In the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump, several performers at Second City left in the wake of receiving increasingly homophobic, sexist and racist comments from audiences ( and in at least one instance, directed to a fellow audience member ). Former cast member Peter Kim ( a gay Asian man ) recounted his experiences in an essay for Chicago Magazine in October 2016, describing the level of verbal abuse as "a stage-four cancer spreading through the entire cavity of our nation."
But since then, Second City has taken some concrete steps to foster the voices of diverse and marginalized performers. Those voices are front and center in two shows opening in conjunction with Pride Month. In Let's Make It Perfectly Queer: A Salute to Pride, directed by Annoyance founder and longtime director Mick Napier, a cast that is entirely LGBTQIA performs classic Second City sketches about queer life, along with some original black-outs and songs connecting the archival pieces. It runs through June 24. And on June 6, the company offers The Bob Curry Fellowship Showcase, directed by Second City co-artistic director Matt Hovde, featuring a diverse cast performing archival material, original sketches and improv sets.
The Bob Curry Fellowship, named for the first African American to perform as an improviser on the Second City mainstage in 1966, has been up and running since 2013 as part of the theater's Diversity and Inclusion Program. The highly competitive fellowship ( only 16 are accepted annually out of over 200 applicants ) provides ten weeks of intensive mentorship and training to performers from traditionally underrepresented communities. Last year, Riley Mondragon was the first transgender fellow and she joins two of the current Curry FellowsMaya Haughton and George Elrodas part of the cast for Let's Make It Perfectly Queer.
Interestingly enough, the Pride show marks the first time that Second City has offered a Pride-specific revue. Elrod, who also works at iO, created their first Pride-centric showcase last year and is doing it again this year with the 12-hour marathon iO Pride Fest on June 10. Said Elrod "I don't know if people want to be outer, louder and prouder given the political situation, or if they're just finding a better support system around this time."
Asked if the well-publicized problems with bigoted audience comments at Second City played a role in making the show, Haughton said "It hasn't been specifically mentioned to my knowledge. It's definitely been in the backs of the minds of people creating the show. Mick is so in your face that he really wants us to say 'fuck you, we're here.' He's all about making it 'Look at us. We are here to show you that we are powerful and strong and we don't care what you think.'"
Going back into the archives also means that the performers confronted the mindsets of earlier eras. For example, Elrod noted that, "A lot of the stuff I'm working with in the show deals with characters who may not bring up their queerness, but it is a two-person same-sex or queer relationship. Watching the videos and seeing audience members oooh and aaah and laugh at things that wouldn't be laughed about today or that queer audiences wouldn't really care about is the most interesting thing to me."
Haughton said that Napier "gave us the power to speak up on sketches that we didn't have good feelings about. Or if we flagged something that was problematic we could say 'Hey, let's tweak this.'"
For Elrod, the goals of the Pride show and the Curry showcase are different. "Let's Make It Perfectly Queer is a salute to all the past queer performers in the [Second City] space. The showcase highlights our ability as Second City performers. The archive is showing we can reproduce and mimic and put on a show that was created by someone else. The original showcase shows we can write and generate material from our own POV."
Several graduates of the Curry fellowship, including Rashawn Nadine Scott and Tien Tran, have ended up in mainstage revues. But for Haughtonwho didn't study at the Second City Conservatory or iO, but has been active in comedy for more than 20 yearsthe fellowship strengthened her understanding of how improv and scene structure works. She also noted "Because I have been doing it so long, I had fallen into bad habits in terms of repeating some of the character types I do. It's helped me break those habits."
For Elrod, one of the great things about creating work with a diverse cast in the Curry program is the shorthand that exists among the ensemble. "If we were in a room that wasn't as diverse, there might a need to be explain someone's pitch. This room is so eager to carry someone's ideas to the end. That's the thing that has been unique. We've all got this ability to just go with it and everyone is going there together."
That's something to celebrate for Pride Month and beyond.
Bob Curry Fellowship Showcase runs at 8 p.m. on Wed., June 6, at Second City's e.t.c. Theater, 230 W. North Ave., second floor of Piper's Alley. Tickets are $15. For more information go to secondcity.com or call 312/337-3992.