by Erica LiesPhoto by Steve Rogers
It’s no secret that for years, comedy in general and improv in particular, have had a reputation for over-representing on the straight white dude front, and there’s been a lot of discussion this year about diversity in improv overall. While improv in Austin has seen tremendous growth in terms of women’s participation, it’s been far less robust amongst other underrepresented groups. So when a photo of Damn Gina –– Austin’s first and only all black woman improv team –– appeared in my newsfeed last July, my first response was, “WHEN IS THE SHOW I HAAAAAVE TO GO!”
Consisting of supertalents Xaria Coleman, Cene Hale, Ronnita Miller, Tauri Laws-Philips and recent addition Maggie Maye, Damn Gina’s in the middle of a December run at ColdTowne Theater with openers Sugar Water Purple. Titled ‘Night Watch,’ Damn Gina is doing an Armando set with the players telling stories about their encounters with law enforcement. Their show last week slayed, and this Thursday December 17th is the final chance to catch this run. If you miss it, I feel sorry for you and your sorry life.
I sat down with a few of the Ginas this weekend to talk about what they find funny, what made them want to be a team in the first place, and why Austin comedy still needs more diversity.
How did Damn Gina get started?
Cene Hale: Wasn’t it Ronnie [Miller] that put the group together?
Xaria Coleman: That’s racist! It was me, Cene! [Laughter]
Maggie Maye: One of the black girls put it together. [Laughter]
Xaria: We all put it together. I knew I wanted to play with Cene, and then I met Ronnie in a jam and thought she was funny. And Tauri [Laws-Philips] was on my Improv Fantasy League team and she was so great. They were all really funny, and I was like, “Hmmm. There’s four black people here. Let’s start a team!”
Maggie: And then I heard about it.
Xaria: The only reason Maggie wasn’t in it at first was because I thought she wouldn’t have time for us.
Maggie’s busy being fancy and going on Conan. What specifically made you all say, “I want to play with other black women?”
Xaria: When I first started [doing improv], I was the only black person at ColdTowne. I remember seeing Maggie at a party, and I was like, “What up girl!” We didn’t even know each other, but we were instantly super comfortable. Then I met Cene and it was like, “This could be a thing. We could have some diversity here. Let’s do this.”
Cene: It’s easier for me to want to be on stage when I see people like me doing the same thing. I went to the jam at ColdTowne and Xaria was there. And then I found out Maggie ran the open mic. So I said, “Okay, I’ll take classes there.”
Xaria: When there’s other people like you, you just want to play with them.
Maggie: When there’s other people like you—this is gonna sound weird, but—you know where the other person is coming from onstage. When they give you a suggestion or they’re playing with you, you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re playing.’ They’re not, like…
...Saying something racist? [Laughter]
Maggie: Right. People don’t set out to say something racist. But sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying is racist. Or they say stuff they wouldn’t say in real life. I think sometimes when people see a black player, they think, “Here’s my chance to get out my preacher idea that I want to do.” And it’s like: maybe don’t.
So in playing on Damn Gina, you can talk about black culture, but you don’t have to.
Maggie: Yeah. It’s possible, but it’s not necessary. Plus they’re all so funny. I love being in a group where I know I’m going to have fun and absolutely die laughing because the other people are so funny.
Xaria: We just have fun together.
Cene: I feel like I understand what y’all are thinking or where you’re going. It doesn’t take much for me to know what page we’re on.
Maggie: We’ve all had similar experiences. Because we’re all black women, we look at things through the lens of that experience. In Night Watch, someone will tell a story that happened to their brother, and I’m like, “That happened to my brother, too.” We see each other through a similar lens, so when someone says something, it’s not a foreign concept. It’s not anything negative to say we live in a different world than our white counterparts, but things have happened to me that will never happen to my white friends.
Between Damn Gina and Sugar Water Purple plus a couple other groups, there’s more representation of people of color in Austin improv now than there was before. Not to say there wasn’t any before—Shades of Brown has held it down on that front for a while ––but it feels like 2015 was the year it’s really started to shift and there’s more than one team.
Xaria: Yeah, there’s also Ghetto Snax, Latino Night.
And Minority Report.
Cene: Yeah. I feel so much more at ease seeing more diversity.
Xaria: Even the audience is more diverse, too, now. I’ve noticed that since we’ve started. I’m like, where did all these people come from?
Maggie: It’s refreshing to see other people of color there now. I don’t want to say there’s a barrier, because certainly no one is stopping anyone from doing it. Everyone’s super pumped to see all the diversity coming in, but the fact there were only a few of us for years… I don’t want to say it’s an indicator of something, but it shows that black people are not doing improv at the same rate. I don’t know if it’s because it’s Austin or just improv in general. I saw an article on Sasheer Zamata’s improv group—and they’re out of UCB in New York—that was like, “Diverse improv troupe!” And I’m thinking, ‘There’s only three of y’all.’ Women are underrepresented in improv. Black people are underrepresented. So that’s why it’s important.
Xaria: Before we started, there were a lot of women doing things. It was like, “Women troupe! Women troupe! Women troupe!” And I was like, “THIS IS AWESOME!” But then I thought, ‘Wait. What about black women? We can do that, too!”
And there was a desire to see more diversity in general. How have audiences received you guys?
Maggie: A lot of improvisers are really excited about it. So many people have promised to come—and you know so many people say that and don’t ever come out—but people are actually showing up. People have told me, “Just on name alone, I want to see Damn Gina.”
What’s your favorite show been so far?
Xaria: I didn’t want last week’s show to end. The scene where we were white girls—
Cene: —FILTHY RICH white girls!—
Xaria: Nobody else can do that.
Yeah. It wouldn’t pack the same punch or have the same inherent critique if, say, I did that scene. You’re doing a show at ColdTowne Theater on Thursdays at 8pm in December, called Night Watch with opener Sugar Water Purple (show plug!). Tell me about them.
Xaria: They bring so much. They bring such high energy. They play so fast and come in and jump around. I played with them last week and when we were standing in the hall and the music came on, I was like, “I’m scared! I can’t jump around, I’ll get tired!” But I had so much fun with them.
Maggie: Their group games are so fun and they incorporate stuff that no one else is doing. They’re so great.
Erica Lies is an actor and writer whose work has appeared in Splitsider, Bitch Magazine, Rookie Mag, and The Hairpin. She also a two-time second-rounder at the Austin Film Festival with two pilots she wrote with Valerie Nies.