Around three years ago I was introduced to sketch comedy by Wil Gelin through an invitation to perform a standup set and sketch on his show at iO West: Underground Sketch Show. My only sketch experience at the time was with friends on the internet and a couple commercials (union and Non), but never live on stage. It was only one sketch with a few lines, but overcoming the nerves and anxiety to perform standup and sketch comedy on the same stage show was exhilarating. You would have thought I got cast in SNL or some shit if you caught me on the come-down from that!
I had written a few sketches derived from my standup after being encouraged by Ian Edwards, who told me years before that “That one bit you do would be a dope ass sketch!” For a packet, I wrote a few and sort of forgot all about it, keeping them only for writing submission deadlines. After that show, I was awakened with possibilities for this material.
Exhausted with his straightforward sketch show format, Wil invited me to be a regular performer on the show (which I learned later was iO’s diversity showcase). Exhausted by the seemingly futile grind of standup comedy in Los Angeles (where advancement and opportunities are given based on politics, web numbers and credits rather than talent, impact and abilities), I was energized and excited to accept his invite. I did not, however, want to be the sole standup performer on the lineup, as I was certain there were a bunch of standups who wrote and performed sketch within my network.
After pitching him the idea of several standup acts appearing between and in sketches, Wil brought me on as a co-producer and promoter. We agreed to rebrand and move forward with the new format as “Woke: Sketches from the Underground.” It was before the movie “Get Out” was released and so the word “Woke” hadn’t yet been co-opted to mean “socially conscious” and still represented an alert awareness to possible dangers that lurked for black and marginalized folks.
We embarked on that journey for a year or so, with Wil leading and directing the sketch portion and myself booking standup and posting/promoting the show. It was on this journey that I was able to not only expand the scale of my performance skill set, but learn about and provide a platform for several of my standup colleagues to do the same.
By the time Wil decided to move on to other things, I had observed and absorbed a tremendous amount of experience and information from him, as well as Brett Weiner (who directed the club’s house team I later joined). Although Leonard Smith Jr., another experienced sketch actor, had stepped into his place I was, once again, adrift in a sea of nervous feels. “Was my current experience good enough to step out on?” This was just one of the many insecurities we navigated ahead in spite of.
By this time, “Woke” had been a 100% gentrified term, so rather than continuing forward at the risk of coming off as frivolously corny and trendy, we decided to rebrand the show’s name again. Keeping with the spirit of what brought us to “Woke,” I was challenged to identify something I’d said for years, but noticed was starting to creep into the mayonnaise lexicon. “Turn Up” had already joined “Hella” and “Lit” in Co-opt heaven, making this challenge a real task. After much reflection and back & forth, Leonard and myself were excited AF to be moving forward as “Out Chea” (I’ll reserve my observation of its hot sauce Vs. mayonnaise usage)!
Our first show at iO West would be our last, as the club underwent some mismanagement and had to shut its doors, devastating an entire community of performers. Without a home stage, the idea of our program at the intersection of standup and sketch was in peril. This fear was heightened by Leonard’s deciding to redirect his focus on other endeavors. It seemed as though we would never be “Out Chea” again.
Then, The Nerdist messaged with a date. It was ON AGAIN, and I was energized once more. Then, The Nerdist shutdown, and I was tripping all over again. To my surprise and delight, however, the venue was rebranding itself as “The Ruby,” a left-leaning, lgbtq+, racially inclusive, non-gender binary safe performance space for underrepresented comedic voices, that was thrilled to keep us on their calendar. Though I reached out and leaned on Wil and Leonard as somewhat of a crutch, I was essentially alone in the show’s production and direction. You would not have known about that, or my fears and doubts surrounding the program, from the outside looking in. This was in large part due to the excitement the standups in our debut Ruby show expressed to me leading up to that night. I had to cast aside those doubts and fears, step up and deliver for their sake, as well as mine and the club.
That first show with Dorothy (an improv team from iO) was hot. The second appearance at Ruby with Cornbread Kitchen (another improv/sketch team) was 🔥! Not only that, “Out Chea” began receiving invites to get down at other venues and other teams, really living up to its name (which many of the stand ups already upheld).
For our third appearance at The Ruby Theater, I was able to set up some new challenges for myself, with the help of Lloyd Collins, a brotha I had known for a decade as a standup comic, but not at all as a director with (HELLA) deep ties in the traditional Chicago-based improv world. What challenges lie ahead of this program, you ask?
Well you’ll have to join me and the amazing cast ( Jil Chrissie, Elise Golgowski, Amarie Lee, Laurie Douglas and Matthew Duckett) this Saturday, February 2nd 9pm at the Ruby theater with MELANADE (a fire team of Sistas getting down with the improv)!!