Second City Black History Month Show has come a long way, has much to say

“As a teacher and a director, self-expression and helping my cast and students tell their stories and share their points of view has been a big inspiration for why I find this work so satisfying,” says director Ali Barthwell.

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Robel Arega (clockwise back row, from left), Leila Gorstein, Bill Letz, Jillian Ebanks, Colette Gregory and Max Thomas are the cast of Second City’s Black History Month Show.

Robel Arega (clockwise back row, from left), Leila Gorstein, Bill Letz, Jillian Ebanks, Colette Gregory and Max Thomas are the cast of Second City’s Black History Month Show.

Timothy M. Schmidt/Provided

When Dionna Griffin-Irons arrived at Second City in 1999 fresh from a three-year stint at Second City Detroit, she noticed something different about Chicago.

“Why weren’t there more people of color taking advantage of this great comedy institution?” she wondered.

Coming from the predominantly black neighborhoods of Detroit, “I wasn’t used to that experience.”

The first Black History Month Show, which Griffin-Irons conceived and produced under the title “WORDS” in 2002, was an experiment: two dozen performers assembled from the South, West, and North sides of the city for an event marketed by word-of-mouth and staged in the tiny Donny’s Skybox Studio Theatre the Second City usually uses for its students.

“It was an 85% African American audience,” she recalls. Small though it was, Second City co-owner and producer Andrew Alexander took note and wanted more. The grassroots show was the catalyst that launched the expansion of Second City’s diversity, inclusion and outreach programs from annual workshops to year-round programming under Griffin-Irons’ leadership. And the Black History Month Show has remained a touchstone production from year to year.

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Second City’s Black History Month Show

When: To March 11

Where: UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North

Tickets: $20

Info: secondcity.com


This year’s director, Ali Barthwell, a writer, educator, and performer, hails from Second City’s outreach initiatives as a former instructor in its After School Matters program before rising through the ranks as an NBC Bob Curry Fellow, an actor in the Second City touring company, and the first black woman to graduate from Second City’s directorial training program. A River Forest native who attended a predominantly white college, Barthwell is no stranger to the power of representation.

“I knew I wanted to perform at Second City because I saw another black woman doing it,” Barthwell recalls. “I was a college student taking improv classes for fun, and I went to see a show and Amber Ruffin [currently a writer on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” — and the first black woman to write for a late-night network TV show] was singing a song, and I thought, ‘I relate to that! People will want to laugh at that! Oh my God, I can do this!’”

Barthwell is keenly aware of the progressive origins of improv and sketch comedy.

“The roots of improvisation are in social work and are defined by Chicago immigrants, the landscape and structure of the city, and the parks in every neighborhood where people could gather,” says Barthwell, explaining that the density of diverse immigrant populations and the unique opportunity to gather in Chicago’s park fieldhouses in the early 1900s resulted in a new form of play when sociologist Neva Boyd began a program of noncompetitive games to encourage immigrant children to connect in the absence of shared language.

“Boyd worked with another woman named Viola Spolin who helped develop more techniques and games. Her son, a University of Chicago student, said, ‘What if we take these games children play and put them onstage and perform them as theater?’” The result became Second City — but, notes Barthwell, “Improv was started by women for social justice. Politics have been there since the beginning.”

Furthermore, Barthwell suggests, comedy is a natural and necessary expression of black identity.

“Black experience is frequently satirical, because we are constantly having to think about the opinions of people who might hate us, and we perform them. If everyone around you is white, you might have to perform their opinions for them to accept you. And then we perform again for each other, mocking them as a release valve of that tension of how we go through the world. So we’re constantly commenting on society and looking at how we fit or don’t fit.

“As a teacher and a director, self-expression and helping my cast and students tell their stories and share their points of view has been a big inspiration for why I find this work so satisfying,” Barthwell continues. “And opening the door by beginning with laughter, we can draw others a little closer.”

Irene Hsiao is a local freelance writer.

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