Comedy

Canada's first all-Black sketch troupe (unless someone tells them otherwise)

The elevator pitch for the collective is "Canada's finally ready for its first all-Black sketch ensemble, after 400 years in the making."

"Canada's finally ready for its first all-Black sketch ensemble, after 400 years in the making."

(Untitled Black Sketch Project at Toronto Sketch Fest)

John A. Macdonald and Viola Desmond talking about replacing him on the Canadian $10 bill. 

A Black woman fending off the groping hands of work colleagues who can't resist reaching out to touch her hair. 

And a rapping microwave oven. 

These are just some of the premises featured in the Untitled Black Sketch Project's table read on the closing night of Toronto Sketchfest, all of which were humourous and immersed in thought-provoking commentary that needles the status quo.

The elevator pitch for the collective is "Canada's finally ready for its first all-Black sketch ensemble, after 400 years in the making." 

But is it really the first all Black Canadian sketch troupe to exist? 

"I'm still waiting for someone to come out through the woodwork and be like, 'Um, actually this troupe was here first' and it's been a year and that has not happened," says Untitled Black Sketch Project co-creator and co-producer Ajahnis Charley. 

"So we might legitimately be it. We are it," says Charley. 

The eight members of Untitled Black Sketch Project: Coko Galore, PHATT Al, Alan Shane Lewis, Nkasi Ogbonnah, Ajahnis Charley, Aba Amuquandoh, Brandon Ash Mohammed, Brandon Hackett (Untitled Black Sketch Project)

Featuring a variety of players who have extensive experience in Canada's comedy circles, the Untitled Black Sketch Project features members such as head writer/director Brandon Hackett (TallBoyz), Phatt Al (Second City), Nkasi Ogbonnah (Second City), Aba Amuquandoh, Alan Shane Lewis (Co-host of the Great Canadian Baking Show), Brandon Ash Mohammed and co-producer Coko Galore (Bad Dog Theatre). 

Together they formed a collective that doesn't often get a chance to collaborate on sketch comedy in Canadian comedy circles.

"I think there's a lot of Black artists who are just really focused on standup," says Galore. 

"And it's understandable because there's a quicker result with stand up. And there's more autonomy in it. There's more (of it being) from your perspective. I think the thing with sketch and improv, which are closely related, the industry portion of it is that it's really hard to get a footing in that field as a BIPOC creator," adds Galore. 

"Half of our troupe, like gender, routes through standup and I think that goes to show that it's just a testament to the different kind of path you have to take for this sort of thing to even be possible," adds Charley.

The kernel for the idea for the Untitled Black Sketch Project came about when Charley and Ogbonnah saw Hackett & Langdon perform at a comedy festival a few years ago, and it dawned on them that while there were a few Black comedy duos, there didn't seem to be a larger ensemble.

After seeing the duo at a festival the next year and realized the comedy landscape hadn't changed in the interim, they decided to do something about it, applying to and receiving funding from the Pat and Tony Adams Freedom Fund about a year ago. 

Consequently, Charley views the closing night Toronto Sketchfest table read as a "full circle" moment for seeing his idea come to fruition.

Like many forms of comedy, the Untitled Black Sketch Project draws its strength from being rooted in some form of reality and lived experience . 

"Having lived the lives we've lived up until this point the ends of the spectrum are kind of inherent to our voice and our experiences and we just knew that that would naturally express itself in the work that we created," says Charley. 

"So we just decided to create the work and we ended up with a range of absurd sketches about rapping microwaves to really grounded sketches about micro-aggressions and police brutality and that's just what we're feeling right now."

The opening sketch about touching a Black woman's hair is a prime example of the balancing of social commentary and humour. 

Just a few days before the Toronto Sketchfest performance, Galore, who plays the Black woman in the sketch, retweeted the experience of CTV reporter Jess Smith, who had her hair petted without permission by white woman while out on a shoot.

"That sketch is too real... I think for all of us having the constant 'Can I touch your hair?' Like, 'Please, I'm not trying to be racist, I just want to touch your hair, I just really need to.' I think sometimes we're not seen as human beings, not with those kinds of boundaries," says Galore." 

"And they perceive they're being cute. And I'm like, 'No, you're being rude.' Yeah, so when I saw the Jess Smith, thing, I was like, I have to retweet this because she really goes into the political aspects of why it's wrong. Whereas I just fight everybody in the elevator," says Galore laughing.

Another sketch centres around the traffic stop of a Black motorist and draws on the real-life example of police in Halifax, Virginia who went viral pulling over Black drivers to give the impression they had committed an offence, only to present them with an ice cream.

The Untitled Black Sketch Project's approach to this situation, is to show how what was seen as a harmless prank by the police involved, was actually a very traumatic experience for Black people.

"I remember the first time we performed it at Black and Funny that people asked in the chat, 'Wait did that really happen?' before we showed the video and then the video popped up and they were like mind blown they're like, 'Oh my God! What!" says Galore. 

Using the pandemic-induced virtual medium for comedy has meant they can leverage the use of video for sketches like these. 

"It is so much more efficient to just cut to it, to make everybody see exactly what happened and then come back to the scene and build off of that," says Charley, 

"It's just really smooth on the digital platform and I'm glad I was able to express exactly the emotion that the woman was feeling in that moment and the absurdity of the situation in general." 

The Untitled Black Sketch Project was conceived before the pandemic, but as the digital adaptations they have incorporated make clear, they've had to make their first comedic forays within this reality, finding ways to thrive and turn the situation to their advantage.

Galore also says that being online has the potential to make The Untitled Black Sketch Project's comedy more accessible to Black audiences, and it also allows for the use of video and captioning.

As for the future of The Untitled Black Sketch Project, Charley has plans to do more table reads and to actually perform on stage collectively in a post-pandemic reality. But for now, stay tuned to the Untitled Black Project on your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds.

"All our moves," says Charley, "Well, I mean, 'Real G's move in silence like lasagna,' as Lil Wayne said, so not all the moves will be out there, but the ones that are out there will be on those platforms."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Del Cowie is a Toronto-based music journalist and editor who has worked as a writer, producer and researcher for the Peabody and International Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary series Hip Hop Evolution. He has also worked as a producer for CBC Music and was hip-hop editor at national music magazine Exclaim! for over a decade. Additionally, he has contributed writing on hip-hop music and culture to NOW, NOISEY and XXL among other publications. Cowie has served as a judge for the Junos, the SOCAN Songwriting Prize and the Prism Prize and has been a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury since its 2006 inception. Since 2015 he has produced and presented Before the 6ix, an ongoing panel discussion focusing on Toronto hip-hop history in association with the Toronto Public Library.

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