Comedian Tyler Richardson was wrapping up his set Monday night at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre East’s “Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour,” in the East Village, when he heard chanting outside. He asked the audience, “Do you hear that?” and tried to transition into another joke, but before he could, dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters marched through the door. Nine of them stepped onto the stage, and one tried to take the mic from Richardson. “I put my hand on his chest like, ‘You’re not going to take my microphone,’” Richardson said. “And he let it go.”
Richardson, still holding his mic, took a seat on the side of the stage to watch. The protesters, who were part of a Black Lives Matter group called NYC Shut It Down, read from the fact cards they were holding, which laid out details of the arrest and subsequent death of Gynnya McMillen, a 16-year-old girl who died in police custody. “Maybe they targeted us because they wanted to find people at a show where they’re laughing and remind them of what’s going on around us,” Richardson said. “As a black guy, I was a little shocked I was unaware of something like that.”
But the choice of UCB East was completely random — a spur-of-the-moment decision by one or two of the marchers as they approached Fourth Street. (They’d started the march in Union Square and had already made stops at the Strand Bookstore and on St. Marks Place.) “Very rarely are we targeting an establishment for their involvement in police brutality,” said Keegan Stephan, a member of the protest group. We go into establishments to disrupt the status quo. In this case we didn’t know how it would go, and it went really well.”
Cleo Jeffryes, who helped organize the march, agreed: “The audience was mainly white males, so we were kind of like, ‘Hmm, it could go either way.’ But when we asked them to, every single person raised their fist. I was shocked.” She also commended Richardson, who’s now Twitter friends with a few of the activists, for being “really cool about it.” “Tyler was a little like ‘What the hell is going on,’ but after three seconds he figured out we weren’t leaving until we told our story, and that was it.” Even UCB’s higher-ups were cool with the whole thing. “Spontaneity is very much in our DNA,” said managing director Alex Sidtis.
Richardson’s audience was proud of him, too. “After the show was over, an older woman kept patting my face and telling me, ‘You handled that very well,’” he said. “It was definitely the weirdest way I’ve ever been heckled — I can’t imagine what could top that.”