American Express Breaks Boundaries in the Improv World

On Nov. 19, Kilo Martin, Soumya Dhulekar, and Remi Dhillon of American Express—a Philadelphia-based improv group—came to Swarthmore to perform at the Intercultural Center. This event was part of the IC’s new programming framework, which aims to  bring more of the community into the space.
Founded this summer with the goal of increasing the representation of people of color in the improv scene, American Express takes improv and stand-up comedy to a new level, intertwining both traditional tactics and inventive practices to create something their audiences will not soon forget.
The group, currently comprised of thirteen recent college graduates, has been picking up new members throughout the few months it’s been together.
“We found each other through the Philly improv network—and looking different—but it’s mostly about watching someone play and thinking, ‘oh, they’re funny, I want to play with them’” Dhillon affirms.
The performers’ interests are as diverse as their backgrounds. Each of the group’s members engages in multiple art forms outside of improvisation, including acting, singing, and dancing.  Others are currently pursuing graduate degrees in the arts.  Martin is a performing artist, dancer, actor, and comedian; Dhulekar delves into the fields of digital illustration, acting, and comics; Dhillon is an improviser, actor, and semi-professional soccer player.  The comedians’ array of identities and interests allow them to bring different perspectives to the stage as they come together to create a conglomerate of sketches for their audiences.
Willing to tackle any topic on a performer’s mind, American Express provides a free space for its improvisers to play. This, according to Dhulekar, creates an atmosphere conducive to successful performances.  
“To be a good improviser, you have to be as personal as possible.  Sometimes, if you are on a team that is mostly white people, the more personal you get the more disconnected you get from them,” Dhulekar explains.
The freedom American Express offers its actors manifested itself in their performance, which was captivating, fast-paced, and entertaining.  From their electrifying opening incorporating a herald melded with traditional spiritual-style clapping and singing to the hilarious close that brought the story of the first sketch full circle, the group was equal parts impressive and entertaining. The performers took an audience request for the first sketch—a couple walking around campus arguing about where they should study—and touched on numerous relatable themes including boy scouts, philosophy papers, and professors obsessed with Oedipus. Martin even threw in a “Fuck Kohlberg,” which got a resounding cheer from the audience.
Each of the performers provided different, essential components to the sketches. Martin was dynamic and often comical in his portrayals, Dhulekar provided the audience with key background information, which she expertly wove into the performances without breaking character, and Dhillon led many of the seamless transitions from scene to scene. Ryan Jobson ‘19,  who was part of an improv group at his high school in Florida, was impressed and inspired by the way the performers worked together and fed off each others’ strengths.  
“They were really funny and had good structure to their scenes. When somebody caught the audience’s attention, they all rolled with it,” Jobson notes.     
Jobson, who knows Martin from the few times he has MCed events at Swarthmore, calls him “very charismatic and funny.” He also confirms that he would definitely like to see American Express perform again and will be signing up for their workshops in Philly next semester.
  In light of the election, which Dhulekar refers to as “the incident,” the group has seen an increase in attendance and attention, as well as a willingness to step up their game.
“We are realizing that we have to be seen. The presence of seeing different people of color doing improv on stage, some of our audiences are wowed by just that fact—sadly,” Martin acknowledges.
Dhulekar concurs with her teammate, claiming that now more than ever there is “a sense of urgency to put our voices out there and for other people of color to put their voices out there.”   
In addition to helping augment the number of people of color in the improv world, American Express actors also strive to counteract the whitewashing of classic long form content, pushing boundaries and tinkering with traditional forms in order to incorporate their own voices into the performances. It can even be as simple as throwing a non-white name into the mix.
“There are so many times when you hear, ‘Chris get out here,’ or ‘Steve gets out here.’ ‘Dan, Brad, James,’” Dhillon laments.
In order to counteract this norm, Martin will often call a “Mohamed” into the scene, a name some improvisers associate exclusively with stereotypes.  
“If you are playing with someone who doesn’t really know a Mohamed, they play what they think is funny. They’re like, ‘oh I’m a terrorist; I have this long beard,’” he professes.  
Dhulekar finds this behavior incredibly frustrating.  Her reaction to the comedians who immediately dilute Mohamed into these ridiculously essentialized components: “Why don’t you just play an architect.”

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