Space, muscles, sharks.
Greg Parks of the improv act "Where I Am Now" took those suggestions, thrown out by the audience at HUGE Improv Theatre on Thursday night, and turned them into a whimsical story through movement and sound without a single word.
Firefighters and kindness.
Denzel Belin and John Gebretatose of the duo "Brotha Brotha" told a humorous story that started with two brothers fighting over the future of their family home, and ended with a carnival from one of their nightmares.
Laughter ensued. Those sets were part of the reinvigorated Black and Funny Improv Festival, back in Minneapolis this weekend and larger than ever, with five days of shows and workshops.
The festival started in 2016 as a one-day event. This year, more than 30 performers from around the country and Canada will put on 15 shows over several days that range in style, from musical improv to silent improv and even a sketch show.
The improv festival is an opportunity for Black performers to speak directly to topical issues impacting the community, said Gebretatose, who in addition to being a performer is founder and festival director.
"That makes improv an important art form," he said. "It used to be just a good, therapeutic, funny kind of art form, but I think with us taking it and making it our own, we've shown that we're able to really elevate the art form."
Black performers have not always been represented in improv workshops, and the festival gives them a chance to learn. It includes seven classes on Saturday and Sunday, where curious performers can pick up tips about the craft from visiting artists.
They keep the space inclusive, checking in with class members about their boundaries so participants can have a good time, festival Director Jada Pulley said.
"It's a way of literally processing things on stage in a fun way," Pulley said.
The festival, like many things, pivoted online in March 2020 because of the pandemic — a time when laughter and connection was more important than ever. Most weeks early in the pandemic, they hosted informal sessions on Zoom where people still could be in a community and share a laugh, Pulley said.
Comedy is a space for performers to take a break from the heavy realities of the pandemic and racism — or confront it head on with a joke.
In 2021, Black and Funny resumed in person, in a scaled-back fashion, joining with Twin Cities Improv Festival for a smaller outdoor performance. This year, it's back on its own.
"It was important that we found a place where we can dive into the art form and not let the social issues destroy our own well-being, and it was important for us to also find some sort of normalcy," Gebretatose said.
Being back in the theater, surrounded by Black joy and audience laughter with a full slate of performers feels great, Pulley and Gebretatose said.
The first of two shows on Thursday drew a few dozen attendees who sipped from their beers and cheered at the silliest moments.
"Allowing ourselves to be present with each other as exactly who we are," Gebretatose said. "That's Black joy, that's liberating."
If you go
The Black and Funny Improv Festival continues through Sunday. Tickets are available online or at the door for $15. Financial assistance is available for people who contact the festival ahead of time. More information is available online at blackandfunnyimprovfest.weebly.com.