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Blue & Me in Washington DC, 2022

Blue calls us the odd couple and we laugh. We are an odd couple, but not because we don’t go together, because most people wouldn’t think that we do. As individuals, we’ve had some wildly different experiences, but improv brought us together and, over time, revealed more than a few similarities. Blue says that we hold the mirror to each other. I think she’s right.

Since becoming friends, we have found each other processing similar hurt, pondering similar ideas, and inspired by similar values time and time again. We talk on the phone a lot, and when we do it’s for hours, and it’s deep. It’s not gossip. It’s soul work, something like therapy, as we try to prioritize self-care and understand what success looks like in an unrelenting system. We remind of each other why communication, in love and art, matters more than anything.

But let me rewind. I met Blue in 2014 when I joined the Baltimore Improv Group (on a fluke). I’m almost embarrassed to say it because BIG, and improv more generally, would become a cornerstone of my life from there on out.

At the time, I was rehearsing for a play called Leveling Up with the Interrobang Theatre Company at the Mercury Theatre. The Mercury Theatre was leased by the Baltimore Improv Group, and we were sub-leasing it from them. One morning, while we were rehearsing, I learned that BIG was having auditions that very same day. “Fuck it,” I thought, “let me sign up.”

Blue was already a member of BIG and she must have been at that audition, although I don’t remember meeting her. Back in the day, BIG ran its auditions democratically. Every company member was invited to vote on the players they wanted to see in the company. It made the auditions feel exciting, like a reality TV show where every audience member was the judge.

I brought my headshot and resume but was surprised to learn that neither was necessary. Someone laughed at me, and I felt a little embarrassed. I always assumed improv theatres worked just like regular theatres.

On stage, I did many scenes. I remember one with Nate Parsons about skipping algebra class and going to the beach. I used my dude-frat-bro voice and I nailed it, bro. I left the audition with a good feeling, and wouldn’t you know it? I got into BIG.

My first concrete memory of Blue was at one of the first BIG performances that I went to. It featured a troupe called Minority R’eport, later renamed Casually Dope. Blue was on the team, and they were the funniest troupe there that night. They were quick, they had characters, there was drama, and there was one scene about diabetes that had me falling out of my seat. When I joined BIG, there were two teams I wanted to be on: Training for Prom and Minority R’eport. Together, I thought they represented the epitome of what improv could be.

The first time Blue and I shot the shit, if not briefly backstage, was at the bar afterward. Improvisers love to drink and me and Blue were no different. I don’t remember much, but not because of the alcohol. I was the new person at the theatre, and no one was familiar to me. My first few months at the theatre was a blurry sea of faces: audience, performers, and their loved ones. All I remember about Blue is that she was funny; I felt like she could run circles around me.

At the BIG Holiday party, I met Zizwe and her children for the first time. She met my boyfriend, Myles, and they hit it off. As time went on, we would invite Blue to a few of our parties, and she became a guest on Myles’ podcast Alt-Black.

Our dynamic changed when Terry came to town. BIG was looking for a new managing director and hired this guy from the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. There was a lot of fanfare before his arrival. He was part of the team Fuck That Shit, a staple of the New York comedy scene, and known as an quirky improv savant.

After he was hired, he met with most of the people at the theatre in leadership positions. I had become a teacher with BIG’s education program, so we met for some joe at Charmington’s Coffee. We hit it off pretty quick. He liked the curricula I had designed, so we picked each other’s brains and talked shop.

I guess what I liked about Terry was that he made me feel seen. Before Terry, I didn’t feel like I fit in at BIG. BIG was a cozy little community theatre with a small roster of players. I was thankful for being a part of it and for the opportunities, but I wanted more from the theatre. When BIG hired Terry, I started to feel like he could catalyze that change.

Overtime Terry made sweeping changes to BIG’s programming, to the curriculum, and to the business model; he wanted to grow BIG into something akin to the UCB Theatre. At the time, I was a huge fan of these changes, especially because they seemed to be working. There were more students, bigger audiences, and many more shows, but it wasn’t all peaches and cream.

Terry held townhall meetings with the company. At one of the first, Terry announced that he was ending BIG’s subsidy program for performers. Basically, BIG earmarked funds for performers to rehearse with a paid director or coach. Now, the burden of responsibility was going to shift to the performers. Blue took issue with the policy change, noting that everyone in the room worked for free, that our theatre was ran by volunteers, and that, for some people, the financial burden of paying a coach would be too great. Having a more laissez faire attitude, I sided with Terry, and that was probably the first wedge between me and Blue. She wasn’t the only one who was guarded, though. Terry’s arrival at the theatre received a mixed response. Some people, like me, loved him. Other people, like Blue, stayed cautious and some people fell in between. Yet a second turning in me and Blue’s relationship was mediated by Terry when he started looking into grants and scholarships.

I had recently taken a workshop on grant writing and Blue had written grants before, so the three of us hopped on a phone call. During the call, Terry was dismissive of Blue’s suggestions, but complimented mine. After, Blue asked me if I thought she was being treated differently. I played it off as no big deal, believing that Terry was just a clumsy communicator. Soon after, BIG formed its first Diversity and Inclusion Committee. One of our first tasks was creating scholarships. Blue advised us on the difference between financial assistance and diversity scholarships. She didn’t want us to confuse poverty with race and perpetuate narratives like Black = poor. She reminded us that diversity scholarships are about gratitude and reparations, not financial need. However, again, Blue’s insight was dismissed. Years later, I changed the wording on the scholarships, right before I resigned and after Blue reminded me of how hurtful equivocation can be.

