You Know, Those Black Girls Who Do Improv

by Grace Evans

“Our tagline on our website is ‘You know…that black girl who does improv’ because I imagine that’s how people in the improv community would try to describe us,” Sasheer Zamata of Doppelganger told me. “There was a time when there were so few black girls around, [but now] there are many more black girls doing improv and the community is getting much more diverse.”

Zamata is one third of improv team Doppelganger, along with Nicole Byer and Keisha Zollar. The only all-women improv group at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the team has been working together since March 2010. All three members were performing at UCB and in a cosmic mingling of chance and circumstance they ended up performing together due to absent group members on their previous teams. They joined forces and performed as a threesome for the first time without rehearsals and it worked like magic.

The name Doppelganger comes from Byer, Zollar and Zamata each being singled out as “that black girl who does improv;” the ladies were constantly mistaken for one other although they look nothing alike. But the name extends to the way that they are in sync with one another when they perform. “Doppelganger for us is a state of mind,” Zollar said.

Drawing inspiration from funny females such as Whoopi Goldberg, Lucille Ball, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Carol Burnette, Doppelganger’s style of improv is fast and furious. During the performance I saw they moved quickly from scene to scene, and the transitions between scenes were a hilarious part of their comedy too. If you can’t make it out to see a show, watch some of their clips online. This one is about some hilarious time traveling parents:

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And this clip features a talented ghost who excels at Double Dutch:

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Doppelganger’s audiences are sometimes surprised to encounter funny, attractive women with crazy confidence running around and making them laugh. “We aren’t quiet, heavy on word play, we are very, very physical, and we aren’t afraid to approach touchy subjects with our fun point of view,” said Byer. “Improv is predominately composed of white 20-somethings, so I always find it funny when we do have a heavily male crowd and they want to, but don’t know how, to compliment our female ejaculation scene. I like that these men don’t know what to make of us, but they like us.”

And people do like them. A lot. “At this point, I think people book us because we’re good, or at least that’s how it feels,” Zamata said. Occasionally there is a toad in the crowd though, and Byer remembers one clearly; “One of the loudest, and I think rudest, suggestions we’ve gotten from a male was ‘Destiny’s Child’,” she said. “After the show he was complimenting our show and he said he had other suggestions in his pocket, like ‘TLC or The Supremes.’ I was flabbergasted that this guy couldn’t get over the fact that there were three black women who were going to perform. I felt like he was trying to remind the audience that three black women were on the stage with his suggestion.” 

While it’s good to know that that particular man can count to three and recognize basic shapes and colors, the rest of the audience is too busy laughing at Doppelganger’s zany antics. Byer breaks down their group dynamic: “I think we’re like the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. Sasheer (Zamata) is the Ghost of Christmas Past. She’s always in the moment but she sees everything that already happened and makes moves that way. Her moves are all great because she’s coming from where we just were. If a character was talked about and interesting, you better believe at some point we’ll see that character and it will blow your mind.” During the show that I saw Zamata climbed over a wall, hung down from the ceiling, and moved around more than any improv performer that I’ve ever seen.

“Keisha (Zollar) is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” Byer said. “Keisha is in the moment as well, but she’s looking about 1 or 2 minutes into where the show is going…I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present. I just stay in the moment and make moves that drive action forward but don’t necessarily have anything to do with what happened or what will happen.”

I highly recommend Doppelganger for a laugh out loud show, but only if you’re not afraid of ghosts. Between the Double Dutch ghost clip above, Byer’s Ghosts of Christmas analogy and the ghost that appeared in the performance I saw, Doppelganger seems to favor narratives with plenty of ghouls. Besides the friendly specters, Doppelganger shows are silly, high energy and will make you laugh until your belly hurts.

If you’re in NYC, Doppelganger will be performing at the UCB Cage Match July 14 at 11PM, tickets are $5. The ladies won this past Thursday and are competing again to defend their title. 

Photos: Dave Kogut

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