Chicago For years, The Second City has helped funny people find stardom, including Joan Rivers, George Wendt, John Belushi and Mike Myers.
Most have been white; the improvisational comedy troupe has been short on actors of color.
Now, Second City is on a mission to better reflect the cultural diversity of Chicago, where the company has been operating from a North Side theater since it was started by a group of improvisational performers that included filmmaker Mike Nichols in 1959.
Plans are under way for a Second City training center on Chicago's South Side, not far from the University of Chicago campus where the comedy company has its roots.
"Our goal is to see more people in the African-American community doing this work," owner Andrew Alexander says. "We've been making the effort for a while, but we wanted more consistency. We realized we needed to be in the community on a more permanent basis."
The new center would be located in a once-thriving and mostly black area known as Bronzeville. And it would be just a few blocks away from the University of Chicago, where a group of politically active students -- Nichols included -- formed a theater club in the late 1950s that morphed into The Second City.
The training center would teach the skills that give Second City its edgy brand of satire, which is steeped in the arts of improvisation and ensemble acting, and is driven by performers who write and present their own material. It would be similar to Second City's other training center in the mostly white Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, and centers in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles.
Only 15 black members have joined Second City Chicago since Bob Curry in 1966, a time of political and social turbulence when the company needed a black voice.
"Blacks began to join in the '70s, but it was not until the '80s that we took more aggressive efforts to become more inclusive," Alexander said.
Second City Detroit, however, has been an incubator for black performers, including Dionna Griffin, now a Second City producer in Chicago, and actors Nyima Funk and Keegan-Michael Key.
"Detroit is a prime example of what I'm talking about doing in Bronzeville," Alexander said. "In Detroit, your urban population has a higher percentage of African-Americans. ... Hence there's a talent pool that gives us a voice that wasn't being heard at Second City 10 years ago."
Now in Chicago, Funk and Key take on an array of characters while lampooning President Bush, the war on terrorism and other topics in the Second City revue "Curious George Goes to War."
Range of parodies
In the show, Funk's parodies range from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to singer Tina Turner to actress Julia Roberts while Key's portrayals include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused accomplice in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
They also do a witty sketch that features an uncomfortable backyard conversation between a snooty middle-class couple and their new neighbors, who have recently relocated from a public housing development.
The audience is usually mostly white, but Funk hopes that will change as Second City finds more minority performers. "Believe me, I want more black people at Second City so more folks can get my jokes," she said.
That's where Griffin comes in. As Second City's minority outreach coordinator, she spends much of her time searching for blacks and other nonwhites.
"It's just so important to have a diverse cast on stage because that reflects America," Griffin said.
One of her latest finds is spoken-word artist Orron Kenyetta Marshall, who recently accepted a scholarship that will cover nearly two years of training at Second City.
"I had no idea that Second City could offer me an opportunity until Dionna Griffin asked me to get involved," said Marshall, who began taking courses this summer and has since received three callbacks for auditions at the theater company.
Claudia Wallace, a Second City director, had not considered the comedy troupe as an option when Second City found her in 1993 as part of an outreach effort.
"I'd never seen them within the (black) community," Wallace said. "I knew about Second City, but I thought, 'Well, that's not for me.' I was part of a wave and it's good to see that they want to continue to get blacks on stage."
Work in progress
The Bronzeville center is a work in progress that will probably require about $1.4 million for completion, Alexander said. Some of the cost will be covered by an $850,118 federal grant that gives businesses tax credits and exemptions from government regulations for hiring local residents, particularly those from groups with traditionally high unemployment or longtime welfare recipients.
However, community activist Nate Thompson and others have questioned whether a white-run business such as Second City serves the best interests of Bronzville residents.
"I don't trust the organization," Thompson said. "They've never had a track record or an involvement in the neighborhood or anything. So what exactly is it that they plan to train black entertainers to do -- present a white point of view?"
Not at all, Alexander said. He said the location on the South Side was sought specifically for the purpose of putting more blacks in decision-making positions, adding that Griffin will serve as Bronzeville producer.
"To the community's credit, on the surface, I can see why there would be this concern -- this white, North Side business getting all this money," he said. "Our goal is to increase our diversity by getting more African-Americans involved at the grass-roots level. It will probably take 10 years in order for it to become as successful as what we have on Wells Street.
"But we're in this for the long term."