Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MUST SEE: The New Griots Festival at Guthrie Theater

What are you waiting for? Run to get tickets to this hot new festival, lighting up the Guthrie's Dowling Studio for the second year in a row. 

Courtesy of Blackout's website

I have a confession to make.

There are a few things I hear often from readers when I introduce myself as a blogger. I love meeting readers - it's so helpful to get feedback! - and I really enjoy these conversations. However, sometimes a phrase will stick in my craw, and the number one thing that bothers me the most is when someone says "Oh that's so cool that you blog about theater! I wish I could do that. I love theater but I never seem to get out."


I just don't understand it. Minneapolis has more theater per capita than anywhere else in the United States except NYC. I know that there is a perception that tickets to see live shows can be spendy, but it simply isn't true here. Sure, you could easily drop hundreds of dollars on front row tickets to the latest Cirque du Soleil tour, but it is totally easy to have dinner and a show in the Twin Cities for two people for less than $50. And for that price you won't be resigned to any slouchy, crummy theater.

Photo by T_Upper Boundary Photography

Many of our most illustrious institutions regularly host incredible deals that are downright criminal not to take advantage of. A couple of faves? Mixed Blood's Radical Hospitality program, which continues to provide world class theater for literally free for all of their year-long programming (I mean FREE YOU GUYS, and you don't even need reservations - there's literally zero excuse not to go), is always at the top of my list. And a quickly rising favorite is the Guthrie's initiative to offer edgier, more renegade, more diverse pieces in the Dowling Studio at very low prices. The specials constantly rotate (some are free like last year's excellent Acting Black), and many are extremely affordable, ringing in at $9 or so per ticket.

Photo by Alice Gebura

The latest incredible program to fall in the Dowling Studio is the incomparable New Griots Festival, a week-long extravaganza celebrating everything wonderful about black theater that also includes self-care exercises for POC and classes and panels to stimulate community engagement. We can address prices right off the bat:
Tickets to single shows are $9 each, and if you buy tickets to 3 shows you can see the entire rest of the festival for free. Tally that up: a whole week of performances by radical, exciting, new black artists, at one of the most renowned theaters in the country, for the total price of $27. That's an unbelievable deal and you are highly remiss if you don't take advantage. 

To provide a snapshot of what to expect: I had the pleasure of attending one of the dozens of performances last weekend and let me tell you - that theater was LIT. The performance I attended was The Minority Report by Blackout, an all-black improv comedy troupe. Blackout has been around for a minute, and here's how their show works: prior to beginning the one-hour session, audience members put suggestions for comedy routines into a hat by the entrance. The performers then draw subjects out of the hat at random and sit in a semi-circle to discuss the topics spontaneously in front of the audience. The subjects at the performance I attended were really all over the map, ranging from pasta salad to intersectionality and colorism to celebrating Michelle Obama and black women as a whole. After setting a groundwork and common theme through their brief conversation the performers then enact 1 - 2 completely improvised sketches that build on the subjects they discussed.

Photo by Johnny Stuckmayer

These are some extremely talented performers, and they are quick to the punch. A couple verifiable faves included a sketch of someone auditioning to be a cook at Byerly's, replete with a regal manager and slow motion taste test; and a clever spoof on the Lion King. What sets this improv apart from the usual (and an element I really enjoyed) are the conversations prior to the sketches, particularly the deeper ones that occurred as the night went on. You have to be relatively fearless to be an improv performer, and no one on stage was hesitant to dig deep and get real with their thoughts. This was particularly evident in a wrenching conversation about colorism, in which one female performer revealed how difficult she has found it to accept love and fondness from others due to scarring past experiences and her own growing understanding of the way cultural norms have hurt her self-love and self-care. It was a heartbreaking, troubling, breathtakingly honest discussion, the likes of which we need far more of in order to get past some of our society's most difficult issues.

Photo by Nancy Musinguzi

The New Griots Festival is billowing a galestorm of fresh air through the Guthrie's hallowed halls, and it couldn't come at a better time. Blackout's performance was easily the most diverse audience I have ever sat with at a Guthrie performance, and it was also one of the most fun. People were so hyped, so happy, and so interactive. The engaged audience really brought the performance alive and emphasized even further how much I miss that kind of interactivity when it's absent.

Blackout's performance was also one of the first times I've felt such a strong, contemplative, unflinching, non-white gaze anchoring the perspective of a performance and particularly in that specific space. This is a show by, for and about black performers, and while mixed race audiences are welcome and encouraged, the content is clearly tailored to the black perspective. Again, it was such a refreshing experience, and much like my joyous experience viewing Wonder Woman as a woman herself envisioned her, it reminded me how unfortunately rare it is to come to what is supposed to be a common and accessible space and find that kind of point of view anchoring the stage without apology. There are several places in the Twin Cities doing a good job of creating and uplifting diverse art and perspectives and I don't want to discredit them at all (shoutout to Full Circle/Penumbra/Mixed Blood/Mu Performing Arts and all the rest - you guys are awesome!), but it was unique to feel it so strongly at the big G, and I hope that feeling remains long after the New Griots festival has wrapped.

Remaining New Griots performances (also available at the Guthrie's website)

Blackout can be found on the third Friday of every month at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis (more info here). You can also catch them at the Guthrie Theater one more time as well as dozens of other incredible black performers for the New Griots Festival. A full list of all programming and chance to snag tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

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