by getting more African Americans involved at the grass-roots level. It will probably take 10 years in order for it to become as successful as what we have on Wells Street," the North Side location.
"But we're in this for the long term."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide