An Interview With Agunda Okeyo
Agunda Okeyo is, above all, an activist. While her work spans from the writing desk to the director’s chair, all of her projects have a unifying focus: raising awareness about feminism and the neo-civil rights movement.
One of the more famous events she organizes is "Sisters of Comedy," a comedy show that features comediennes of color and which is hosted at comedy club Caroline’s in New York, the city she calls home. Established in 2014, the show also centers around a different, socially relevant theme each year. It's especially important because it grants a voice to women of color in show business, proving to the comedy world that women of color can (of course) be funny and fill theater seats.
Ms. Okeyo spoke to us about this important work.
David Guirgis: Female comics are few and far between in the comedy world — especially WOC comics. What work needs to be done to ensure this ceiling is broken?
Agunda Okeyo: I think there needs to be more talented comedians given the opportunity to headline shows. Often bookers explain away a lack of diversity by claiming there are not enough top notch talents out there who are women or WOC — hence only one getting through the door at a time. But with greater opportunity to perform in some of these white male spaces, people will be surprised to find the talent is out there. Further, as a black woman producing shows, I strongly believe in diversity on stage and behind the scenes. By virtue of my position, for nearly 3 years now I have actively made diversity an imperative. It's where everything starts me.
DG: Unfortunately, the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault in the comedy world has also recently come to light. What are your experiences navigating the culture of misogyny as you manage and create events such as Sisters of Comedy?
AO: It might sound strange, but I grew up with only brothers and have made it a point to understand the thought processes of men. I know progressive men, like my brothers, and I know sexist men, like Trump. Men who indulge in misogyny have extremely fragile egos and, in my experience, are loath to relinquish their perceived power; thus much like with racists, I don't attempt to change their mind with words (though I enjoy a good debate). I affect change with actions. I work hard, compete, and actively seek to disavow them of their misguided opinions by being successful at what I uniquely can do, by any means necessary.
DG: Your theme this year is "dedicated to equality and tolerance in light of an increasingly polarizing election cycle." In July, however, you co-sponsored a show with Black Lives Matter to raise funds for BLM Pasadena's Jasmine Abdullah. How does your project and work address intersectionality, consider that "mainstream" BLM has been criticized in the past by somefor its different responses to women and LGBT+ individuals?
AO: I think BLM is wholeheartedly intersectional and inclusive of LBGTQ folks, especially since two of the three women who founded BLM are also queer. I myself produce the only all black woman comedy show at any of the top clubs in NYC and am pansexual. All this is to say that my show, though geared towards the black community and fully committed to black women, is an inclusive space for all people to laugh, reflect and celebrate. I would say the same is true for BLM as committed to the call that "black lives matter," but not at the expense of other lives and inclusive of all allies who wish to answer the call.
DG: In light of recent events, specifically the rise of sexism and racism in the wake of Donald Trump, what do you want the public to take away from both the material of the stand-up comedians and the fact that such an event is being held to begin with?
AO: As a child of this city, raised in the Bronx, and as an immigrant, black woman, and activist, I am deeply concerned about the violence attached to these sexist and racist energies coursing through American society right now. I mean look at the abuse that brilliant comedian Leslie Jones is contending with — her website being hacked revealing private information, nude photos and images of a gorilla (LOVE for Leslie J!). That's outrageous and that's Trump's America. Two Muslim Bangladeshi men were gunned down in the street just two weeks ago in Queens for no reason other than hate. That's Trump's America. An interracial couple was stabbed in Washington last week after a white supremacist saw them kissing. That's Trump's America.
Comedy in its best form tells the truth. And now more than ever we need some truth saying AND some levity. The truth is America is a nation inexorably formed by the labor and creative genius of African American people. America is a nation of immigrants, unlike any other nation in the world. And America is a nation of all kinds of love across race, gender, sexuality and class. We need our sanity back and I'm hoping we get back to basics together, even just a few hours, on September 1st.
DG: Intersectionality seems to be the overarching theme of all the Sisters of Comedy events you've held. Why is it so important for intersectionality to play into different social movements?
AO: Intersectionality is the air we breathe! Black women, specifically a hero of mine — Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw of Columbia and Stanford, who coined the idea in the 1980s and more recently launched the #SayHerName campaign — have always known that you can cannot see the whole picture without all of the parts that affect that picture. We will NEVER attain true liberation without recognizing all the facets of oppression and how they feed into one another.
For instance, the black power movement suffered from deep misogyny and one could argue that was a major facet of its demise by marginalizing and abusing women, and undermining its own power by mistreating the critical contributions of black womanhood. During reconstruction, movements bringing white and black people together on shared class issues were undermined when race was reintroduced. It was a means of privilege for some and subjugation for others via Jim Crow and that harmed everybody. Looking at the global financial crisis — that white privilege was a smoke screen. The crisis showed people that no one is above the abuse of power by the super wealthy and entitled, it was probably a big wake up call for those with white privilege who thought they're gender or race and class "saved" them from the abuse of those with concentrated power. If we don't look the whole picture and how oppression like racism or sexism or classism or homophobia feed off of one another, we simply will never get free. History shows us that.
The fact is that I'm a feminist, I'm a black woman, and I love stand-up comedy. I really think the "doing" is how you affect people, as hard as it can be. Again, nearly three years on with Sisters of Comedy and I've never had any man or woman say, "well, that was a waste of time" or " that wasn't funny." I actively collect written comments and talk with people, too. Without having to literally say it, people feel the inclusion and how that doesn't erode a good time. A black African woman produced a comedy show and fundamentally everyone had a blast. That experience is a feminist experience, whether one knows it or not, but what they feel is what they remember. So I hope those who attend my shows keep chasing that feeling. On September 1st the room will be inclusive and electric, just the way I like it!
Sisters of Comedy: Make America Sane Again will be performed on September 1st at Carolines. For more information and tickets, click here.
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