A broader sense of humor

Josie Dykas has had her fill of the service industry. The Latina comic has played a maid, a busboy, and a dishwasher on stages all across Chicago, and she's more than ready to throw in her towel.

"It's just assumed I speak Spanish and eat beans and rice," she says, laughing. "But I'm half white and Polish, too, and I grew up speaking English."

African-American performer Kevin Douglas can relate to being pigeonholed. "So many times, you're the only African-American person in the class, so you're pretty much Shakira or Colin Powell in every scene."

Tomorrow night, Ms. Dykas and Mr. Douglas will get their chance to play everybody from a flashy record producer to reggae artist Shaggy at the première of a new minority sketch revue sponsored by Second City on Chicago's North Side. A new Second City theater, scheduled to open next fall on the South Side, will feature only minority performers.

Andrew Alexander, owner of Second City, hopes the walls between white and black audiences and performers will come crashing down, like the high rises of public housing being torn down on Chicago's South Side.

This is the latest, and most ambitious effort of the renowned improv theater - which has launched comedians from Bill Murray to Bonnie Hunt - to include minority voices. And Mr. Alexander says he's already seeing encouraging signs.

"Because of the awareness of what we're doing," Alexander says, "it's opened up a dialogue in the community, and we're starting to see that on our North Side Second City. There are more African-Americans coming to the training center."

For a theater known for its improvised sketches, this is one act that's not spur of the moment.

"There's a need [for this program] because Chicago is very segregated," says Dionna Griffin, director of the Outreach Program. "If we are improvising, you have to have all these different perspectives. You have to have your take, my take."

Alexander has the "if we build it, they will come" attitude. He plans to build a new theater and training center in Bronzeville, a predominantly black Chicago neighborhood. Alexander says that Second City desperately needs another theater that stars minority performers "because a lot of African-American performers seem to go straight into standup and aren't coming into this ensemble work.

"We felt that if we get into the community, we could make this kind of work more accessible."

Performer and writer Dykas hopes this push for diversity works in her favor. She dreams of landing a role on Second City's main stage some day (the crème de la crème for improv performers). Dykas says that comedy, either ensemble or standup, is not a natural career for Latinas. She's beating the odds already.

"Because we weren't brought up that way," says Dykas, who works as a waitress to make ends meet. "We were taught to 'be there for your man....' Being funny and aggressive is not promoted."

Training for the spotlight

Producer Kelly Leonard says that the creation of the African-American/Latino Second City, called Brownco, has helped them focus their efforts and successfully attract more minorities. Now, he says, they have to train them.

"You just can't do this work - even if you're a great actor and writer - you can't do [Second City skits] without improvisation," Mr. Leonard says. "That's how we create our stuff. So we took a bunch of people, some who had a little training, some who had none, and said, 'Let's give you a hard-core project where we can flood you with information to accelerate that learning curve.' "

Attracting minority performers has been difficult for decades, says Sheldon Patinkin, chair of the Theater Department at Columbia College and artistic consultant for Second City. But he points out that the troupe used to have trouble attracting women as well.

"[Women] didn't want to improvise. The woman thing changed by the late '60s, early '70s. But it's always been a problem getting minorities."

It's certainly not that women or minorities have less of a sense of humor, or that Second City has to teach them "how to be funny."

"You teach people how to free themselves," says Mr. Patinkin. "You can't teach anyone to be funny."

The emphasis on outreach is less surprising when one examines Second City's roots. Viola Spolin, author of "Improvisation for the Theater," used improv games to help disadvantaged children come out of their shell. Her son, Paul Sills, looked at it as "funny theater."

Sills then got together with his friends, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and turned it into a group called the Compass Players in the 1950s. It morphed into Second City in 1959.

Second, third, fourth City

Chicago's brick Second City theater features two stages, the main stage and e.t.c. stage (seating 350 and 250, respectively). There are also Second City theaters and training centers in Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.

Bravo has a show called "Second City Presents" and the A&E channel is working on a series that follows around several performers-in-training. Second City will also produce its first feature movie - there is no script. The film will be entirely improvised. Filming begins in January.

But it was NBC's "Saturday Night Live" that secured Second City's future. Since the 1970s, Second City has provided a steady talent pool for the weekly live sketch show and other network TV programs.

Celebrity alums range from Jerry Stiller ("King of Queens") to Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). But only a handful of minority actors from Second City have improvised their way to stardom.

Both African-American Tim Meadows and more recently Latino performer Horatio Sans made it to "Saturday Night Live," but those are rare success stories. With NBC's purchase of Telemundo, there may be more opportunities headed Second City's way.

In "Curious George Goes to War,' a current show on Second City e.t.c's stage, you can see the growing diversity.

In one skit, a well-to-do black couple living on the prestigious North Side converse with their new neighbors - a couple recently relocated from the projects. Performers Nyima Funk and Keegan-Michael Key impersonate everybody from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to Julia Roberts to suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Dykas looks forward to the day when she can imitate such a wide variety of characters. "Here, they teach you to be smart, she says. "You can be funny, but say something."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.