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Leader of Baltimore Improv Group apologizes after being fired for comments ‘harmful to Black community members’

The managing director of the Baltimore Improv Group has been dismissed after board members determined that comments he made on social media were “harmful to Black community members.”

He later apologized, writing in a Facebook post on Tuesday that he was “so sorry and honestly ashamed” of his behavior.

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An email dated June 7 told the 16-year-old troupe‘s supporters that “the Board has decided to relieve Terry Withers of his duties and responsibilities as the Managing Director, effective June 7, 2020.“

Withers declined to comment for this story.

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“Anti-black racism and other forms of discrimination have gone unchecked for far too long,” the email continues.

“It is never the Board’s intention to perpetuate racism at any level of the organization. ... We are earnestly sorry for our shortcomings in addressing the issues affecting Black community members, and we endeavor to use your feedback to implement radical changes, so that the BIG community is a place where our Black members are supported and accordingly able to excel and thrive.“

Anne C. Neal, president of the comedy group’s board of directors, declined to elaborate on the reasons the board decided to fire Withers, saying “it is our policy not to discuss personnel matters.” She confirmed that Withers’ wife, Jennifer Withers who had been serving as the troupe’s artistic director, remains on the staff.

According to federal tax filings, BIG, which is located at 1727 N. Charles St. in the Station North neighborhood, had $402,000 in revenues for the 2019 fiscal year. Terry Withers was hired by the organization in 2016 following a nationwide search. In 2017, he was paid a salary of $85,000, according to the tax documents.

The email from the board did not describe the comments on social media to which it objected.

However, Withers recently became involved in a pointed exchange with company member Tamara Cavell-Allette on her Facebook page. She performs under the name of “Blue.”

She said tensions had been building for several years between Withers and the improvisation company’s African American performers.

“Improv has traditionally been a good old boys club, dominated by white people and by white culture,” Cavell-Allette said.

“We show up every week and we do what we do because it’s important for members of our community to see themselves reflected back on stage and to hear jokes that make sense to them.”

Matters came to a head when Withers declined to sign off on a federal grant that would have provided funds for Casually Dope, an all-black subgroup of the company, to embark on a ten-day, four-city tour of Japan.

“In the past five years, Casually Dope has done hands-down the best performances of anyone in that theater,” said Jessica Henkin, a former performer and board member with the organization. “They bring in the most audiences. A lot of people of color have gone on to take classes at BIG because of Casually Dope.”

Meghann Shutt is a professional grant-writer and a longtime supporter of BIG who was co-chair of the board of directors when Withers was hired.

When she learned in October that the U.S. Department of State had sent out a request for proposals to fund performers of color to tour Japan, she immediately thought of Casually Dope and volunteered her expertise in preparing the necessary documents.

The grant proposal sought $34,000 to pay the performers’ expenses, Shutt said. The grant had to be sponsored by a non-profit organization, but $3,000 would have gone to the Baltimore Improv Group to recoup administrative expenses.

“I thought this was a win-win situation,” she said. “But Terry just said no.”

The disagreement aired in two long accounts that Cavell-Allette posted June 6 on her Facebook page. According to one post, Withers said in a late spring ZOOM meeting called to discuss the grant application that he didn’t think the Casually Dope performers "would be good representatives for the theater.“

In a response to that post, Withers wrote that he hesitated to sign off on the grant because in the past, Cavell-Allette had criticized a type of educational programming similar to one used by the Baltimore troupe.

“It concerned me that someone who seemed to feel we were running a scam would serve as an ambassador for our organization,” Withers wrote, before adding that he never decided whether to approve or reject Casually Dope’s request.

But in a later post, Withers apologized.

“This was a tough week for me,” he wrote Tuesday on Cavell-Allette’s Facebook page. "I ended up defending myself in a forum I shouldn’t have and lost my job as a result.

“I was confronted with the uncomfortable truth that I’ve done some things at work that were racially/culturally insensitive (that were racist.) Never intentionally, but that doesn’t matter.

”If I hurt you or insulted you, I apologize. I’m so sorry and honestly ashamed at my insensitivity and ignorance.“

Shutt said she was bewildered by Withers’ refusal to sign off on the grant. In many ways, she said, the Baltimore Improv Group thrived under his leadership.

“Terry has done so many positive things to include more people of color in improv,” she said.

“One thing I really appreciated is that he made all the shows free. He made BIG accessible for anyone who wanted to see it. He also created a scholarship fund for people of color who wanted to learn how to do improv."

An interim managing director for BIG is expected to be named by the end of the week, Neal said, while a national search will be launched for Withers’ replacement.

Cavell-Allette said that removing Withers is a necessary first step toward making BIG the inclusive troupe of her dreams — though she suspects the board’s decision may have been forced by the nationwide protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I’ve been saying the same things for so long,” she said. “After the uprising, at the bare minimum the board would have had to do something, if only for the optics. But I hope their decision was also heartfelt."

The protests that followed Floyd’s death have spurred some arts groups nationwide to examine their own records regarding race relations.

In Chicago, Andrew Alexander, CEO and part-owner of the famed Second City comedy troupe, resigned last week. In a letter posted June 5 on the group’s website, Alexander admitted that he had ”failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive.”

Cavell-Allette thinks there is a chance now to make changes that over time could result in a stronger, healthier and more vibrant company.

“I really do believe that our community is a good community," she said.

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"I really do love BIG. This has been our home, but for a long time it hasn’t felt like one. I want to make it a home for everyone.”

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