Mark Kendalls The Magic Negro and Other Blackness
Mark Kendall's The Magic Negro and Other Blackness Courtesy of Mark Kendall/Stumptown Improv Festival

Portland's Stumptown Improv Festival is growing, with new off-season programming, Stumptown Improv Presents!, bringing in out-of-town performers for one-off shows. Saturday's sold-out Siren Theater show featured LA's White Women and The Magic Negro and Other Blackness, a solo show from Atlanta comedian Mark Kendall.

After an opening set from Portland's Local Ensemble, White Women came to the stage. They're a ridiculously good improv troupe comprised solely of Black men, out of LA's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Their set was especially solid, opening with an off-the-cuff chat about what it was like for them to walk around Portland together (spoiler: they got stared at; do better, Portland). You might recognize some of their faces (or at least voices) from an array of other appearances. I recognized Zeke Nicholson from the sadly departed SeeSo show Take My Wife. Carl Tart has appeared as a number of bizarre characters on Comedy Bang! Bang! And these are just a few of the high-profile credits among the performers in this group.

White Women
White Women Leon Anderson

White Women's improv style is near-perfect: The timing all worked. They covered a range of audience-generated topics from "stress at work" ("it's real!") to Portland's juice bar tyrants. Everything was quick and clever, and callbacks to audience suggestions were plentiful without feeling forced. I see a lot of improv, and it's easy to get burnt out on it, especially when performers get caught up in bits that don't work or waste time on unfunny, overly elaborate improv formats that might be fun to participate in but aren't fun to watch. But down to the jokey effectiveness of their name, White Women are the rare group that manages to avoid these pitfalls. Their stage time flew by, and I would have been sad to see them go had they been followed by anyone but Atlanta comedian Mark Kendall performing his solo show, The Magic Negro and Other Blackness.

As the title suggests, it's an examination of how Black men are depicted in popular media, with an emphasis on the eye-rollingly awful "Magical Negro" trope. For those unfamiliar with it—and among a largely white Portland audience, there are likely to be a few—Kendall gave examples including Michael Clark Duncan's character in The Green Mile and the filmography of Morgan Freeman. That Kendall did this while embodying the trope in a scarily effective interpretation that extended to the length of his spoken vowels made it all the more jarringly funny—and one of the best demonstrations of how ridiculous and racist the trope itself is.

Mark Kendall
Mark Kendall Courtesy of Mark Kendall/Stumptown Improv Festival

There's a definite, delightful edge to Kendall's performance. It's all funny, and it all keeps you on your toes. Green Eggs and Ham becomes a story about hate speech, he offers to do a "magic trick" by asking for a dollar from a white man in the audience, then keeps it as reparations, then later forces the same man to make eye contact with him for three minutes while the theme song to Reading Rainbow plays repeatedly. (I can go anywhere!) Kendall's Levar Burton impression, by the way, is incredible.

For the most part, Kendall's work was well received by the audience, although maybe too well? At one point, a fellow white lady in the row ahead of me yelled, "YAAAAAAAAS QUEEN" at him and I nearly expired from secondhand embarrassment. Or am I just describing her behavior to make myself look better in a misguided attempt to dispel my own white guilt? Maybe? This is the kind of question Kendall's work prompts, and it's worth asking.

There's an underlying beneficence to The Magic Negro, which is never didactic. There's a cookie break that makes you think of racial slurs only later (I'll give you one guess as to what packaged cookie variety Kendall tosses, T-shirt cannon-style, into the audience). Kendall also ends his show with an explanatory bit as himself, which helps to dispel some of the performance's uncomfortable energy—but not all of it, because its existence is precisely the point. I felt uncomfortable the whole time I watched Kendall's performance, and I also laughed the entire time, and felt weird that I was laughing, and I left with that rare feeling live performance sometimes gives you: For Kendall's entire set, I had thought of nothing but what I was witnessing onstage. I'm still thinking about it days later.

Throughout the night, Stumptown co-founders Jed Arkley, Erin Jean O'Regan, and Leon Anderson burst onstage in their signature high-energy style to introduce the performers and hype the festival, arriving in either the first or second week of August (they're not sure which yet). If Stumptown brings in performers like White Women and Mark Kendall this year, I'd say it's worth blocking out both of those weeks.