After these incidents, Blue took some space from the theatre’s leadership. For a while, we didn’t talk about it. Really, we just didn’t talk. We didn’t have a personal conflict, but we were now running in different circles, so we didn’t cross paths as much.

After me and Myles broke up in 2018, she reached out. During that time, she really cemented herself as someone who I could talk to, who could make me smile, offer advice, and reflect on the politics of theatre. We started talking on the phone more often and sharing more openly. Then, in 2020, shit hit the fan.

After the uprising for Black lives in the wake of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, Blue was fed up. She wrote a Facebook post about her experience as a Black woman at a predominantly white theatre. Tashika also shared. Then, there was a chorus of sharing, both from our city and around the globe. The liberal arts weren’t so liberal. Comedy wasn’t so inclusive. Our community theatre wasn’t so community-focused.

Blue called me in, asking me to share my experiences too and cosign on what I had observed. Rasheed challenged me to name the ways in which I was aware of, complicit in, perpetuated, and profited from a system of inequity, and Ti advised me that the work begins inwardly. I realized that in silence and passivity, there were community members I respected that I wasn't standing in solidarity with, not consistently at least. Between the conversation at the theatre and the protests in the street, I felt called to share and respond to the moment. I thought I was radical already, but 2020 cranked me to eleven. The world needed to change, and improv needed to change with it.

Sure enough, change started to happen at BIG, but it was slow at first. It was too slow for me, and it was too slow for Blue. Together, we left the theatre alongside sixty improvisers. Over the next year, BIG’s leadership changed. The curriculum got an anti-racist overhaul. New leaders, who better represented Baltimore, were hired and continued making changes, in preparation for BIG’s reopening. It seemed that the protest Blue started had worked.

Since leaving BIG, Blue and I have become closer than ever before. I guess you could say we trauma-bonded, but it’s more than that too. Blue and I don’t take anyone’s bullshit. It took me a while to catch up, but now we’re often on the same wavelength, and we’re always rooting for each other.

After BIG, Blue and I both helped out with Highwire Improv. We got involved with community on a national level thanks to the magical world of online performance. I revamped Bird City Improv. Blue co-founded and supported several Black-led improv movements, at Morgan State University, FAM Fest, and BIA. And remember when I said, Blue and I don’t take anyone’s bullshit? Blue helped to build BIA and then left BIA when she learned its leader was acting unethically. In parallel, I helped JHU build an improv program, and then left when I learned my department was acting unethically. Both of our collaborators were replicating harm. Now, we were twice disappointed in our leaders, first with Terry at BIG, and then with the leadership at the organizations that we had committed ourselves to. I guess you could say that we trauma-bonded twice. Isn’t that nice?

On the phone, Blue and I gas each other up. We talk about our families. We talk about our love lives. We talk about the struggles of navigating an underserved performing arts community, one that minimizes and erases certain types of people and certain types of experience. We talk about the hypocrisy of artists and organizations who replicate harmful systems in the name of justice. We encourage each other to lean into self-care, move in alignment with our values, and to let go of the things that no longer serve us. We share ideas with one another and champion the other’s success.

This year I co-facilitated a workshop with Blue called "Improving to Thrive: Afro-Diasporic Improvisation." In collaboration with the Maryland State Department of Education. We were invited to lead this professional learning event at the Smithsonian, specifically the National Museum of African American History & Culture. It was a three-day experience, that included improv training, cultural responsivity, and a guided tour through the museum. On the tour, we were tasked with finding the improvisational threads that wove their way through African American history; through our shared history.

We were paid equitably for our work. We were even put up in a nice hotel in Washington, DC. It was one of those moments when you feel like, “Yes. We made it.” It was an affirmation we both needed. For three days, Blue and I spent almost every hour together. Granted, we’ve spent a long time together before, but this was an immersive experience, and a healing experience too. Over some drinks at the hotel, we shared our insecurities as artists and offered each other guidance. Blue was looking for her North Star. I was looking for a sense of belonging, a sense of self-belief. When we finished our event, on the ride home, we reflected. It felt like we both got what we wanted – a reignited fire for doing the things we love.

Blue, thank you for being one of the most loving people in the improv world, or just in the world, period. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for affirming my feelings as a twenty-something in love, as an artist who is too often unsure, and a person for whom the veil was lifted. You helped to lift it, and that’s no small thing. Thank you for calling me in, instead of calling me out, and affording me the time to learn and grow. Thank you for teaching with Bird City Improv, helping to co-create that vision. Thank you for sharing your spirit and laughter. Most importantly, thank you for picking up your phone and calling me whenever your intuition told you to. Improv may have brought us together, but on the phone is where I fell in love with you.

Cheers, Blue. I am so grateful to call you a friend and can’t wait to see the wonderful things that you continue to do.

This post is part of a series called a Month of Gratitude, about the people, places, and things that I am thankful for on the precipice of 30. You can read the first post here and all other posts here.

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