For five Austin women, the phrase “Damn Gina!” is not said with exasperation like it was in the 1990s sitcom, “Martin.” They say it with pride to express their comfort as black individuals.
The improv troupe, Damn Gina!, got its start in mid-2015 when founding members Cene Hale, Maggie Maye, Ronnita Miller, Tauri Laws-Phillips and Xaria Coleman met taking classes at Austin’s ColdTowne Theater.
Troupe member Laws-Phillips said after talking to each other just a few times, they knew they wanted their comedy group to provide alternative views not present within the largely white, male comedy scene.
“For a long time, improv was white dudes with glasses and plaid shirts, and we’re not knocking that, that’s great and was funny and is still funny.” Laws-Phillips said.
In their comedy classes, workplaces and in other environments, Laws-Phillips said troupe members often found themselves to be the only people of color. She said it was a relief for all of them to find each other and bond over their shared experiences of being black, female and comedians.
“We’re here, we’re a part of it, and it was really special to find each other,” Laws-Phillips said.
Laws-Phillips said the common experiences and connections troupe members share is crucial to their improv comedy because of the spontaneous nature of their art — in unrehearsed sketches, she said it helps to understand where each other’s comedy is coming from.
“From that perspective of going through life and having the experiences that come with being a black woman, our comedy is able to present out truths, not, ‘Hey, this is what happens to every white dude in America,’” Maye said. “This is the stuff that does not happen to you and this informs our comedy and inspires our comedy.”
Their common background also help shape the subject matter of their comedy, Miller said.
“If someone gives the suggestion ‘kitchen,’ we all think about the nape of your hair, other people would think, ‘Oh, that’s where we cook our meals,’” Miller said. “There are other associations that we have for things that maybe seem common or mundane to other people but could be a whole world you never even knew existed that we could present on stage just because of that shorthand we have with each other.”
According to Laws-Phillips, this enables a dialogue about diversity within the community at large.
“The easiest way to break down walls is to laugh with someone,” Laws-Phillips said. “If you can see that people are so much more than what you thought they were, that just broadens horizons and really opens people up in a different way.”
Maye said she likes to watch her audience as she performs and looks for people laughing the hardest because she knows they know where the troupe’s comedy is coming from.
“I love that: seeing that we were able to make that deep of a connection,” Maye said. “We were able to connect with everybody, but some people really freaking got it.”
Beyond sharing their experiences with a community that might not otherwise understand their backgrounds, Miller said the experience of being in a comedy troupe made up of other black women helps them to reaffirm their own individual identities.
“What it means to be black doesn’t have to be like, a specific thing because we all are black but we all are completely different.” Miller said. “I am a part of a monolith but I don’t have to subscribe to one point of view to honor or be who I am.”