Arts+Movies » Charleston Comedy Festival

Dark Side of the Room laughs at racial stereotypes one movie at a time

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The idea came to improv comedian Cris Gray when he was visiting Los Angeles from Atlanta. "There's a group out there of black actors and performers and they do a show called The Black Version," says Gray. Starring people like Reno 911's Cedric Yarbrough and Malcolm in the Middle's Gary Anthony Williams, The Black Version is an all African-American improv group that spoofs popular movies by performing, well, "the black version." Gray, a Dad's Garage Theater Company vet loved the concept. So he brought the idea to his fellow black improv friends in Atlanta. "We started work-shopping what would we like to do and decided to improvise a movie's deleted scenes as if there had been black actors who got edited out."

The idea became Dark Side of the Room and it's now five years old and six players strong. Gray, along with Mark Kendall, Rickey Boynton, Andre Castenell, Kirsten King, Jon Carr, perform in Atlanta and beyond showing the flip-side of films while addressing common stereotypes.

"One that comes to mind is we were going with Michael J Fox movies. We did Back to the Future. We started with these black characters in present day, and someone says 'We gotta go back to the 50s,' and the other characters are like, 'No we don't want to go there,'" says Gray, adding the audience loved it. "We can insert a bit of commentary and the audience is completely on board."

Treading on racial tropes is another Dark Side of the Room signature. "I think we are most successful when we can actually insert some commentary into the show but it's still funny. We did Jaws one time and one character was in a row boat and another black character was trying to swim. The other character was like, 'How are you doing that?' We throw in the common stereotype and play with it," says Gray.

And Dark Side's comedy is hitting a chord. The troupe has taken off in Atlanta and has begun to tour the Southeast with the goal to not only sharing their humor, but also to expose more audiences to improv.

Gray says that when he joined Dad's Garage his fellow black cast members all had stories of being the token person of color. But it was different at the legendary Dad's Garage.

"Mark and I came in and we were the two new black guys, and I think after 2012 we joined the general company. It was like, 'Wow, this is the first improv company I've been a part of that I'm not the only black guy. It was the first time all of us had been a part of a theater group where we weren't the only ones.' It's a trend he's seeing more in Atlanta with other all black improv groups not to mention an all Asian troupe and many groups made entirely of women.

"They're doing great. We also have a Latino group. They do their entire show in Spanish. When I first heard, I was like huh? But even if you don't speak Spanish, you can completely follow what's going on. It's physical and expressive," says Gray. "Let's keep replicating that. I love seeing that."

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