The new show Angola uses the improv comedy format to take a look at an unexpected subject matter – mass incarceration in America. It’s a heavy topic to discuss with comedy, and Angola aims to eschew easy laughs to take a grounded but satirical approach.
“We are trying to strike a balance between comedy and seriousness, without being too melodramatic [and] without being too belittling of people’s experiences,” says co-director Ryan Darbonne. So the whole setup of the show is that we get a monologist – someone who has experience with mass incarceration, whether that’s being in prison, or maybe as an activist, or with a family member in prison – and so we take those stories… and then turn that into some form of comedy.”
Darbonne’s fellow director Frank Netscher says he had a growing interest in the problem of mass incarceration and was immediately drawn to the idea of creating an improv show on the topic. “I’ve been getting more and more involved with prison advocacy groups over the last couple of years and when Ryan approached me with the idea for the show, I was like, ‘Yes. This is what I’ve been looking for,’” Netscher says.
For the cast, Angola has been a little harder and a little more emotionally taxing than a typical improv show. “It’s been really, really interesting. And more journey than I expected it to be,” says actor Tauri Laws-Phillips. “But a really interesting and stretching journey for me. I brand myself as a really open and fantastic person, [but] I’ve had to do more work at being better.”
Laws-Phillips has had some experience with the prison system in America. “When you think about the numbers and how disproportionately the prison system affects people of color – I have a huge family, and so therefore it’s affected me on a number of levels with a number of people in my family,” she says. In Angola, she’s playing a prison guard (the cast all play the same characters in every show, though the plot and dialogue will be unique and improvised for each performance), which has forced her to take a different look at the prison system. She says it’s been a challenge “to think of being a part of the system in a very different way. [Creating] that character has been a journey in how to think of people and really how to recognize peoples’ humanity within terrible and dark situations.”
“You know, you think of improv as… sparkles and rainbows and everything’s funny. But when it comes to stuff like this, you have to actually kind of get down deep and kind of feel what… a prisoner feels,” says actor Joseph “J.J.” Juarez, who’s playing an inmate in Angola. He’s drawn inspiration from some friends who have been in and out of the prison system. “One actually just recently went back,” Juarez says. “There’s a cycle that… he was not rehabilitated.”
Angola has been harder emotional work than a typical improv show, and it’s also come with some homework – the cast has been schooled on a lot of prison-specific details and jargon by the guest monologists. “Just getting to know the lingo, the language… I feel like I’m studying for a test,” says Juarez. “Saying these little things that make it believable.”
Because of the subject matter and intent, this isn’t a show that goes for easy or early jokes, but the laughs do come, says Laws-Phillips. “Because it is a really serious subject matter, the laughs when we get to them are really earned. And the laughs are based on the humanity of the situations,” she says. “So it’s not making fun of what’s happening there, it’s finding the levity in life. And so the laughs come at a time where it’s like you absolutely need the laugh.”
Juarez says that first laugh of the show is like a pressure valve being released. “All right, now we can breathe,” he says.
Are the creators of Angola worried that the show and its intentions could be misinterpreted by an audience? “Oh, one hundred percent worried about it,” Darbonne says. “I mean, there’s no question. We can do our best, and that’s all we can do. And if someone still misinterprets it, then, you know, what can we do at that point? But I would totally understand. It’s such a touchy subject for a lot of people.”
They’re also aware that there’s only so much an improv show can do to tackle big issues. “Obviously we’re not going to change the entire system with an improv show, but I think for us, [the goal is] kind of maybe getting people who otherwise might not be thinking about it, thinking about it,” Darbonne says.
Netscher adds, “Maybe we can change a few peoples’ ideas of what justice means – punishment versus rehabilitation versus support.”