Meet the 2024 FIST champions: Kinfolk!

The 2024 edition of the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament (FIST) has drawn to a close with the four-person team Kinfolk—made up of Krystal Ali, Samiyyah Ali, Jamal Newman, and Kendall Hollimon—claiming the title of FIST champions and having their names engraved on the coveted trophy. WIT caught up with them to discuss becoming the first all-Black team in the competition’s 16-year history to claim victory, how they came together as a group, and how they felt when their names were announced.

Congrats on your win, team Kinfolk! For those involved in the DC improv scene, winning FIST is a really big deal. How did you feel when your names were announced?

Krystal: Very grateful. I feel very proud of this team and the shows we did during FIST, and it was extra special to win with my wife, with my family in attendance, my best friend right there, and with so many of my favorite people on stage with me. All of my Kinfolk.

Jamal: Exhausted. It felt like Thanos after he snapped his fingers. Finally, I can rest because the work is done. I want to sleep for a week. It’s been six years since I’ve competed in FIST. Last time, also making it to the finals, but with a less desirable outcome. This run was very special but it didn’t really hit me until it was done.

Kendall: Honored. It means more to me than words can express that everyone enjoyed the shows as much as we did.

Samiyyah: It was a bit overwhelming and very surreal. I had to look at Jamal to make sure I’d heard them actually say “Kinfolk.” We were surrounded by so much support and love throughout the tournament, and it all peaked in that moment. Milk Milk Milk! and Chaos have some of my favorite improvisers and best friends, so it was an honor to share the stage with them—and to have the results announced by the demigods of the Black improv community.


How did the four of you come together as a team and why did you call yourselves Kinfolk?

Krystal: Samiyyah and I are married and knew we wanted to do FIST together this year. Samiyyah, Jamal, and I performed together recently in a mashup show and the chemistry felt so good that it seemed like a good fit. I taught Kendall in a WIT Level 3 class last spring and was very impressed with his performance and loved his energy.

Samiyyah: I pretty much do whatever Krystal asks me to do, and that started long before we began dating! Kinfolk was a feeling, more than it was a name. We wanted to create a space to honor the feeling you get when you find your people. So, the name was a natural, descriptive fit for that moment.

Jamal: I didn’t ask any questions, I just said “yes” when Krystal asked if I’d do FIST with her and Samiyyah. She then said she had this student she thought would be a good fourth and, again, I just said “yes.” I believe we came up with the name at our first team hang and it felt right.

Kendall: When I first got the text from Krystal [asking to join Kinfolk], it was too good to be true. I’m honestly still waiting for the “Sike” and the disinvitation.

You’re the first team composed of all-Black improvisers to win the competition. How do you feel about accomplishing that milestone?

Krystal: This is a long time coming. I shout out to Lena Dunham for being the all-Black ensemble at WIT, I Don’t Know Her for making it to the Comeback Brawl in 2019, Baggage Claim for making it to the finals in 2022, and The Cookout for showcasing all of this talent in a big way since 2020.

Samiyyah: This feels like a community milestone for all the Black improvisers because it is the result of a lot of hard work by folks who’ve been doing improv much longer than I have. When you look at the roster of Lena Dunham, it’s unfathomable to think that an all-Black team has never won, and that FIST had its first Black winners only two years ago with Ze Bestie Textie.  It’s not just about numbers. Black people are funny, so the numbers are there. It’s about WIT becoming a place where the Black experience and culture are part of the base reality onstage and not just a funny quip here or there. Winning FIST as Kinfolk shows that Blackness is not just the “unusual thing.” That took time to build, and I’m honored to be a part of it.  And yes, shout-out to Baggage Claim, my first FIST team!

Kendall: I was disappointed but not surprised to find this out. Improv is not a famously diverse art. Luckily, my teammates and other Black improvisors have been working for years to change that. They’ve been bringing color to the scene since before I got here, so all I’ve known is vibrance.

Krystal and Jamal, in particular, you created The Cookout—a celebration of Black improvisers in the DC region. Does this win feel auspicious? What more needs to be done to ensure that players of color are adequately represented in performing arts, like improv?

Krystal: The win feels like everything that we started at the Cookout coming together in a really big way. Including the fact that I met my wife Samiyyah at The Cookout before her planned move to Los Angeles in 2020. When we created The Cookout, our goals were to showcase the talent of Black improvisers and increase the number of Black improv teams. I look around now and there are multiple all-Black improv teams performing at WIT, we hosted a Cookout jam last month and 20 brand new faces attended, and now we have Kinfolk winning FIST.

Jamal: Really hard to answer as none of this was planned. I just wanted to form an all-Black improv team because DC didn’t have one, and then all this happened. Krystal can speak to the impact better than I can, and I give her and [fellow improviser] Derek Hayes all the credit for ushering the community through the pandemic and back to in-person shows. I just think more Black performers should do what we did and just form a team and get better together. The rest will take care of itself and probably surprise you.

Krystal and Samiyyah, you got married last year. What is it like performing alongside each other as spouses?

Krystal: We do bits together and make each other laugh all of the time so it only makes sense that we would take it to the stage.

Samiyyah: I was in the middle of the WIT curriculum, when Krystal and I started dating. She asked me to do an online improv duo with her, and I was so nervous. Everyone knows how funny Krystal is, so I knew that if we had a bad set, the culprit would be easily identifiable. Luckily, our duo worked out great and led to marriage (yes, that’s how that works). We’ve come a long way from there, not least because of the (sometimes unsolicited) feedback Krystal offers me after all my shows. This FIST run felt like a culmination of all that energy, and it was amazing. I’m obsessed with her improv and love watching her show-defining choices, so being part of her masterminded chaos was the best thing ever.

Kendall, you’re fairly new to the WIT scene compared to Krystal, Samiyyah, and Jamal, who are all members of established ensembles and indie troupes. What has your experience been like performing alongside them in your first FIST?

Kendall:  Like holding your older sibling’s hand as they sprint. I’ve struggled this season because there’s no way to list off my teammates without sounding like I’m bragging. These celebrities of the scene have sharpened me so much. I’ve felt myself get better and more comfortable with every practice and performance. My favorite part is that we’ve burnt some of our best material in warmups just cackling to each other. It’s been a surreal privilege knowing that even if I fail, I couldn’t be in better hands.

What advice would you give to future FIST competitors?

Krystal: Play with people that make you laugh hard.

Samiyyah: Ask your teammates what your improv strengths are and lean hard into them. Other people can see what you’re bringing to the scene better than you can, so take the compliments, sit in it, and have fun with it.

Jamal: Perform with people you like. Perform with people you don’t know. Perform something challenging. Perform something untested. Just go perform. Yes, it’s FIST but ultimately, it’s just another show.

Kendall: Don’t worry about it. We’re playing pretend out here… it should be fun and fulfilling.

March 1, 2024