Put a chipper white teacher in a room full of black and brown students. Open the class up for discussion about identity — race, gender, and ethnicity — and watch the feelings flow. But what could be a recipe for a preachy after-school special turns into thought-provoking satire in the hands of the cast of Express Yourself, a new improv show running through the end of March at Austin’s ColdTowne Theater.
Express Yourself tackles high-profile, hot-button issues onstage with a cast of all colors, genders and backgrounds.
The idea for the show, which sold out its first four performances, came from the “white savior” genre of Hollywood films: think Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers. Co-director Ryan Darbonne said those movies often show a white do-gooder coming in to clean up a community only to end up learning a few lessons herself.
“It’s always the teacher that has a lot of dimension to them,” Darbonne said, “and the kids are just tropes.”
In Express Yourself, the topic changes week to week, but the basic dynamic holds: The teacher is a stereotype — a white woman who, in one show, cooks terribly bland food — and the students’ stories guide the action. The 12 cast members, who aren’t assigned a topic until the day of the show, improvise a 45-minute play in three acts, which follows students from the classroom to after-school activities and into their home lives.
“Our cast are playing characters, but they pull a lot from real life,” Darbonne said.
Thirty minutes before the curtain, the actors have what co-director Frank Netscher calls “freshman dorm chats” about their experiences with racism, sexism or cultural prejudice. Those stories become fodder for the show’s story arcs.
“That’s the beauty of the show we’ve developed,” Netscher said. “I’m a white guy, I can’t tell them what to say. … They have their own voices and they do their own thing.”
One of the improvisers, Linzy Beltran, said a recent show focusing on immigration resonated with her because her parents and brother immigrated to the United States from El Salvador.
In that show, a Spanish-speaking student brags to his classmates about his mom’s pupusas, a detail Beltran recognized from her own upbringing. In the next scene, Beltran jumped in to play the boy’s grandmother. Playing Abuelita allowed her to improvise in Spanish, which she has rarely done in her three years of improvising.
“People tell the same stories [from their real lives], just through the mouthpiece and through the instrument of a high schooler,” Beltran said. “The emotion is there, it’s real.”
Another actor in the show, Tauri Laws-Phillips, says serious improv can be uncomfortable, because actors often instinctively “chase the laughs.”
“Here, we are letting [the storyline] breathe in a more serious space and allowing the funny where it may,” Laws-Phillips said. “We’re learning everybody’s opinions on stuff you never talk about.”
The actors’ revelations emerge onstage and, since the stories are personal, their reactions can be raw. Before a show dealing with gender identity, one actor asked to be referred to as with the gender-neutral pronouns “they” or “them.” Laws-Phillips said she reacted onstage both as a person and as her character, a student named Chanel, when she questioned the choice of using what she understood to be grammatically plural pronouns for an individual.
“By the time the scene was over and I was in the wings, I was like, ‘I was an asshole,’” she said. “I was such a jerk because I was still stuck on ‘Wait, why was it ‘them and their’? That makes no sense to me.'”
Laws-Phillips said she came to realize that supporting her fellow actors meant using whatever pronouns they wanted. “The show definitely feels like something that is totally from the cuff,” she said, “because we’re growing our worldview and our improv at the same time.”
Co-director Darbonne says he’s proud of the balance that Express Yourself strikes between seriousness and satire.
“If we kept it a parody, it would belittle whatever topic we’re talking about,” Darbonne says. “Instead of the jokey ‘Haha, police brutality!’, it’s ‘No, how do we deal with this realistically?'”