TJ Medel and Terrence "T-Baby" Carey first performed as the improv group Preach in March 2016. The two comics met at iO, bonded over their spoken-word backgrounds, and decided to incorporate the art form into an experimental show—the audience makes a suggestion, Carey and Medel turn it into a slam poem, and then transform the poem into a performance. The format was immediately successful, and since then the group has grown from two to seven members and has appeared at comedy venues all across the city.
The latest milestone for Preach was the debut of their first sketch show, Uncomfortable, at Chicago Sketchfest earlier this month. They're reviving the revue, along with an improv set, for an upcoming fund-raiser benefiting the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. Supporting the housing rights group is in line with Preach's mission to use poetry and comedy to shine a light on larger issues facing people of color.
"This isn't like a comedic endeavor to go ahead and raise us to a higher platform on just a comedic level," Medel says. "It's more so to bring awareness to the fact that as minorities in comedy there is a message that we feel needs to be said, along with what we are laughing at."
Spoken word is a good place to start, Medel says, because it's a medium that allows performers to be vulnerable and say exactly what's on their mind, ranging from personal problems at home to dismay at the city's gentrification to experiences with the police. The scene that follows not only provides comic relief to potentially dark poems, but also gives context to the relevant issue. It's easier to understand what someone is yelling about when they offer more insight into their point of view, Medel says.
The rare combination of poetry and improv also crosses artistic boundaries, offering a more serious foundation for comedic scenes and giving the sometimes buttoned-up world of poetry some room to joke around. Medel and the rest of Preach want to introduce the blend into communities that may not have been exposed to improv, including younger generations on the south and west sides of Chicago who often turn to rap and spoken word as a means of expression.
"Spoken word and slam have such a rep of being screamy and preachy, but it's like, we can still be funny," Medel says. "I understand that emotions are running high right now, but there can still be joy—there can still be hope and a silver lining. It's something we need to highlight as much as the pain that we feel." v