The state of race relations in America is hardly a laughing matter under normal circumstances, with bitter divisiveness manifesting everywhere from the ugly white supremacist rallies of Charlottesville, Virginia to the contentious exchanges between presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Joe Biden at the recent Democratic debate. Nonetheless, Pasadena-based writer-actor Dwayne Colbert decided to take a stab at a satirical sketch show on the topic called “Shade,” and the hard work has paid off with critical acclaim and two extensive runs so far this year, including the current one at 10 p.m. Saturdays at the Second City theater in Hollywood.
The daringly hilarious show features a large and ethnically diverse cast of 12, with strong representation of all four major American ethnicities: Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American and Latino. Building off the intriguing question “What if you could be someone else, just for one day?” the original musical comedy (with songs by Hughie Stone Fish) sets the stage “for a doppelganger switcheroo that goes way, way beyond skin-deep differences.”
“I had written a full-on musical comedy for Second City called ‘Afros and Ass Whoopins’ about police brutality,” says Colbert, who is African-American while Stone Fish is Caucasian. “That was so successful even LA Weekly and LA Magazine ran stories about it, and it got three extensions and ran for a year and a half. The Second City producers trusted me to not only teach there and coach house teams for sketch and improv, but asked me to create another show.
“It took two years to write ‘Shade,’ because there was some pressure after ‘Afros’ to decide what else we wanted to talk about,” adds Colbert. “Everyone’s got hang-ups with race, and I always loved switcheroo comedies like ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ and ‘Freaky Friday.’ So I thought, ‘What if Rachel Dolezal got her wish to be black and Stacey Dash got her wish to be white? What if they got the other experience but the way that each race wanted them to experience the other, the harsh realities?’ The idea was to look at how life is as a white person but through black people’s eyes, and vice versa.”
Colbert had previously teamed with Stone Fish on “Afros,” drawing the inspiration to work with the “Jewish guy from Syracuse” after learning that the classic race-related song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday was “based on a poem by a Jewish school teacher.” Realizing that many Caucasians in America were involved in the struggle to improve race relations, he decided to partner with Stone Fish to gain a perspective from both of the major sides in the racial divide.
On both “Afros” and “Shade” the duo worked at first from an outline rather than a finished script, with key emotional moments driving the narrative despite the majority of each show being bold satire. Before writing the songs for “Afros,” Stone FIsh did a lot of research to understand the mindsets of both police officers and black families who had negative experiences with them, by interviewing both sides. With “Shade,” he interviewed members of all the races portrayed.
“Once we have a great script and songs, the other major thing is picking a cast of actors who can come in and work magic on the fly,” says Colbert, referring to the fact that a much larger ensemble of actors rotate turns in the show’s roles. “Their professionalism to come in and pick it up off a recording of the show 24 hours before they hit stage for the first time is incredible.
“It’s not normal to switch so often, but we’re running in the summer when people are doing more things all over in their lives,” he adds. “We go for singing ability first on ‘Shade,’ and then acting is secondary. With ‘Afros,’ it was the opposite.”
Colbert graduated from UC Davis — “Surprisingly with a math degree, considering I’m a writer and director now” — after growing up in South Central Los Angeles throughout his childhood. He first experienced Pasadena at 18, when his parents reunited after a six-year separation and moved to the Crown City together.
“My parents lived there a long time until they retired and moved away to the South,” says Colbert, who also has a created a digital video series called “Brainwashed By Toons” that is about to debut on the Funny Or Die website. “I’m married, have my kids, and I just love the area. All my friends I live and work with in Hollywood are fascinated I live there. But to me it’s a normal drive of 20 minutes away, and no skyscrapers, so it feels like a college town, I love it. I take my little boys around in Radio Flyer wagons to coffee shops.”
“Shade” runs at 10 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 17 at Second City Hollywood, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $12. Call (323) 464-8542 or visit secondcity.com/hollywood.