What do you get when you cross Second City-style sketch comedy with Black activist theater, then subject it to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The answer is “Hit 'Em on the Blackside,” Congo Square Theatre's first foray into producing a virtual revue. Created and directed by ensemble member Anthony Irons, with terrific work by director of photography Malcom Banks, who also is the cameraman, editor and music/sound guy, the program includes seven skits of various lengths and formats. They range from intensely topical to more broadly satirical.
The opener, for example, is a Zoom meeting on the of-the-moment subject, “Reopening Schools.” Arguably too true to be “ha-ha” funny, it pits a parent (Alexis J. Roston), who insists the schools must reopen, against a teacher (Tiffany Addison), who says no way is she going to put her life or those of others at risk. Trying to moderate is a district superintendent, Mr. Hamfisted (Ronald L. Conner), who is repeatedly stymied by family members and computer glitches. The principal, Mr. Jones (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), is....well, sleeping on the job, literally.
At the other end of the spectrum is the closer. Entitled “The Process,” it shines a spotlight on the absurd preferences, priorities and practices of a Hollywood hotshot aptly named Mendacious Moore (Roston) as he casts the role of a St. Louis auto worker for his unnamed film. Not surprisingly, he's dismissive of an actor who fits the part but goes gaga over a guy with an English accent, not even realizing he's the same actor (Conner).
While Irons originally intended the current “Hit 'Em” to appear all at once, it was instead posted as half-a-dozen bi-weekly webisodes on Congo Square's Facebook and Instagram pages starting on Oct. 9. The full show went up on the website in mid-December, and a second set of sketches is being written and filmed to start appearing bi-weekly from March to June, after which it too will go on the website.
Irons said that this method was partly for practical reasons—they were working out kinks and editing up to the final release—but also allowed them to break into the market and build interest gradually. “The first webisode got slightly more than 1000 views, and each one after that picked up speed,” he said.
“Hit 'Em” actually is a reboot of a live show Irons did for Congo Square in 2014. Drawing on his experience as an actor and director at Second City, “Tales from the Blackside” was a 45-minute revue with about a dozen sketches, most of which were about social justice, protests and responding to issues of the time from the perspective of the Black community. It ran for two weekends and was well received. Irons said the idea was to revive it annually but that didn't happen because of people's schedules, so when the pandemic hit and the theater wanted a way to respond, the time seemed right to dust it off and redo it.
In fact, one segment comes directly from “Tales” but has been updated for “Hit 'Em.” Presented as a tv broadcast, “HOTB News” starts with anchor Ebony B. Black (Addison) introducing a traffic report featuring Angela S. Black (guest Ericka Ratcliff) in front of a U.S. map on which she points out all the roadblocks to social justice in very human terms. An indignant dispatch from a blogger (Conner) on a road trip — with a Black Lives Matter sign in the back of his car — follows and, like most parts of the sketch, seems perfectly suited to the digital medium — even more than to the live stage, though I admit I didn't see the 2014 version.
One piece Irons thought of doing live in “Tales” but didn't is equally ideal online, and the inspiration comes from a video demonstration he saw twenty years ago — then tried himself. In “Science is Real,” which mimics a tv show for children, a very affable Professor Nada (Conner) shows how to use a magnet and bowl of water to find tiny particles of iron in kids' cereals, whose names are taped over on the boxes but divulged anyway. It's a truly horrifying idea explored in an easily digestible way designed to heighten our outrage.
Although the ensemble members all pitched ideas and brainstormed, four of the skits were written by Irons and two — ”Reopening Schools” and “The Process” — were by Conner. Alexis Roston wrote “That's Not My Name,” a funny-sad piece that picks up on the remote learning theme. Cheery but clueless Mrs. Robertson (Roston) is conducting “share time” with her class but can't seem to get anyone's name right. She also faces other interruptions that make Zoom school challenging, tying this segment in nicely with “Reopening Schools.” The final student's rant ends with a quietly hilarious twist.
When “That's Not My Name” premiered on Facebook and Instagram, a bonus was tacked onto it. “1 Minute A Wilson” cunningly recaps August Wilson's “The Piano Lesson” in a minute using animated illustrations by Sully Ratke. Irons explained that it was an homage to the first Wilson play — in fact, the first play — Congo Square produced in 1999 and that the playwright, who was there, was a great supporter of the company.
Irons, whose fourth piece, “Claire,” is a compelling look at justified Black fears of the police, said that another episode of “1 Minute A Wilson” already is lined up for the next “Hit 'Em.” He'd also like to have a new edition of “HOTB News,” which is a good way to address current events, and he envisions other recurring characters, among them Professor Nada. Some of the sketches are filmed remotely by the actors, then edited by Banks; others are filmed live or using a combination of methods.
It's going to be tempting to watch the new webisodes as they're posted, but there's also an argument for waiting until they're altogether on the web site, because the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In fact, I'd recommend viewing “Hit 'Em on the Blackside” more than once, a luxury we seldom have with live theater.