By Amma Marfo, Contributor
“This was really about the overachiever in me needing a concrete goal to work towards.”
– Kwasi Mensah
In truth, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that motivation for taping an hour special before. And yet, it was that achiever’s energy – one all too familiar to me, another kid whose family is “not from around here” – that drove Kwasi Mensah to mount his debut hour at ImprovBoston recently. The overachiever in him should be quite happy with the feat. The original set sold out so quickly he was able to add a second show; the first held in ImprovBoston’s Studio Theater, the second in the larger Mainstage Theater. Surrounded by friends, family, and fellow comics, Mensah seemed at ease with the hour of material he’d cultivated; as we talked after the sets, that comfort seemed genuine.
“I wasn’t worried about the clock,” he shared. “A lot of times when you’re doing more time-constrained sets you’re trying not to run the light and ruin the timing of the rest of the night for other comics. This weekend it was great to just be me on stage and to be a little “selfish” in knowing I didn’t have to think about that.” Being him meant sharing jokes about his childhood as a “blerd”, his family, his role in the resistance (hint: it likely won’t be on the phone), and his insight on race that has become something of a hallmark in his work. The challenge of a full hour of material meant pushing himself to test out these jokes in the months leading up to the special — a challenge he was pleased to take on:
“Every set for the last couple of months I’ve been going into it with a plan about testing which jokes still work and which ones still need tweaking. It’s really useful because it breaks me out of the “let’s do the same 10 minutes” syndrome which I can get really conscious about when other comics are in the room and also just makes my jokes fall flatter and flatter as I get bored of saying them over and over again.”
This tip about testing jokes to break free from the same ten minutes came from fellow Boston comic Nick Chambers, and is a suggestion Mensah was immeasurably grateful for. In fact, as we chatted about this onstage achievement, he repeatedly expressed gratitude to those around him. “I […] really want to thank ImprovBoston. They took a chance on me by letting me have the Saturday Studio show, and took an ever bigger chance in giving me the much larger MainStage for the Sunday show.” He went on to express his appreciation for fellow comics in the Boston scene. “I want to thank Srilatha Rajamani, Tooky Kavanagh and Sam Ike for opening for me this weekend, being hilarious, and being part of the much bigger Boston comedy scene that have been super supportive of this.” It was the encouragement of many people on the scene that sent him into his own archives to strengthen his hour.
This process sent him back to some of the earliest sets in his nearly five year comedy career, which he admits were at times “painful to watch.” Mensah has clearly moved past that stage. Onstage Sunday night, he moved easily and comfortably through his material while also engaging the audience — a specific goal of his. “I’ve also worked really hard on being able to do crowd work (but not just the traditional “where’re you from?” “what’s your job?”) and wanted to have a little bit of that in the hour but not too much.”
Even in the moments where the crowd seemed hesitant to laugh (it can be hard to call your dad an asshole onstage when people in the audience know your dad!), Mensah moved through with a smile and a reassurance to the audience that these were jokes. He knew where the sticking points would be in his material on race, and effortlessly defused the tension in the room with tags or his own laughter, signaling to an apprehensive crowd that they too could laugh. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and could have been panic-inducing during a recording. And yet, the smoothness and professionalism with which it moved continues to impress me. Mensah has had the opportunity to open for national comedians like Sasheer Zamata, Aparna Nancherla, and W. Kamau Bell, and this hour signals that he may be ready for the next step.
When asked about what those next steps might look like, Mensah was surprisingly modest in his goals: “I want to start traveling more places to do comedy without having to do it through a festival. Just sending out avails and this hour tape and seeing what I can get. Possibly seeing what the college circuit looks like.” An additional goal: to do more shows in NYC, a feat his mom (still based in the Bronx) would likely appreciate.
At the same time, he recognizes that some of his best material has just filled this debut hour- which is why we may have to wait a while to hear what was recorded this weekend. “I don’t think I’m at the place in my career where there’s enough of an upside to having to retire an hour of material.” For now, Not From Around Here will serve as a sample for bookers to demonstrate his command of and comfort with the stage, an artifact to share with friends and family, and the result of a personal challenge to himself — one he handily achieved, and that was a joy to watch and laugh along with.
Amma Marfo is a writer and editor based in Boston, MA. Odds are, you’ve seen her in the audience of shows all around the city, notebook in tow and laughing the whole way. She also writes for The Interrobang, Pacific Standard, and her own site where she focuses on creativity and workplace effectiveness. Check out more of her work at http://www.ammamarfo.com/writer and follow along with her silliness on Twitter @ammamarfo.