In 2016, anyone with a Facebook account is familiar with images of police pointing guns in the faces (or at the backs) of African-American citizens. Most recent were the shootings of Baton Rouge’s Alton Sterling and Minnesota’s Philando Castile within a 24-hour period earlier this month. The latter was shot at least four times in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. So it's not too surprising that Afros and Ass Whoopins, Second City L.A.’s stage show exploring the current epidemic of police violence against the black community, is punctuated by scenarios of cops shoving their Glocks in the faces of both black characters and members of the audience.
What may be more shocking is that this is a musical comedy.
“I feel like comedy is the best invitation to difficult, visceral topics that seem to affect us all,” explains Dwayne Colbert, the writer-director of Afros and Ass Whoopins, which runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 13. “I, like a lot of people, enjoy a good drama, but I feel like dramas are always telling us how things should be, while in comedy we work really hard to tell our audiences how things really are. The audiences' response, and how open they are to have further discussions about topics we brought up in the show, lets me know we got it right.”
Ironically, this racial satire originated two years ago with Colbert's decision to avoid a discussion. Michael Brown had just been gunned down by a police officer in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and as a father, Colbert debated if he should address the topic with his sons.
“I, like many African-American parents, felt the need to talk to my boys about what happened, as well as about how to interact with the police in general,” he recalls. “But after looking into their innocent, young eyes at the beginning of the conversation and seeing that they were clueless about all of this violence and negativity, I stopped that talk. I told them to go back outside and play. And then I wrote this musical for them instead.”
This sense of family forms the spine of Afros, exploring the lives of a black father, mother and teenage son as they navigate the the increasing militancy of America’s police forces. The show hits its stride, both comically and intellectually, when the adolescent protagonist is visited, Ebenezer Scrooge–style, by the ghosts of African-American historical figures who shepherd the confused lad through the evolution of black oppression in the United States. (Colbert has requested that we not reveal the identities of these specters, so as to not spoil the punchlines.) Celebrity impressions have long been a trademark of Second City’s 57-year comedy career, but the decision to deliver this story as a musical was an attempt to transcend racial differences among audience members.
“I wanted people who aren't African-American to feel our pain,” he says. “I don't think anyone, oftentimes including African-Americans, truly feel our pain in this country. I'm not a little white girl orphan, but when the character of Annie from the musical Annie sings, I can feel her pain. Making this a musical, in my opinion, was the only way for it to truly be heard, and again, audiences are letting me know we got it right because I've had people who aren't African-American come up to me after the show crying their eyes out having been truly affected by what they just witnessed.”
For Colbert, this pain isn’t an abstract notion solely inflicted on people who share his skin color in other cities. Growing up in South Central L.A., the multihyphenate comedian has had his own brushes with overzealous law enforcement.
“I've been stopped by police countless times, even before I was old enough to drive,” he says. “I had been stopped, searched and questioned so many times that I literally knew the routine: hands up, turn around, interlock your fingers, put them on top of your head, drop down to your knees and cross your legs behind you. Then the officer, oftentimes with gun already drawn, would approach, grab your interlocked fingers from the top of your head and bend them behind you while you were then violated in ways that would have the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves. Or it should.”
While Afros does a deft job of dissecting the problems of race-based police brutality, don’t come to the show looking for easy answers.
Colbert says, “You asking me ‘the best way for Americans to change this current problem with police shootings’ is like asking me to solve racism in America. To quote a line I wrote for the dad character in the show, ‘I don't have all the answers. But I know I can't do it alone.’”
Second City L.A., 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 13; $12. secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/afros-ass-whoopins.