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OpEd: Comedy Can Lead to Inclusion in Divided Times

There has been a long tradition of comedy and activism working together. The hope is for Sisters of Comedy to carry that tradition.
The Sisters of Comedy group
The Sisters of Comedy groupMichelle Smith

I’ve always been “woke.”

I attribute this to being the youngest with two big brothers who outpaced me and pushed me to think faster and play harder. Also being a Kenyan immigrant in growing up in NYC had the same effect.

In the never ending oil spill of the 2016 election, we are all covered in this grimy substance that simply won’t wash out. During the past few months, I invested most of my energy in social justice work building a boycott campaign within the umbrella of the M4BL “Beyond the Moment” campaign called #HaterFreeNYC. Though the boycott campaign is growing and ongoing, I think it’s time to laugh and laugh hard.

I have been producing the show “Sisters of Comedy,” housed at Carolines on Broadway, independently for three years. The showcase is the longest running black woman centered comedy show in NYC as far as I understand it and certainly the longest running at any of the major comedy clubs in NYC.

People are now settling into the reality of what the presidential election has wrought and I think people are already pretty tired. However, the fight ahead remains, so I figure why not commune with each other and have some levity whenever we can.

"Sisters of Comedy" at Caroline's
"Sisters of Comedy" at Caroline'sMichelle Smith / Limited Ink Photography

In a space that centers black womanhood without apology, Sisters of Comedy creates a safe environment for a diverse collection of people to come out enjoy the promise of American inclusion, though we are far from that in our daily lives.

I think back to shows where I was honored to collaborate with not only a bevy of brilliant comedians, but also activists that I admire. Last July I co-sponsored a show with BLM NYC, with some of them in attendance to we raise funds for one chapter leader in California. The chapter leader and founder of BLM Pasadena, Jasmine Abdullah, was facing a questionable, even archaic, criminal charge called “felony lynching” which has a long and dubious history in CA law enforcement. She was ultimately convicted with time served. The first black person with a “lynching” record which is absurd, yet she in now part of the criminal justice system and responsible for paying thousands in parole fees.

Related: The ‘Sisters of Comedy’ Showcase Brings Humor & Humanity to Broadway

Now firmly in Trump’s America, as we read about states proposing laws on “commercial terrorism” to legitimate the oppression of peaceful protest for business reasons, Jasmine’s story may have been a clarion call. That was also the week that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were brutally murdered on video. In that room, on a warm July evening, the tension was palpable, but people were ready to laugh. People were ready to embrace an alternative worldview that did not tolerate hate and division. The room was alive that night and I think it gave a lot of people a sense of hope in a really dark time.

Ultimately, as a producer, I aspire towards black excellence in myself and I also aspire towards celebrating black excellence in others. Sisters of Comedy is a sisterhood, a means of amplifying the good in life and people.

Like with our powerful experience with BLM NYC, I had co-presenters or special guests like Gloria Steinem, Equality Now president Yasmeen Hassan and media maven Franchesca Ramsey.

Related: Franchesca Ramsey Heads to Comedy Central With New Pilot

This Thursday May 25h we have image activist Michaela Angela Davis joining us on the stage to discuss two powerful WOC focused campaigns “Patriarchy is Bitch” and “Liberated Woman,” the former supports the retirement of pioneering black feminist Barbara Smith and the latter WOC health centers under the Planned Parenthood umbrella. These campaigns are a collaboration between Michaela’s MADFree platform and“activismwear” brand Liberated People created by The Wire actor Gbenga Akinnagbe.

There has been a long tradition of comedy and activism working together like comedy legends like Moms Mabley and Dick Gregory. The hope is for Sisters of Comedy to carry that tradition not so much with only political comedy material (the personal is political after all), but by showcasing black excellence, by centering those on the margins, by including allies and even putting some on the lineup and be being a space for communion with food, drink and laughter at a time when we really need it.

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