NYTEShift, the only all-POC comedy troupe with a regular monthly show in Philly, started as a "pickup" team of POC improvisors. Now it’s a staple of the local comedy scene.
Back in 2015, David Donnella, then the diversity coordinator at Philly Improv Theater (PHIT), reached out to a group of POC improvisors to perform as part of a diversity showcase aimed at giving a platform to racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ members of the community. With time, this crew made a more serious commitment and a formal team solidified.
The troupe initially dubbed itself American Express, but had to change its name recently after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the corporate entity American Express. Members decided to move forward as NYTEShift (for "Not Your Token Entertainers").
Bringing your full self
The rising popularity of NYTEShift is a sign that improv and sketch are becoming more visible and attractive art forms to people who may have never considered them before. Comedian and longtime cast member Randie Welles touches on how important it is for students who are growing as comedians to see themselves represented on stage.
“It's important for them to see that there are welcome spaces to bring their full selves on stage,” she says. “It's hard to discover all the places your comedy can go when you're constantly editing yourself so that your ideas will be accepted by your (white) teammates, and not baffle them.”
Improv has historically been a scene dominated by white folks. Marcely Jean-Pierre, one of the team’s veteran players, details how being the only POC on an improv team can be very limiting: “I often felt a need to edit my instincts of making jokes and references that only other people of color could relate to and understand,” he says. “When NYTEShift formed, it gave me license to feel like there was a space where I could really tap into my full potential as a performer.”
Cast member Kelly Conrad agrees the team is important, because the chance to collaborate and create new content in a space reserved for POC is rare. “It is invigorating to be in such a diverse room, where you're not counting the people of color in the room. It immediately eliminates any tokenism or questioning of your presence, making it such a free and supportive environment.”
In 2018, the team sold out two sketch performances at Good Good Comedy Theatre, with The Most Lit Sketch Show on the Planet. They also premiered another sketch show called Real America at the 2018 Fringe Festival. Real America explores social and historical themes of America through the lens of POC, redefining what it means to be a “real American.”
Welles says that putting on this Fringe show was encouraging for her comedic journey because “it was the first time that I put up sketches that touched on topics that are really important to me—the lives of Black women and mental health—and have them go over successfully with audiences. Hearing the audience laugh was a boost of confidence I needed to keep writing.”
Jam with new connections
The beauty of comedy is that it can connect with larger audiences of diverse racial or social makeup. The audience at a NYTEShift show is different from the average audience at your average comedy show. This crowd is loud and vocal about what they like and how they feel.
“Several up-and-coming performers and new audience members share with us how happy they are to be able to come to a show where they see people who look like them, talk like them, and connect with them effortlessly,” Jean-Pierre says.
NYTEShift has garnered a strong following for their high-energy, fast-paced improv. It begins with a one-word suggestion from the audience. The group then forms a semicircle and starts snapping their fingers while humming a couple notes in unison. A cast member will start singing/rapping a song based on the word of inspiration and the rest of the team will support with complimenting beats and ad-libs. The opening then transitions into the heart of the show, a montage of improvised scenes inspired by the opening. The show concludes with a POC improv jam open to the public.
That gives people who are curious about improv but haven’t felt safe enough to try it, or who haven’t seen people like them represented onstage, “an opportunity to dip their toes into a fun and creative art form and feel supported while doing so,” Jean-Pierre says. “We want to help grow the community by exposing other people of color to improv, so we can change the narrative of it being exclusively dominated by straight white men.”
You can catch NYTEShift’s monthly variety show, Family Business, every fourth Friday of the month at 8pm at PHIT at the Adrienne. The next show is coming up on March 22 at 8pm. Tickets ($5 to $12) are available here.
What, When, Where
NYTEShift. See the troupe’s monthly variety show, Family Business, every fourth Friday of the month at PHIT Comedy at the Adrienne’s Second Stage, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets available online.
The Adrienne has a wheelchair-accessible entrance and elevator and ADA-compliant restrooms.