African-American troupe laughs at itself
By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff
Shaun Landry is
ringing in from somewhere north of Chicago - "I don't know where I
am, in the boondocks, in the sticks" - where she has just finished
a matinee performance at a venue called the Enchanted Castle.
Geographic confusion aside, she does know who she is, and she
anticipates the inevitable question that everyone asks everywhere she
"How did we get the name of the company?" she says,
punctuating the query with the kind of laugh you can't turn down with a
dimmer switch. The company is Oui Be Negroes,
a Chicago-based African-American Improv troupe that will perform at the
Comedy Studio in Cambridge next weekend.
"Basically, the 'Oui' part comes from African Americans who went
over to France in the '20s and '30s and did very well for themselves,
folks like Fats Waller and
Josephine Baker. It's homage to that," Landry says, pausing.
"And it's just damn funny."
Landry explains that most people giggle when they hear the name, but
every now and then, it makes "very nice liberal white folks"
just a little nervous. But since Landry founded the company with her
husband, Hans Summers in 1994, she has run all the material by her older
sister Angel, the unofficial taste monitor for the performers. Angel
thinks the name is just fine, and she didn't object when the company
recently started billing itself as the "Only Ebonics National
Touring Company" either. Landry tells people the company is working
on a production of "Uh Def of a Salesman," and she hopes they
know it's a joke.
"If you can't make fun of yourself, then life isn't any fun,"
she says. "And being an African American in this country, you have
to have a sense of humor or you drive yourself crazy." The
company, which is being hosted by the Boston Improv troupe Renegade
Duck, specializes in sociopolitical humor, and they try to make the
material a little more theatrical than your basic barroom improvisation.
"People think, 'Oh God, they're going to do a game for us...Here we
go,'" Landry says. "Our material is based on social satire,
but it's not preachy. We try to make it as funny as humanly possible,
because if we're not funny, we sound like a bunch of [fools] onstage
She say that the material is fresh onstage, so immediate that it's often
terrifying. "There's always some guy who has had too many
margaritas who screams out something silly like 'Gynecology,'"
Landry says, describing the part of the act when the performers take
suggestions from the audience. "But that's not the scary part. The
scary bit, the crazy bit, is when you are onstage for 15 or 20 minutes
and you feel like it's not clicking."
Despite the fear and danger, Landry and the other company members
embrace the form, which is a sort of a home-grown pastime in Chicago,
what with companies like Second City. Landry, 31, has been performing
since her college days, but she didn't discover that many opportunities
for African-American comedians. "There were like two of us who were
black doing Improv in this town," she says. "It seemed like a
'white thing." That's why she enrolled in a minority outreach
seminar at Second City, where
she hooked up with a few of the current company members. After the
workshop, she and Summers founded the company as an offshoot of a troupe
called the Underground Theater Conspiracy.
Summers, who is white, describes himself as the troupe's token member.
Landry prefers to liken him to Margaret Dumont, the perfectly proper
straight woman who always looked so prim and shocked in the Marx
Brothers movies. "We're like Groucho and
Harpo and Zeppo, and he stands out like Margaret
Dumont. We tell people he's really black, but
he's been sick lately."
Of course, Landry knows it's not exactly a coincidence that the troupe
is making its Boston visit during Black History Month. "It's the
shortest month of the year," she says, letting out that laugh
again. "But I'm happy to say when the month is over, we're still
touring. It's not like, 'OK, my life is over for the next 11 months.' We
keep active." She thinks it's great that lots of artists of color
tour this month, and she practically whistles into the phone when she
hears that song-and-dance man
Ben Vereen is
performing in Boston this weekend. "He's such a sweetie. He lives
in Chicago, and I ended up talking to him once and I told him our name.
He thought it was a hoot. I would love for him to be a 'Negro,' but I
think he's too expensive," she says, laughing one more time before
hanging up and finding her way out of the boondocks and back to Chicago.