In an empty theater downtown, Darryl Akins' black improv troupe prepared Monday night for a performance at the upcoming Wakanda Ball.
"We've got a 10-minute set, and we've got to do something that relates to the theme," he said. "Now, don't tell me you haven't seen 'Black Panther.'"
Jana Lage raised her hand. In this group, her white skin put her in the minority.
"Well at least you don't have to worry about having your black card revoked," Akins teased her.
Lage promised to see the movie before the ball.
"Black Panther" is a comic-book action film, but also much more, with its multi-layered themes of black pride and the fantasy of a hidden black kingdom called Wakanda that possesses super-advanced technology. It's about a world where black people are on top.
The Anchorage Wakanda Ball, April 14, promises to create that world in miniature with dance, words, dress, food and community. Jasmin Smith, owner of a business support company, the Business Boutique, is organizing the ball as a fundraiser for Anchorage's Juneteenth Celebration.
Akins read from his phone, "The purpose of the event is to make us all feel like we are in an African utopia."
The improv group, Mostly Melanin Arts, has a similar goal. Akins said stage improvisation powered by audience participation can create a voice for African Americans in Anchorage.
"Improv is interactive, and the material you do comes from the audience," Akins said. "If I'm in a room full of black people, guess what form that show is going to take? Improv is formed by the individuals in the room."
He continued, "If it ain't funny, at least make it educational, and not educational in a textbook way, because not all lessons come out of books."
But it is funny. I giggled through the rehearsal as I took in a collection of huge personalities.
It was different being a minority in the room, although that's something African Americans deal with most of the time in Anchorage. For an evening I was a visitor to Wakanda, or maybe in a local party of Wakandan expatriots.
"I've seen 'Black Panther' eleventeen times," a huge man whose booming voice declared, "I am your king now!"
He is Tatanka Jamal Baskerville Lord Zilverbakk Omega Prime. I made him write down the full name in my notebook.
Zilverbakk brought up a video on his phone of his wife's dance group rehearsing for the ball. The routine looked exactly like the hip-hop-style tribal dance in the film. He will be an emcee at the event.
Zilverbakk said he grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn. Projecting humor and energy were a way of life and a defense mechanism in his family and neighborhood.
His towering presence served him at work, too. He said he became a nightclub bouncer before he was old enough to drink. Now he also works in media and advertising, using his deep bass voice.
Monday night, Zilverbakk kept getting in trouble with some of the women present for a stream of unprintable jokes and disruptions thrown into the mix whether he was on stage or not.
Lage tumbled around doing a politically incorrect impression of a Japanese scientist talking about pandas while being gamely interpreted by Sunni Nebane, who said, "They're very promiscuous with other pandas and they're very clingy after one-night stands."
"Pandas, hell yeah, it don't matter if you're black or white," Zilverbakk said.
After five performances, the group is still learning to gel. Akins formed it around three improv veterans — himself and the two white women in the group, Lage, and Sonya Senkowsky — adding friends from the black community.
Akins also produces other shows, including an African American poetry showcase on April 19.
He said black improv is well established in cities around the U.S., but in Anchorage most people had no idea. He recruited friends whose experience as actors, rappers and spoken-word artists showed they had the stage presence and quick minds to improvise skits.
The performances include rap. One of the games the group does on stage suddenly throws topics into freestyle rapping. In another game, three men toss rhyming lines back and forth over a beat. Words have to bubble forth without a barrier to make that work.
There also are opportunities for players to switch identities, including swapping races between players. Lage has played black — Akins called her "fearless." She said those reversals can create moments that bring unrecognized bias to light.
The dress code for the Wakanda Ball is formal, or the cultural clothing of your own heritage, or Wakanda styles from the movie.
Lage asked the group, "Would it be offensive if I wore African wear?"
Her friends at the rehearsal told her it would be fine. Smith said everyone is welcome at the Wakanda Ball.
For Akins, the pride of heritage is a lot of what the movie and his work are about. Other immigrants held onto their heritage — the Irish might know exactly what village and family they came from. But many African Americans only know their ancestors' continent, he said.
When their freedom was stolen, so was their past. The movie gives them a place.
Smith said, "It showed us the possibilities, in a positive, successful light, and what might have happened if some things in history had happened a little different."
Improv is another route to that destination — the destination of black pride and power. It's about taking control of the stage.
"I don't expect people to be expert at improv, but I do expect everybody to be confident," Akins said. "You don't care. You just put it out."
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