If there’s anything the work of filmmaker, writer and activist Agunda Okeyo tells us, it’s this: never underestimate the power of a good belly laugh.
The Nairobi-born, New York raised comedy maven is the creator and producer of “Sisters of Comedy,” the only all-black women stand-up comedy series at a top NYC comedy club. The show is run through Africa Underground, an entertainment production house founded by Okeyo, which showcases African Diaspora art. And today, Okeyo's showcase is seeing big Broadway lights.
“I can't even express how excited I am,” Okeyo said Wednesday. “To bring Sisters of Comedy to Caroline's on Broadway puts a smile across my face as a child of New York City. It's a beautiful thing.”
Black humor’s capacity to heal wounds of racism and sexism while hitting these systems where it hurts fuels Okeyo’s passion and work as a comedy producer daily.
A lot of people said it wasn’t possible. They thought I wouldn’t be able to find enough talent.
”You don’t really think about it a lot but in most African Diaspora families, humor is a part of the scenario,” Okeyo said. “It helps us with the real structural issues that we’re dealing with politically whether it's colonialism or slavery or Jim Crow or apartheid.”
A first generation immigrant to the United States, Okeyo says she is confronted with racism, sexism and other forms of oppression all the time. As a young child, she remembers having a strong inclination to combat social constructs. Now, she sees it as a calling. Her weapon of choice: a platform for good jokes.
The “Sisters of Comedy” series, which launched last year, has been lauded as a “Critics’ pick” of Time Out New York Magazine. Okeyo’s latest ventures include a regular showcase "Comedy n' Waffles,” which she produces at Ginny's Supper Club at Red Rooster Harlem. She is also in the process of penning a book about systemic inequality in the United States with particular criticism of higher education.
An installment of “Sisters of Comedy” this summer at Gotham Comedy Club featured an all-star comedic line-up with author and comedian Sunda Croonquist as the headliner along with Chloe Hilliard from NBC’s Last Comic Standing as emcee.
NBCBLK attended the sold-out show which wasn’t scarce on belly laughs, drinks, “whoos” and “forreals” from the crowd. The performers touched on everything from black hair stories to crazy dating situations to getting catcalled by stray street cats. Each comic had a different story to tell. Their style and swag in telling their story was distinct.
As “Sisters of Comedy” continues to grow in popularity with word of mouth and social media shares, Okeyo admits it was not always this way. The idea that black women can fill a comedic space was unthinkable to naysayers.
“When I first started doing my show, there were no all black women line-ups in any of the top three clubs in the city,” she said. “A lot of people said it wasn’t possible. They thought I wouldn’t be able to find enough talent.”
Some black female comics see a lack of imagination on the part of the comedy industry gatekeepers to put black women in roles that do not fall into what comic Hadiyah Robinson calls the “bitch with the attitude and the neck roll,” or what scholar Patricia Hill Collins terms “modern mammy” in her book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism.
“They think white America or mainstream America isn’t ready to accept a woman of color as a neutral person with no agenda,” Hilliard said. “You have Queen Latifah, you have Oprah and now you have Kerry Washington, but those are actresses or TV personalities. When it comes to someone who can show wit and humor and sass and intellect, they feel like a white mom from Wisconsin wouldn’t want to see a black female comic.”
These discussions on comedy diversity are not new. Earlier this Fall, controversy ensued surrounding The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s all-white, male-dominated writing staff.
There are people who don’t see black women as beautiful. She might be funny but she’s not beautiful.
These comedic diversity debates are not exclusive to the network level. Students at the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy training school, say these problems persist in the classroom. One student, Rita Chinyere detailed her experience at UCB in a post for Medium.
In the post, Chinyere writes, “As someone who is not a current performer at UCB and likely never will be, I have nothing to lose. I will gladly sound the alarm. UCB does not care about black people or minorities. It does, has done and will continue to do the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining diversity not unlike the entertainment industry at-large.”
Hilliard said she was not aware of the obstacles black female comedians faced until she entered the industry. Before pursuing a career in comedy, Hilliard had dreams of being a broadcast journalist so she took a comedy class to build a quick retort during interviews. After completing the course, she fell in love with the craft.
For Hilliard and other black women comics, the stakes are especially higher. Robinson believes the lack of pipelines for black women in stand-up comedy also coincide with Eurocentric beauty standards.
“There are people who don’t see black women as beautiful,” she told NBCBLK. “She might be funny but she’s not beautiful.”
Croonquist, who identifies as black and Jewish, says she has an even harder time getting booked because she is perceived as not being “black enough.”
“There’s a dearth of black women in comedy in terms of showcases and I want to be a part of that and for some reason, I’m never chosen,” she said.
The author of cookbook Kosher Soul Food said she feels empowered by the sisterhood that Okeyo’s series creates.
The “Sisters of Comedy” series is a radical effort to provide a place and make a space where black female humor can reside without remorse. It showcases the joie de vie (joy of life) that is effortlessly present in the black female experience while challenging the cultural legitimacy of oppressive structures and questioning authority.
“It allows us to be human,” as Hilliard put simply. “For some reason, people don’t look at black women as being human. They don’t look at us as being vulnerable or weird. We don’t get to show our insecurities. We don’t get to show any other emotion other than rage and it allows people to see we’re just like them."
For tickets to the upcoming Sisters of Comedy showcase, visit the Caroline's website. Wednesday's show will feature special guest Michaela Angela Davis, Editorial Manager at BET Network, in a nontraditional segment with her take on the revolutionary power of laughter.