Philadelphia’s comedy scene is due for some variety.
Comedians Ronald Metellus, Leticia Viloria, Brandon Mitchell, and Keane Cobb have teamed up to present Black History Monthly at Philly Improv Theater, a night of comedy featuring comedians of color. The monthly variety show, featuring improv, stand-up, spoken-word, and dancers, opens Friday with guest comedian Nicole Phoenix and poet Warren Longmire.
Black History Monthly comes just as PHIT is trying to diversify its membership. Alternative comedy in Philadelphia is predominantly white, and Black History Monthly is an opportunity for a diverse group of comedians to showcase its diverse skill set.
The Philly comedy scene has reportedly gotten better in terms of its makeup, but Metellus and Mitchell say they would find themselves on lineups that were diverse in terms of gender or sexual orientation, but not race.
"We'll get invited to showcases, and there are 11 people in the show and 10 of them are white,” said Metellus. “You get in the green room, and everyone is buddied up with their friends, and you’re on the phone.”
Metellus felt like he was being tokenized or that his inclusion meant he was filling some sort of quota. He believed that a variety showcase with a focus on diversity would be crucial to the Philly comedy scene.
“People stay in their comfort zone and nobody really wants to step outside of it,” Mitchell said, "and it’s a problem."
Last year, Metellus connected with the three comedians, two of whom were in his improv classes at PHIT, to produce a variety show with a focus on inclusivity. Viloria suggested the title Black History Monthly, she said, because “black people aren’t only creative in one month.”
They want to highlight diversity not only in their backgrounds (newsflash: black comedians are not a monolith), but also in the different ways they share their humor. Viloria, who is a singer/songwriter and poet, said it’s a comedic space where you can see people of color doing different things under the umbrella of comedy.
“Some people spend most of their time creating art that nobody sees because they have no place to share it,” she said.
Black comedians often get pigeonholed into talking about topics exclusive to black people, Cobb said. “While being a black comic, I’m a person. It’s not like I don't go through the regular things. They're surprised to see that.”
Mitchell said that letting go of expectation was important as someone who grew up “conditioned to think that you can only do one thing.”
When the team pitched the show to PHIT in October, the group ran with it.
“It’s unique and unlike anything you've seen in the city,” said Joe Moore, the variety show producer at PHIT. “It’s my dream pitch, totally fresh with the potential to change from show to show.”
Black History Monthly happens to align with PHIT’s diversity initiatives, including a program launched in 2015 that includes a scholarship that gives access to classes to comedians of color.
The show also has potential to bring a broader audience to PHIT. Moore said that when he got involved in the Philly comedy scene six years ago, it was a lot more “monochromatic than it is now.”
“Comedy relies on perspective, so the wider you cast your net, the funnier the shows,” he said. “The possibilities for the show are endless. The four of them are hilarious on their own, and then together they’re even more hilarious.”
There’s a different energy that comes with diverse shows, Metellus said. Something as simple as an influx of call and response -- a popular device in black culture -- changes the vibe of a show. “I try to establish positive yelling,” Metellus said.
With the potential success of Black History Monthly, Metellus said, he wants to “put pressure on other bookers to book the acts we're booking because they're all really good.”
He hopes to have the show run as long as possible. But for the debut, what should audiences expect? Viloria said, with a laugh, "There should not be a thing that they expect.”
9 p.m. Friday, PHIT Comedy @ The Adrienne Theatre Second Stage, 2030 Sansom St., Second Floor. $10, 267-233-1556, phitcomedy.com.