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The headline on the Instagram reel lays out something like a challenge: “Everybody trying to pronounce my last name.” Next, we see John Gebretatose’s reliably pleasant face as he listens with feigned amusement to a droll voiceover reading gibberish words that are definitely not his name. (One favorite botch job: “Azikanadushnu.”)
On a recent, relentlessly gray and chilly early spring day, I meet with John Gebretatose in the dining room at Harriet Brasserie, in the children’s-book-perfect Linden Hills neighborhood. There, Gebretatose runs through the origins of his not-actually-hard-to-pronounce name: It’s Gebre (like “Deborah”) TA-TEEOSE.”
“‘Gebre’ is like the prefix,” he says. ”It translates to ‘to do like.’ And then ‘Tatose’ is an angel in Greek Orthodox religion. It means ‘to do like Tatose.’
“There’s all these kinds of last names in Eritrea,” explains Gebretatose. “But mine is spelled the way that it’s spelled because my parents immigrated here and they spelled it incorrectly.” His parents grew up in East Africa speaking and writing in Tigrinya and Amharic—Semitic languages with non-Roman alphabets. “They tried their best, but they spelled it so wrong,” he says.
Gebretatose’s story about that uncommon name actually seems to bring him a bit of pride. When he Googles his own last name, he says, ”It’s just me.”
Stocky and handsome with a smile that could charm the prom queen, Gebretatose, 38, is the director of diversity and inclusion at Minneapolis’ HUGE Improv Theater, and founder of BlackOut Improv, an all-Black Minneapolis improv group.
He came to that role a bit circuitously, and yet, if you know him, it seems pretty felicitous. He was selling cell phones in a Walmart—a place he calls a cross-section for pretty much all humanity—and found out he was really good at it. All he had to do there was figure out what role he had to play to appeal to each customer personality type. To meet them where they were at, as it were.
His life course—raised in an immigrant family with a mother experiencing mental illness—taught him a lot about adaptation. That experience called out to me: I’ve been making stories about the foodways of people of color in Minnesota, and I wanted to ask Gebretatose to tell me about a dish that shaped him as a person. He thought immediately of the french fries of his childhood—and what it meant to make them with his mom.
Those fries tasted like connection, he says.
“They made me feel normal—or what I thought was normal, growing up.”
An all-around good dude, there is something angelic about Gebretatose. He has an easy way, and seems instantly in command of any room. Instead of wielding jokes as a means of control or ego, Gebretatose uses his incisive humor as a kind of offering. He’s inviting you in to play—like the kid at the playground who extends his favorite shovel, instead of hoarding the toys and trying to own the sandbox. Together, a beautiful and shared sandcastle can be made. Or maybe a crocodile with a horse tail and bunny teeth.
Nipsey Hussle, Tiffany Haddish… and John Gebretatose
While Minnesota is home to over 100,000 immigrants from the Horn of Africa region, the Eritrean community numbers only a few thousand.
“If you’re familiar with Nipsey Hussle, the rapper who passed away, he was Eritrean,” Gebretatose says. “Or Tiffany Haddish, the comedian, she’s also Eritrean. And then there’s me,” he jokes.
Gebretatose jokes for a living, and he came by those jokes the old fashioned way: by dealing with a lot of decidedly unfunny stuff.
The first of these events occurred in his infancy, when his family immigrated from East Africa to Minnesota. His father and mother fell in love in the late 1970s, and linked up in Sudan to get away from the civil war that ultimately led to Eritrea’s independence. Gebretatose was born in 1982, and the family arrived in Minnesota as asylum seekers in 1985.
According to Gebretatose’s mother, when they were at the airport, he quit using his beloved baby bottle.
“Yeah, I won’t be needing this anymore,” he imagines his baby self thinking. “Welcome to adulthood. Childhood is over.”
There were so many heavy things to navigate as an immigrant child, and having time to just be a kid wasn’t always an option, he explains.
“I was pretty much an adult in the United States,” Gebretatose says. “I think that was true for the rest of my upbringing. For a lot of immigrants, being in the United States, if you’re the first or the oldest, you kind of have to grow up fast, especially if you’re in poverty.”
