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Watching The Black Version, the newest stage show by improv troupe The Groundlings, is perhaps the most hilarious and unsettling way to spend a Monday night this month. During this untraditional tribute to Black History Month the audience suggests an iconic movie and the all-black cast takes to the stage, improvising the black version of that film. Yeah, it’s pretty bold.
To give me an idea of the show, creator and cast member Jordan Black said “imagine if ET could talk, and was talking a lot of trash.” The mouthy little alien, played by Gary Anthony Williams, is just one example of the cast’s recent reinventions.
I had the joy of spending Valentine’s night at the small, sold-out theater on Melrose. To start, the audience yelled out everything from Dirty Dancing to The Godfather. The cast decided on Back to the Future. In “Black to the Future,” Marty McFly (Jordan Black) rode a grocery cart rather than a skateboard and his zany mentor Doc Brown (Cedric Yarbrough) was a weed smoking gynecologist who sounded an awful lot like Bill Cosby. The actors’ off-the-cuff lines and plot decisions drew roaring laughter from most and seat shifting from others. I was stuck between the two, physically and emotionally.
“We’re not trying to be politically correct,” said Black “we’re having fun with stereotypes without being stereotypical.” With jokes on everything from the Black Panther Party to President Obama, the cast pushed the proverbial limits while skillfully maintaining the framework from the film’s actual plot. Williams and Yarbrough shined as the quickest of the group, supplying instantaneous quips and character responses.
The night ended with the cast performing DVD outtakes from their rendition, which included “deleted scenes,” “the director’s cut” and a song from the soundtrack. Quality performances and expert comedic timing made the risky show a pleasure, but, I couldn’t help wondering afterwards, should I have laughed at that?’
The Black Version runs Mondays at 8.