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Harvard’s Jeraul Mackey is using improv to deepen the conversation about Boston and race

Jeraul Mackey is a recent recipient of a Live Arts Boston grant to create a performance piece called "Boston, Boston, Black Like Me."
Jeraul Mackey is a recent recipient of a Live Arts Boston grant to create a performance piece called "Boston, Boston, Black Like Me."Kris Snibbe

When Jeraul Mackey submitted his proposal for “Boston, Boston, Black Like Me,” he had a very different idea of how it might play out.

The 35-year-old New Orleans native had planned to stage his multidisciplinary performance piece about race and the city’s forgotten voices in the Seaport, coinciding with the timing of the 2020 NAACP National Convention. The idea won him one of the 60 grants awarded this month by the Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston program, in partnership with the Barr Foundation. The program brings the ideas from creatives like Mackey to life within the Boston performing arts landscape — adding new voices and perspectives to the conversation.

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But with Boston’s performing arts scene in COVID-19 limbo and the convention postponed, Mackey is ready to pivot. While balancing his days as a PhD candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of ImprovBoston’s national touring company, he is already planning his next move.

Q. How did you get involved with improv?

A. It goes back to high school — performing is what I did. And then, in college, I was student president, which is a different type of performance in theater [laughs]. When I graduated, I lived in D.C. for a bit and for me, improv was a way to get into theater. I took a class and really just fell in love with it.

Q. I realize what you proposed to Live Arts Boston and what may need to happen now with COVID may be slightly different, but what did your original idea look like?

A. It was envisioned as a theatrical production that unfolded over three acts, and combined comedy, storytelling, and poetry. I use that to interrogate: How do we think about this city and issues with race and issues of neighborhoods?

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I’ve been here for about 10 years, and for me, what I wanted to do before COVID was put on a show that centers on the experience of being a Black person or a person of color in Boston. I wanted them to tell their stories, and generate comedy and material from that. And then it reflects both on being centered, but then in some spaces that are predominately white, also being unseen. So making sure we make space for artists of color and Black artists in particular.

Q. What types of stories were important for you to highlight?

A. One of the things I wanted to focus on was telling the story of neighborhoods. I moved to Boston about 10 years ago, and one of the things you hear when you’re on the outset is that Boston is this white space or it’s “one of those places that Black people or folks of color don’t belong.” But once you’re part of the community, you realize Boston has this rich history and tradition of Black activism. You think about the abolition of slavery — that’s a throughline within the city. And neighborhoods, such as Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Dorchester, that have significant Black communities. How do we create a space for those people to tell their stories in places where those people don’t feel they belong? So we go to the Seaport, and maybe you think, “Oh this isn’t for me.” But I think we can go anywhere and we should be able to go anywhere within the city. Being able to tell those neighborhood stories was essential and important.

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Q. When you pitched, how much of the production’s logistics were already laid out in your head?

A. The original iteration was 100 minutes runtime over three acts with two storytellers talking about their community, and two improv teams to do comedy inspired by those stories, as well as one poet and one local comedian to use as a way for them to do their art around this theme.

Q. And now what does that potentially look like with COVID?

A. If we can’t do in-person live stage performances, I have to think through what this could look like in an online space, or outside. There’s early conversations for what [a production] could look like outside. But what’s fairly affirming is if I thought this story was timely before, it’s even more important now.

Q. There have been a lot of terrible things in the news about well-known improv groups having a reckoning moment around racism and discrimination. To my knowledge, Boston has been largely kept out of that conversation. Do you think there’s something different about the way things have progressed here?

A. Locally, I want to say, within the main theaters in Boston, there have been a lot of individuals who have been working behind the scenes or in the spotlight to try to bring these issues to the forefront. And in doing that, as a community theater, we’ve benefited from Black women and women of color who have taken the risk to give feedback. I’d be remiss to think ImprovBoston and other theaters aren’t having these conversations, even if they’re not on the front page of the local newspapers.

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Jeraul Mackey, who performs with ImprovBoston and Bodega Comedy, is creating a show centered on race in Boston.
Jeraul Mackey, who performs with ImprovBoston and Bodega Comedy, is creating a show centered on race in Boston.Jen Vesp

Q. So much of live improv and theater is about vibing with the audience and your fellow players onstage. But now, in reality, that might just be like, alone in your bedroom. How do you see that working as a performer?

A. What’s hard about improv or comedy is that you have to feed off the energy of those in the room. When you don’t have that there, it can make it difficult. What I’ve seen work a little bit better is scripted material.

One of the things that makes improv difficult is what I think of as a cultural process. You’re telling people, “I want you to get onstage, say the first thing that comes to mind.” And what you’re drawing on are your own experiences. I grew up watching “In Living Color” and “Living Single,” but other people on the stage grew up watching “Monty Python.” So if folks are drawing from that as what they think is funny, no matter how funny I am, that won’t connect onstage.

It’s not just enough to have diversity where you have people who look different, but how do you reorient what jokes we think are funny and what types of jokes do we want to bring? And how do we want other cultural and racial backgrounds to feel comfortable on their home stage?

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This inspires my work with groups like Bodega [Comedy]. If theaters are not going to do it, we’re at a moment where other theaters and groups will step up. This is when people need to listen and adapt and change. Or other groups will step in and fill that void.

Q. That said, from a comedy perspective, who should we be watching?

A. I think you should pay attention to Bodega Comedy. We are an artist collective that does sketch improv. I think you should pay attention to a Black woman named Tookie Kavanagh. She is very smart, sharp, and insightful. On the sketch side, I recently saw a show on Twitch called the Jean Paul Brothers — or as they call themselves the JP Bros. They’re Haitian twins and they bring their background and culture into their show. They’re super funny.

Q. Are you doing Instagram Lives?

A. No, I am not doing Instagram Live [laughs]. But I am working on a comedy show that will either happen in the last week of July or the first week in August. It will be my foray into virtual comedy. It will be with my group, Bodega [Comedy]. We really need to laugh right now. So how do we find time to take an exhale? We’ll bring together sketch comedians in the city who we like a lot and some stand-up comics and spoken-word artists. We’re trying to use this moment to help people laugh and be inspired.

There’s certainly a lot going on to feel, for a lack of better words, disappointed or dejected about. But we’re also in a moment of change. For me, that’s inspiring and exciting. As artists, if we can help channel some of that through our comedy, then we’re contributing to the work.

Interview was edited and condensed. Rachel Raczka can be reached at rachel.raczka@globe.com.