There are two things Brie Eley says she’s too old for: waiting in lines and hanging out near dumpsters. She and her castmates have already done both tonight, first outside a Vine Street bar packed to capacity, and later on the patio behind the Pack Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, where they eventually returned around midnight (with their own booze in tow) once they got tired of waiting to get into the bar. The members of the Color Collective, a group comprised of roughly two dozen actors, comedians, writers, producers and musicians primarily of color, have much to celebrate. They’ve just wrapped their first comedy show under a new name, which was recently changed from Black Magic Live — a smaller comedy troupe that gained notoriety for its viral video about police brutality — in an attempt to acknowledge their growing diversity.
“At the same time as we had started calling this show Black Magic Live, we were having Indian actors, Latino actors, Asian actors, and it was like, we’re not necessarily a black show, so we shouldn’t even put ourselves out there,” Eley says. “Because people are going to come expecting one thing and we’re giving them this whole other. So let’s try and find what that version of a show is.”
By the looks of its debut, that version of a show turns out to be an ambitious, hourlong variety program featuring a live DJ, original sketches, stand-up sets, video parodies, vintage commercials, musical interludes and a Weekend Update–esque news segment that adds socially conscious commentary to current events (the most recent iteration included timely jokes about “covfefe” and Bill Maher’s use of a racial slur). Held the first Saturday of every month at the Pack Theatre, an experimental black-box venue that’s been giving the more established Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre a run for its money, the show is crafted much like a television series: Members of the collective meet every month in a writers’ room to pitch ideas, write the scripts and ultimately decide which sketches will make it into the final iteration. In an attempt to keep the group accessible and intersectional, they also solicit pitches and submissions from performers outside the collective; the July show, for example, will feature a local dance troupe.
The show’s producer, Royce Shockley, downplays the element of race in the collective — “Our motto is kind of like the color doesn’t matter, just the comedy,” he insists — but the performers’ varied backgrounds have allowed them a unique kind of freedom in the material they pursue, whether it’s political or not. “No one feels weird playing themselves, and we can really do whatever we want to do,” Shockley says. “Say I have an idea that deals with race, there’s no one [in the writers’ room] saying, ‘Oh, does that really happen?’ And there’s no one saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ or, ‘Hey, let’s make it more ethnic!’”
For Shockley and many others involved in the group, the opportunity to write and perform comedy that remains true to their own lived experiences — and not necessarily those of their white peers — is all too rare in Los Angeles. “How many teams can do a sketch about yellow-washing?” he says, referencing a sketch in which Asian-American actress Corinne Chooey played a character criticized for stealing iconic roles from white leading men, a subverted take on so-called “white-washing.”
A former congressional intern who worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign, Shockley moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 2012. He became interested in comedy a year later and realized the transition from politics would be fairly easy: Both professions involved thinking quickly and offering up a creative spin on any given subject. But he says most of the comedy shows he went to felt too “insidery.” Not just that but he was often the only person of color in the room, even when he later joined sketch and improv teams at the Pack. Onstage, his awareness of being different felt magnified, particularly during spur-of-the-moment improv decisions in which he was sometimes racially typecast while the audience watched in real time. “I shouldn't always have to be ‘the black guy.’ I should be able to just be ‘the guy,’” Shockley says. “It just reminds me that I’m different from everyone else. It sucks.”
It’s a situation that’s not unfamiliar to his Color Collective castmates. Leon Nixon recalls silently fuming to himself when, in the middle of an improv scene with a previous group, his teammate referred to him as a slave. “I don’t think he meant anything by it, it was just kind of in the moment he came up with it. But I was not cool with it at all,” Nixon says. He knew that if he let his anger show, or if he attempted to resist the role in the same way he might’ve had it been scripted, he’d run the risk of ruining the scene and losing the audience along with it. “At the time, I was hot! But I said, OK, all right, we’re onstage, I’ll double down on it. ‘Anything else you want me to get you, master? Can I have your wife, too?’”
Other times, an improv decision as seemingly inconsequential as the name a teammate chooses for Nixon’s character can be as revealing as it is exhausting and repetitive, he says. “It’s the same names all the time, like Leroy and Marcus, you know?”
“JaQuan,” Eley adds. “No one’s named JaQuan.”
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“You can really see who people are in an improv scene,” Nixon says. “Because in the moment when you have to come up with something and the pressure of coming up with something, people are watching you [and they pull from] whatever they’re comfortable with, and whatever’s inside that’s real.”
That Color Collective’s writing team is a mix of men and women from different backgrounds comes as a blessing, says Eley, who sees it as a welcome contrast to previous sketch groups she’s been in. With other troupes, “There have definitely been times where it’s like, ‘Oh, you just want me to be sassy? No thank you,'” she says. “I am so grateful to be a part of a group where I never feel like I have to play a stereotype.”
Shockley says it’s slowly becoming more common to see sketch comedy groups of color than it was when he started performing four years ago. But still, he says L.A.’s comedy scene isn’t catching up with the city’s diversity fast enough. “I’m just hoping that I can play a small part in changing that, because eventually what I would love is for this show to get everyone on the cast jobs,” he says. “To have people come out and say, ‘Oh, we’re looking for minority talent for this show. Oh, let’s go to Color Collective.’”