Second City, the Chicago comedy institution known as a breeding ground for SNL talent/tourist trap, was rocked last week by news that company Executive Producer and co-owner Andrew Alexander will be stepping down. In his statement, published on Second City’s website, Alexander acknowledges failures on the part of himself and company leadership to meaningfully address systemic racism within the theater and the audiences that attend shows. He states: “The company has grown significantly – yet culturally homogeneously. […] I surrounded myself with people mostly of my own race and culture. […] While diversifying the theater artistically, I failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry.”
You can read Alexander’s full statement, including his promise to leave Second City in the hands of a person of color, here.
Rewinding a few years, in 2016 Second City’s “e.t.c” troupe ran a revue called “A Red Line Runs Through It”. Second City is too dependent on tourists for its political humor to be really cutting edge, but “Red Line” was different. Just the name is evocative, as the red line is the L route that runs from the far north side of Chicago to the far south side. From the red line, you can see both baseball stadiums and the complete racial and economic segregation of the city. “Red Line” was a moderately scathing revue, featuring a song to the tune of “Rama Lama Ding Dong” about former mayor Rahm Emanuel participating in a cover-up of evidence relating to the murder of unarmed Black teen Laquan McDonald by a police officer. The show was also plagued by backstage upheaval, with four members of the company quitting the run early and citing racist remarks from the audience as a pervasive issue. Peter S. Kim wrote about his decision to quit the revue—and Second City—here.
Also stemming from that production was a whole weird situation involving two revue performers, Scott Morehead and Aasia Lashay Bullock. Bullock left “Red Line” for unspecified reasons, and later Morehead was suspended by Second City. Then Morehead filed a discrimination lawsuit against the theater, citing Bullock as the reason that he was fired, because he complained to company management about her assaulting him and using racial slurs against him. But now we have some context. On Friday, Aasia Lashay Bullock tweeted about Second City:
Now we have some clarity. I absolutely believe Bullock because her abrupt departure from “Red Line” never made any sense. Peter Kim wrote a whole op-ed about why he left, but it was crickets about Bullock, even after Morehead filed his suit. So, yes, I believe she was harassed, not supported by her company leadership, forced to keep working with her harasser, and then decided to leave instead. Second City then got rid of Morehead as soon as they could, but then Bullock’s harasser then went on to name her in his suit and Second City did nothing to clarify the situation or defend her. This all tracks, and answers some lingering questions about why Bullock left in the first place and how Second City apparently did such a piss-poor job firing someone they left themselves open to a lawsuit. Morehead’s suit is still pending, we’ll see if this new info has any effect on his claims. In the meantime, you can watch Upload on Amazon Prime and Space Force and The Good Place on Netflix, all shows for which Bullock is a writer and/or performer.
But wait, we’re not done. Second City is the gift that keeps on giving turds, as another comic and Second City veteran also called out the theater for its bullsh-t handling of racial issues within the company. On Thursday, Dewayne Perkins, currently a writer for Brooklyn 99, called out Second City for not supporting Black Lives Matter or the Black artists in the company:
You remember when the black actors wanted to put on a Black Lives Matter Benefit show and you said only if we gave half of the proceeds to the Chicago PD, because I will never forget. Remember when you would make black people audition for job you simply just have to white people? https://t.co/LA92b13qs3— Dewayne Perkins (@DewaynePerkins) June 4, 2020
The whole thread is horrifying, especially the part about sending Black actors to speech therapy. WHAT?! Also, blaming the Black LGBTQ performer for the touring company not doing well is insane and unprofessional and sh-tty management and also insane. Second City sounds like a giant f-cking mess behind the scenes, and Andrew Alexander stepping down isn’t just about stepping in it in this moment, when so many eyes are on the white corporate leadership of creative companies that exploit Black talent, it’s about an ongoing pattern of failure when it comes to creating safe, supportive work spaces for minority and LGBTQ talent.
These problems pre-date the current moment, and it seems like this change at the top is long overdue for Second City. Perhaps this can be a moment of rebirth, and a new Second City can emerge, one as bold and challenging as the theater used to be when it was truly the home of groundbreaking comedy, and not just tourist destination. And if you’re coming to Chicago and want to see imaginative improv comedy, I recommend The Annoyance Theater (also good cocktails), or the Neo-Futurists if you’re feeling brave. Or you can check out Black sketch comedy on Netflix’s Astronomy Club, or HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, or Jeff Wright’s one-man quarantine sketches on his Instagram. That dude is crushing it, and if this quarantine doesn’t end with Wright getting a development deal from someone, then we have all wasted his time.
Here is an exceptional stand-up set from Dewayne Perkins. Second City is really f-cking up letting all this talent walk out the door because they can’t get their sh-t together.