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The Black Version returns to The Kennedy Center for a night of hilarity

Photo credit courtesy of EIko Weaver

Note - Cedric Yarbrough was not in attendance for Saturday's performance

The laughs were plentiful on Saturday, October 1st when improv comedy show The Black Version returned to Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center. The show is the brainchild of comedy writer/voice actor Jordan Black and has a simple concept. The improv comics create a black version of a film suggested by the audience.

When the show began in LA over a decade ago, the movies included were Back to the Future, inevitably retitled Black to the Future, and Silence of the Lambs, better known as Why You Eating People? The show's director informed us that during the first two Kennedy Center performances, the movies given black versions were classics, The Shining and Dirty Dancing.

Karen Maruyama serves as the night's director. The Saturday performance's cast was Jordan Black, Niyma Funk, Daniele Gaither, the iconic Phil LaMarr, and Gary Anthony Williams. I was familiar with the work of Mrs. Funk, Mr. LaMarr, and Mr. Williams; all have made me chuckle in the past. While I wasn't that familiar with the work of Mr. Black or Mrs. Gaither after reading the program, both have worked on shows that I watch regularly.

The night began with the performing black versions of theme songs from legendary movies, which had the audience in stitches. Shortly after that, Karen Maruyama takes the stage and asks the audience to shout out iconic movie titles. Some of the titles suggested were The Princess Bride (my wife), Footloose (myself), Sleepless In Seattle, Top Gun, and Mommie Dearest. Inexplicably someone in the audience suggested All About Eve and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Phil LaMarr even gave the recommendations a humorous side-eye. Not to downplay the impact of either film, but I doubt the bulk of the audience knows these films.

From the audience's applause, Mommie Dearest was chosen as the film to receive the black version of the film. A lightning-quick call by Maruyama summons the comics to the stage and sets the stage for the show to begin. The beauty of improvisational comedy is that there's hardly any time to conjure ideas. While Maruyama does ask the audience for a suggestion or two, the comics are essentially thinking on their feet.

As a refresher, Mommie Dearest is an adaptation of actress Christina Crawford's same-titled 1978 memoir and exposé, which described her abusive relationship with her adoptive mother, film star Joan Crawford. For the Black Version, the film was retitled Mama No! The most notable change was mama's occupation, which changed from actress to DJ.

All performers had moments to shine throughout the show as they recreated iconic scenes from the film. Danielle Gaither was a hoot as the mother, while Niyma Funk and Jordan Black took on the role of the children. Phil LaMarr juggled roles throughout the night, portraying everything from a record producer to a love interest. In contrast, Gary Anthony Williams portrayed a butler. After the movie ended, the comics gifted the audience with more improv as the cast acted out features you would find on a Blu-Ray.

Overall, it was a memorable night out, and I hope the show continues to D.C. some more folks get a chance to experience the Black Version.

Final Grade: A-


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