When Affirmative Distraction co-founder Joseph Moorer talks about the skills essential to improv, he could almost pass for a teacher instructing a classroom of preschoolers: listen carefully, follow instruction, use your imagination.
“It’s weird, right? It is. It’s weird to get up onstage and do make-believe. And if you break it all the way down, that’s what improv is, it’s make-believe for adults,” said Moorer, who joined fellow founder Jae Esquire for an early January interview at Upper Cup in Olde Towne East. “That’s all it is. All of it is imagination.”
This ability to see something that isn’t there and then will it into being also helps explain the existence of Affirmative Distraction – the city’s first and currently only all-Black improv group, which will kick off its fifth year with .
“When I separated from my previous [improv] group, that was the first thing that came out: Why isn’t there an all-Black improv group?’” Moorer said. “And I feel like if you say, ‘Why isn’t there?’ then you should do it yourself. So, we did it.”
In recent years, the sense of escapism entwined within the DNA of improv has proved invaluable to the Affirmative Distraction cast, particularly living amid a resurgent Black live matter movement and a pandemic that has yet to fully release its grasp nearly three years in.
“It’s more of a release now than anything else, right?” Moorer said of the form. “We’re still mad, we’re still angry, we’re still upset – we still have all of those feelings. But if we walk around like that all of the time, it becomes toxic, it becomes a detriment. So, it’s a release, and people will ask to schedule a practice just to get away, to work some things out. And we use that. Come in, laugh for 90 minutes, then go home and keep praying, keep being angry, keep being vigilant. But for those 90 minutes, come laugh.”
In launching Affirmative Distraction, Moorer and Esquire sought out volunteers rather than picking and choosing cast members, which opened the doors to entertainers outside of the comedy realm, including MojoFlo frontwoman Amber Knicole, rapper C10 (aka Chad Tennant) and singer Weezee, who released her new full-length, Still Loading, in December.
Moorer said that one of the biggest hurdles that anyone new to improv has to overcome is to learn to let go of inhibition, to ignore that voice in your head telling you, 'No.’ “Don’t say no. Just say yes to everything,” he said. “Be weird. Open that up. And don’t worry about people judging you. Because we’ve got you. We’re going to be with you. If you jump onstage and take a shower, we’re all in the shower. If you’re a superhero, we’re all superheroes.
“But none of it is real. Nobody’s gonna get upset and be like, ‘Did you really slap Batman in the face?’ No.”
“Or yes, because we say yes in improv,” Esquire corrected.
“I mean, yeah, I slapped Batman and Superman,” Moorer corrected. “Knocked them mothers out. I’m the leader of the Justice League now. Ask me anything.”
The group is taking a similarly no-holds-barred approach to staking out territory in the Columbus comedy scene, not shying from the historic nature of the troupe’s pursuit, where they’re often the first all-Black improv group to grace a given stage, or the Funny Bone.
“Black people are coming to places they’ve never been to see all-Black improv,” said Esquire, a radio personality, rapper, voice actor, producer and DJ who traced her comfort level onstage to getting her start as an actor at age 12. “And that opened up the door for other [performers] to come and use the venue. … Because some of these stages are not open to us.”
“And that’s for real,” Moorer said. “Most of these stages are not open to us, and that’s fine, because somebody – Jae Esquire – just said today that pretty soon they’re not going to have a choice. And that’s it. That’s the bottom line. We are the first to do a lot in this city, and we want to continue to tick those boxes. … And that’s what it is. It’s continuing to make history. We want all your stages. We want all your venues. We want all your people. Come laugh with us.”
In that spirit, the group has increasingly grand Columbus venues in its sites – McConnell Arts Center, Palace Theatre and Ohio Theatre among them – but its ambitions stretch well beyond stages. In our conversation, Moorer and Esquire talked about the potential for expanding on the Affirmative Distraction name with a second troupe, a children’s group and an instructional class, among other ventures.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Moorer said. “Also, all those things are going to happen.”