He grew up in south Minneapolis, living most of his childhood within the Riverside Plaza Apartments. “I’ve lived in or was babysat in each one of those individual apartments,” or at least it seemed that way, he says.
School was not always a place that excited him. “My hobbies were talking too much in class and sports,” he recalls.
In retrospect, however, those experiences awarded him a unique and valuable perspective.
“At the time was it as fun as it could have been? No. Was my childhood gleeful and a whole lot of Christmas presents? Absolutely not. Was Halloween the worst? Yeah. You can’t sell an East African immigrant mother with schizophrenia on going to strangers’ homes dressed up as the devil and getting free candy.
“Imagine coming from a civil war and having your child say: ‘Believe me, there’s going to be Snickers at this house if I put on this Ninja Turtle.”
‘Mom’s got a disability’
Immigrating was one thing, but perhaps the defining feature of his childhood was his mom’s mental illness. Her diagnosis for schizophrenia emerged when he was in third grade, and Gerbretatose recalls that, counterintuitively, the psychiatric label came as something of a relief to him.
“I could look at it for what it was, which is a disability. But she could still be my mom and take care of me in her way, and have fun with me, too. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, Mom’s got a disability. And, you know, we’re just gonna have to, like, figure this out, right?’ It was, in hindsight, a great gift.”
Prior to that time, his mom was hallucinating and hearing voices. She believed she was being abused, though in reality she wasn’t. And yet she grabbed her young son and fled to California where the two lived in a battered women’s shelter for a year.
“It was very confusing,” Gebretatose says.
The disability kept his mom from maintaining the kind of consistent mothering that perhaps both of them craved. For one thing, he recalls, she couldn’t always provide the abundant Eritrean cooking that Gebretatose enjoyed in the homes of his friends and neighbors. That type of cooking, he says, represents a deep form of love in his culture.
“My understanding of food is that food is communal,” he says. “You should not want. I’ve never ever been in an environment where no one offered. Like, it’s a normal thing. You just offer.”
‘There will be aunties and mothers grabbing bites and like, feeding you’
Gebretatose remembers having food literally foisted on him by friends, relatives, and neighbors.
“It’s very pushy in Eritrea. It’s like, ‘You better eat!’ You have no say. There will be aunties and mothers grabbing bites and feeding you. It’s very warm and endearing. You cannot do that in the United States. You cannot. You cannot love someone enough in the United States to feel it’s okay to shove food in their mouth,” he laughs.
Favorite childhood foods, he says, included dishes he couldn’t even pronounce or spell. But he describes one standout: “Imagine a little volcano, like a science-project volcano made out of this dough, and there’s a hole in the center. And in the hole is the berebere oil sauce that we make. And you grab a fork and you take a bite of that dough. And then you just dip it in that red sauce and it is so good, and so spicy.
“It’s mainly a breakfast food. And I think the texture might be related to fufu, like in West Africa. It’s like that,” he says.
This was a specialty dish, Gebretatose recalls, served mainly at special occasions—often to celebrate a new pregnancy. Dishes like that stand out in his memory. But then he ate a fair amount of American food, too, like pizza. And his mom tried her best, he recalls, to keep up with that end of their new reality, too.
Translating Thanksgiving was a novelty, he recalls. “Like, ‘Can you make a turkey?’ And she loved the challenge. She really, really appreciated it. And honestly, she warmed my heart, because she just didn’t have context. But she was like, ‘Well, this is what my baby wants, and I’m going to try to give him the best life and make him happy.’”
She still tries to make him a Thanksgiving meal, he says, even though he “gave it up.”
“I don’t celebrate that colonial holiday anymore,” he says, with an appropriate measure of sardonic humor.
Gebretatose’s ultimate childhood dish drew on another distinctly American experience: fast food. It started with an idea: He’d ask her to make something simple that they could do together on a regular basis. He asked for french fries.
The way Gebretatose remembers it, his mom answered this way: “Yes, and we’re going to add some of our traditional spices to it.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
“Yes, and”: His mother had expressed the first rule of improv. Encourage someone else’s contribution, foster a sense of cooperation.
