Mark Kendall—badass improviser and full-time African American male—has a great show up right now at The Alliance Theatre called “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black.” Way back in 2014, this show was an experimental one-man show at Dad’s Garage, playing in the tiny black box stage at 7 Stages Theatre. After finishing the first run at Dad’s Garage, Mark received a Reiser Lab Grant from the Alliance Theatre to workshop the show and travel to comedy festivals around the country. What started off as a boundary-pushing, unconventional show (even for Dad’s Garage) has grown into a powerhouse concept that’s received rave reviews.
We talked with Mark about The Magic Negro (TMN) and how the show has changed since debuting at Dad’s Garage.
1. How did you get the concept for TMN?
I knew I wanted to make a show about the representation of African-American males in the media. And I wanted to have a recurring character to serve as a sort of “host” for the show. The Magic Negro character just made sense. I really liked the idea of taking the character who’s always there to make white people feel comfortable to play with discomfort.
2. Describe the first iteration of TMN at Dad’s.
The first iteration explored the idea that, even though black people are confined to these boxes someone else made for them, they shouldn’t have to live in those boxes.
3. How did working with Dad’s help you create TMN?
Dad’s Garage gives you a lot of freedom to do whatever you want. And they let you work with a bunch of talented comedians. So working with Megan Leahy, the director for the 7 Stages run, was invaluable. She was the one that really made the tone work – playing with raising tension and then breaking it repeatedly throughout the show.
4. Tell us about the Reiser Lab Grant — how did you get that?
George Contini taught a bunch of Dad’s folks a solo performance class. He told me about the Reiser Lab Grant. So I applied to it as I was rehearsing for the show at 7 Stages. And then by the time the run at Dad’s ended, I found out that I got the grant.
5. Describe the Reiser process…
It was great! It was three of us from Dad’s – me, Megan Leahy, and Linnea Frye. And for a year and a half we would work on the show and we had all of the Alliance resources at our disposal. They paired us with Jessica Holt, who was the Yale Directing fellow at the Alliance at the time and she really helped make the show more of a theatrical experience.
We had a couple of workshop performances throughout the course of the process and we would have people fill out feedback cards. I’d watch tapes of performances, I also started to travel around the country (and Canada) to make sure that the material played to all types of people.
6. How did the show change from the Dad’s version during Reiser and touring?
The message of the show changed. I started to take the conflicting feelings of performing this show for white audiences and started to incorporate those experiences into the show.
7. What was touring TMN like?
I love performing in new places for people who don’t know you. It’s a great way to tell if something is actually funny. It forced me to strip down the show so that I could fit the whole thing into my backpack. I also enjoyed getting to meet other comedians on the road and seeing new places.
8. What will you remember most about the process of creating TMN?
I’ve just been really thankful for all the great people I’ve had a chance to collaborate with.
9. What is the show like now at Alliance? How is it different?
The show has a brand new set, costumes, props, projections, music – technically it’s gotten more complex.
For the Alliance version of the show, I got to work with Anthony LeBlanc. He’s a director from Second City and the man is a genius. For real. I’m not exaggerating. It’s cool because he’s also a black performer, so a lot of the content in the show he had either experienced or could relate to, so it allowed us to really push things a little further. Getting to work with him was such a gift. I still can’t believe it happened.
10. What’s next for you and TMN?
I’ll still be taking a more stripped down version on the road. And hopefully taking the full production to a few places as well!
The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blacnkess as Told by an African American Man Who Also Happens to be Black runs through April 15 at the Alliance Theatre. On Saturdays after the 10:30 p.m. show, Mark will be doing special improv performances with folks from Dad’s Garage and other improv theaters in town.
More info on tickets can be found here: https://alliancetheatre.org/production/the-magic-negro-and-other-blackity-blackness-told-by-african-american-man-who-also#video-tab