Blacktop Improv celebrates 25 years of brotherhood and comedy

In the late ‘90s, eight Atlanta comics came together and formed a troupe based on the idea that humor can be clean without being corny.
Members of the Blacktop Improv Group, from left: Darian Perkins, Corwin ”C-Dawg” Oglesby, Swift Rice and Donteè ”Don Megga” Ray.

Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

Members of the Blacktop Improv Group, from left: Darian Perkins, Corwin ”C-Dawg” Oglesby, Swift Rice and Donteè ”Don Megga” Ray.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Iron sharpens iron, or so the saying goes, but, in improv comedy, this is as much strategy as aspiration. Since 1999, members of the Blacktop Improv Group (formerly the Blacktop Circus) have performed together and, in the process, formed a brotherhood.

Coming off a successful 25th anniversary show in May, the group of eight is as eager as ever to leave its mark in the worlds of comedy and improv. ArtsATL had the opportunity to sit down with the comics and discuss their legacy and plans for the future.

Their origin story runs through the ‘90s Atlanta comedy renaissance. Gary Abdo, who opened Uptown Comedy Corner, had an idea for a Black improv theater group that could do clean comedy. He recruited the late improv legend Tommy Futch to mentor the ensemble. Today, Futch remains an important part of Blacktop Improv Group’s comedy lore. Members still recall with fondness and nostalgia how he taught them to do clean improv — and in front of a Black audience.

Clean comedy became part of their brand, which they recognize as a challenge since they have to, at times, fight against the dreaded “c” word: corny. But it’s also a way to demonstrate their talent, since performing clean comedy requires considerable imagination and innovation.

Corwin “C-dawg” Oglesby, one of the original members, said, “I think it made us stand out. It made us different. It forces us to think and be creative.”

The approach also gives the group a versatility; it performs everywhere from college campuses to churches.

Because their comedy is clean, the Blacktop Improv Group performs at a variety of venues. Pictured, left to right, are Big Sean Larkins; Donteè “Don Megga” Ray; Tiger Gibson; Darian Perkins; Swift Rice; and Corwin “C-dawg” Oglesby.

Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

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Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

Because they were doing clean comedy, Blacktop group members confronted some skepticism in the beginning. Audiences were tough. They had to constantly prove themselves. Pulling from lessons they internalized from their individual stand-up careers, they came to Blacktop knowing the importance of resilience and paying one’s dues. This allowed them to successfully navigate the stages on which they performed with confidence and determination.

Even now, the group has to challenge the assumption that clean comedy can’t be funny and reveal the range and diversity of Black comedy. Group member Anthony “Swift” Rice recalls being invited by a metro radio station to perform at a Christmas party earlier in the group’s history. One of the radio personalities from the station called them corny, and he’d never seen them perform — just assumed the adjective fit. As soon as Blacktop got on stage, worked its magic and conjured the laughs, the comedians disabused him of that notion. This is not an unusual story for the group. The members relish opportunities to meet ambivalence and skepticism with the force of sheer talent.

While Blacktop has high standards for its members, natural talent isn’t a must as much as the constant development of the craft. Donteè “Don Megga” Ray recalls what it took for him to get accepted: “One thing I did was stay consistent,” he said. “I was trying to learn, and I was in awe of the talent.”

Donteè “Don Megga” Ray, far left, is joined by Darian Perkins, top, Swift Rice, bottom, and Corwin “C-dawg” Oglesby, far right.

Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

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Credit: Courtesy of Blacktop Improv

The group’s strong bond, coupled with the ethics of discipline, has been the foundation of the comedic brightness they display on stage. “We’ve been through the ups and downs of life together,” said C-dawg.

The stage is their place of escapism. No matter what’s going on in the world or with them personally, Blacktop Improv members are able to use it and channel it through their improv performances. Here, the group offers something remarkable to the comedy zeitgeist. Improv comedy can be just as therapeutic and healing as the more confessional and irreverent stand-up styles trending on stages and podcasts, such as Jerrod Carmichael’s.

In addition to their work with Blacktop, each member has his own stand-up career. They have succeeded individually, and they bring their energy to the group.

“I always say we’re like the Wu-Tang of comedy,” said member Tiger Gibson. “Everybody in the Wu-Tang Clan is extremely talented [and] gifted, as it relates to their lyricism and skill set. And they’re totally different, too. But combined on the stage, they destroy every single show. And that’s who we are — we are the Wu-Tang of comedy.”

In a year where epic beefs have doubled as public relations strategies, Blacktop defies that approach. Their commitment to brotherhood and friendship in the group is a powerful pop culture counternarrative and a model for creative collaboration.

Looking ahead, the group has every plan to keep doing what its members love — performing and making audiences laugh. Blacktop Improv performs Friday, June 21, as part of Hollalujah: A Comedy Experience, Summer Edition at Peace Baptist Church in Decatur. Then, in August, the group will travel down to Tybee Island for a series of performances.

Touring is what excites the group most. “I would love to just tour with my brothers,” said C-dawg. For Swift, his dreams include the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which he feels would cement the group’s legacy — “just to [say] we’ve done that stage and killed it.”


IF YOU GO

Blacktop Improv Group

Performing as part of Hollalujah: A Comedy Experience, Summer Edition. 7-10:30 p.m. Friday, June 21. Early bird general admission, $25. VIP table for eight, $300. Peace Baptist Church, 4000 Covington Highway, Decatur. hollalujah.com

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Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer. His work has appeared in publications such as Atlanta magazine, Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Voice, The Advocate and Them.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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