The fries in question were just potatoes cut as thinly as possible—their best attempt to emulate the McDonalds fry. They cooked the fries in oil, and dipped them in a simple sauce of olive oil seasoned with berebere, a spice mixture used extensively in East African cooking.
They made these fries together just occasionally. But the experience stuck with her, too. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Gebretatose and I prepare berebere fries together, and he calls her from the kitchen to see if she would remember.
“The french fries,” she says immediately on the other side of the line.
Cooking with his mother wasn’t a tense experience, he recalls. Once, he broke a favorite wine glass–he’d already busted the other three in the set.
“Well, what’s done is done,” she said of the mess.
“It taught me everything about forgiveness,” he remembers.
‘You are enough’: Becoming a beacon for other comic performers of color
As a young adult, Gebretatose enrolled in advertising school to study copywriting. He entered the business, but concluded that office culture was simply not for him.
“The level of codeswitching I would have had to do was too big of a jump for me,” Gebretatose says.
He also spent years with a drinking problem. When he finally quit, comedy seemed like the next logical step. “Everything else was easy after I tackled what I was struggling with.”
The improv world has generally been the province of white guys—people with the time and resources to indulge in an art that’s less mainstream than, say, standup. Gebretatose wanted to change some of that—to make improv better reflect our community. He says he’ll be happy when the percentage of Black people on stage reflects the population of Black people in the Twin Cities.
He wrote a proposal to HUGE Theater in Minneapolis’ Uptown, an artist-led performance and education space. He said he wanted to see more diversity in improv —and that’s the way he became the nonprofit theater’s director of diversity and inclusion.
Gebretatose has become a beacon for people in the BIPOC improv community. And through his BIPOC Jam, free every Sunday for people of color, he’s attracted a loyal following, some of whom stick around to perform with HUGE. Jada Pulley, who uses they/them pronouns, is one of those people.*
They’ve been an improv student and colleague of Gebretatose for the past five years, and describes him as “One of those people who rolls like a ‘nat 20’ on the charisma.”
(While I am, personally, a nerd, I’m not a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and I’ll admit here that I had to look up what a “nat 20” is. As it turns out, “A natural 20” is a D&D term for rolling a 20 on a 20-sided die—the maximum possible value.)
Pulley’s “Improv Dad,” is known for reminding people, “You are enough. Just be yourself, and people will find that interesting.”
Acceptance, it seems, is a throughline in the long and wending improv sketch that’s been his life. From a very early age, Gebretatose embraced and accepted his mother for exactly who she was, rather than imagining or wishing for something different. And his mother embraced him, as an East African kid on the verge of Americanizing.
“She was a great mother,” he says.
And that brings us back to berebere fries: an improvised dish that brought joy to two people who just showed up.
“We both had a shared contract that when we were making these fries, that it was sort of time to be full-on mother and me. My time to shine like a child. And that’s what we got to do.”
Try this at home: John’s recipe for berebere fries:
Gebretatose and his mother cooked fried improvisationally. They didn’t need a recipe to cut up a potato and drop it in hot oil. But for people who like to follow directions—or prefer their potatoes curly–you can find some tips for preparing almost every kind of fry here.
Here’s how Gebretatose and I did it.
- Cut fries, as thinly as possible, from Russet Potatoes. Try to get as close to the McDonald’s shape as possible—it’s the fry prototype for every ‘80s kid
- Place the cut potatoes into a skillet and just cover with cold oli: canola, vegetable, or sunflower. Bring to a boil.
- Allow to cook, occasionally loosening fries with a fork or a spatula so they don’t stick together. Consider using a long kitchen implement, unless you like to feel the spatter.
- Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine olive oil and berebere spice to taste. (You can source this spice at your local co-op, like the Wedge or Seward Community Co-op; or find it at almost any East African market.)
- When the fries look like they’re golden brown and cooked through (about 20 minutes) carefully transfer them with a slotted spatula or spoon to paper towels to drain.
- Lightly salt, and serve with the berebere–olive oil dipping sauce.
*Correction: This story has been updated to note that Jada Pulley uses they/them pronouns.