When I arrive at the theatre, Cipha is already hanging out in the lobby, looking a little tense. “It’s gonna be crazy, man,” he says. “Glad you got here early.” 2 Chainz arrives at 8:50, decked out in all white and sporting a baseball hat, designer sunglasses and his signature chains. He’s surrounded by a cocoon of giant refrigerator-shaped men who quickly plant themselves around the curtain to the green room, standing like boulders that will crush anyone trying to come through.
Despite the entourage, 2 Chainz is a perfectly game guest and a gifted monologist, a droll comic foil to Cipha’s nervous, kinetic energy. As is common practice in improv, Cipha asks for a suggestion to get things started, and a voice in the crowd yells out, “PRISON!” “What the fuck, man?” Cipha, a little annoyed, says to the faceless crowd member. But it turns out 2 Chainz isn’t too irritated by the prison suggestion. “I’ve got a lot of stories where I could’ve gone to prison,” he says, launching into a detail-filled anecdote from his high school days in Atlanta, describing a car heist that quickly led to a botched robbery at a Wendy’s where one of his friends worked. It’s both hilarious and oddly poignant, not unlike a great 2 Chainz song.
It’s an ideal starting point for Cipha and his team of improvisors, who go by the name A Tribe Called Yes, to jump into a frenzied series of scenes that ping pong around various details from 2 Chainz’s story (Wendy’s, car theft, Chainz’s real name Tauheed). It’s comedy about hip-hop that comes from a place of respect, not winking irony.
When he gets back on stage to tell another story, Chainz is visibly impressed, singling out some of the improvisers like Anthony Atamanuik and Abra Tabak for being particularly hilarious. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Chainz. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on when I got offstage.”
After telling another story—this one about a woman who said he bought her a Coach purse—Chainz watches the second improv set, then stands on stage with a beaming Cipha and the rest of the cast for a round of photos. Despite the vulnerability and playfulness he showed on stage, he’s reverted back to his stoic-cool mode now, looking more like a wax figure than a comedian.
The vibe in the bar afterwards is electric and celebratory. “He was amazing,” says Tabak, who is also a teacher at UCB. “I was laughing too hard on the back line. He was just so naturally funny and charismatic and awesome.” By this point 2 Chainz is already gone, whisked away by his security into the confines of a large black luxury van, leaving the world of improv behind for the night. But judging by the smile he had while telling his stories and Cipha’s dogged persistence, he won’t be gone forever. —Dan Jackson