When Comedy Gets Nappy: Picking Through Racism on Stage by Jasmine West

The experiences and feelings expressed in this week’s blog are as real as the naps in my afro after I’ve failed to braid her down at night. I suggest you grab an afro pick (the one with the fist at the end if you have it) and Shea Moisturizer so we can pick through this together.

Improv! It’s all fun and games until someone gets slapped with an offensive label. For example, a black man being called a monkey on stage. That is not fun. Nor is it cute to step into a scene, only to be met with an initiation along the lines of, “What’s up Raylokeisha?!”. Yeah that happend, and I stood there frozen as if Hermione had cast petrificus totalus on me instead of Neville.

I don't trust just anybody with my fro, so please be gentle as we detangle through one of my personal experiences with racial insensitivity in the wonderful world of improv.

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

During a public performance of an improv show, I established myself as “the new roommate” in a scene. Shortly afterwards, another player stepped out and angrily relabeled me. The player never addressed me directly when they walked on. They did however, address my scene partners onstage and said, “Wow you guys, I’m gone for [3] years and you hire a maid?!”.


In that moment, the audience gave an audible reaction because they were clearly just as shook as I was. It felt as though time stopped for 6 whole seconds. I attempted to make eye contact with the individual and after a quick debate in my head, I proceeded to take my earrings off and throw them, and yelled back, “Oh hell no!”, which naturally got the edit we all so desperately needed.

In those 6 seconds, Ice-T interrogated me in the style of Law & Order SVU.

In case you’ve never watched Law & Order, this means he had a question for each second:

1)    Were they just not listening?

2)    Are you reading into this?

3)    Should you even take the time to acknowledge this?

4)    Why of all the things to label you would they choose the maid?

5)    Will you sell out your culture by reacting truthfully to that label?

6)    You’ll be the angry black woman, but aren’t you both angry and a black woman at this moment?

I went with my initial response, which was anger, but as an improviser I made the right call. I responded to the last thing said and matched my partner’s emotions.

Racial insensitivity happens in improv more than what is talked about amongst mixed ethnic groups of comedians. My friends of color and I often exchange these stories when we need to vent but are hesitant to share them around non POC because we’re often made to feel as though we’re reading into something that isn't there. To which I answer in the voice of Maury, “That… is a lie”.

Jasmine - photo 2.jpg

When the frequency of these moments increases, it's the responsibility of the comedic community to address the problems. It’s time to have an open and honest conversation centered around how we can improve. Discussions about how we can all be a little more conscious and sensitive when it comes to race need to be held amongst groups of non POC. Primarily, so that it becomes more comfortable for those who currently see it as touchy, or “not their place”. It’s everyone’s place, sis.

Now that we’ve worked out these naps, lets braid them down so our 4c curls don't get damaged.

For my fellow POC: You have every right to respond truthfully to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or offends you on stage. The more honest the response, the better. A great acting teacher by the name of Sanford Meisner developed a definition for acting that applies very well to improv as well. Meisner’s definition of acting is simple and beautifully put. He defines to acting as, “behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. I think it applies perfectly to improv. When racism sneaks into your improv scene the way you snuck into your mama’s house at 3AM in high school, feel free to behave truthfully.

You also have every right to self-edit.

 

Whew, chile!

Please know that you can say goodbye to that scene and not choke.

You can walk away from that stage and not stumble.

I promise.

 

Jasmine West is currently enrolled in level six of Improv at Dallas Comedy House and member of the former Ewing Improv team, ‘Mahogany’. You may have also seen her Stand Up comedy here and there. She enjoys champagne, fangirling over David Bowie, and talking about race. She looks to Michelle Obama, Phoebe Robinson and Beyoncé for spiritual guidance.