Fact: The Eureka Theater hosts some of the best comedy in the in the world. Fact: The Groundlings are a legendary Los Angeles improv company with alumni including Will Ferrell, Kristen Wigg and more. Fact: “The Black Version” is not a racially specific interpretation of Beverly Winwood Presents: The Actor’s Showcase. Fact: San Francisco’s black population was 6.1% in 2010. Fact: The black population of The Black Version’s cast was 100%. Fact: Comedy is proven to be simultaneously colorful and colorblind.
But first, 7th Grade: The Awkward Musical. An interesting prelude, 7th Grade, was a satirical, fun and ironically campy take on the worst year in adolescence. Junior high, the broader culprit, is often an academic halftime show rife with rejection, fear and metamorphosis. The musical was accurately anxious, hilariously nuanced and written with untold clarity.
Archetypes and taboos strolled through the halls with absurd naivety matched by abrasive maturity. Grease was the weird as the whole jubilant production exuded familiarity and depravity equally. Each song rung true with tunes in extended Broadway canon. Choreography captured childhood’s feverishly annoying energy. Lyrics and dialogue exposed a knack for biting cleverness. Everything fit; 7th Grade’s expressive efficiency claimed the show’s ultimate strength. Other productions may be dirtier, weirder, broader, or more experimental but few surpass the musical’s cohesion.
Racially inverted satire of pop culture has been long-established fodder for stand-up/sketch/film, but rarely occurs in improv. The Black Version is a fairly ingenious improvisational concept: an all African American cast (Jordan Black, Daniele Gaither, Phil LaMarr, Keegan Michael-Key, Gary Anthony Williams and Cedric Yarbrough) reinterprets famous movies inspired by interlaying suggestions. Additionally, a funky ensemble scores the live-action fauxfilm, crafting soul, R&B, hip-hop and other apt jamming. Karen Maruyama serves as director, coaching the cast into recognizable scenes/styles.
With the constructs and craft clearly defined, The Black Version processed into a unique rendition of the “The Breakfast Club”, aptly re-titled “Detention Blues”. Five students (i.e. Shaquillatia, Ice Kool-Aid) rebel against O.C.D.-afflicted Principal Richard Head (see: penis) at the fictitious Willie Brown High School in Oakland. The classic coming-of-age John Hughes story quickly lost all recognizability; The Black Version took the beloved film to wacky, far-out heights (a modern plantation at an Oakland co-op) and ridiculous alterations (quaaludes and ambien replacing marijuana). Also, the musicians and actors sandwiched “Detention Blues” with off-the-cuff theme songs “Gonna Eat Some Breakfast” and “Time For Lunch”, Boys II Men and Outkast-inspired parodies respectively.
Threads of chemistry created a messy web over the narrative undercurrent. Black stretched far and wide, constantly joking, and instilling scenes with goofy, bold developments. Williams crushed every song/rap and twangy peculiarities with the same sharp intuition. Yarbrough pushed out his chest, acting with utmost confidence and roguishly demented charm. Michael-Key complimented the ensemble, utilizing his unfiltered, physical conviction and thoughtful consistency.
Intriguingly, many of The Black Version’s controversial ideas came directly from the audience; any regional stereotypes of overt political correctness were subverted for the sake of jest. Also, racially sensitive onstage shenanigans by the cast avoided cheap, predictable outcomes. In the frantic plying for humor, The Black Version purveyed enormous entertainment to fill their allotted leeway.