How One New Yorker is Making Space for Black Women Comedians

In 2014, writer-activist-producer Agunda Okeyo dreamed up Sisters of Comedy, a monthly showcase that features Black women comedians at Caroline’s on Broadway. Okeyo started producing the show, which was originally held at Gotham Comedy Club, because she’d been working in comedy clubs and wanted to have a bigger impact in the industry.


Okeyo grew up with a third-generation African feminist mother, who went to Harvard and now lives in Kenya. Sisters of Comedy is one of Okeyo’s forms of activism. The showcase is one way she passes on the knowledge she inherited from her mother.

She faced criticism when she started producing the show. People wondered if Black women could fill a room, and how long it would last. The answer to the former question is yes.
The two-and-a-half year old show, which is run through Okeyo’s Africa Underground, an entertainment production house, has sustained because of the relationships she cultivated. That’s how she finds comedians to perform every month. Relationships and the support that they bring keep the show going. “In order for this thing to survive, I need the support of Black women,” Okeyo adds.

She chose to produce Sisters of Comedy instead of perform so she could make sure the showcase lived. “Being a producer is different because it’s not centered around me,” Okeyo said. “I’m able to build it up.”

Before Sisters of Comedy, Okeyo said she rarely saw Black women performing on stage. Now, there are Black women doing shows all over.

She plans to continue building on the momentum. “There are spaces that don’t exist for Black women that White men have,” she said, noting her desire to also create a more opportunities for Black women comedians to grow as performers.

April 7, 2016 - Sisters of Comedy featuring comedians Agunda Okeyo, Gina Yashire, Kerry Coddett, Joyelle Johnson, Franchesca Ramsey, Sasheer Zamata, Yamaneika Saunders at Caroline's in NYC credit Jen Maler

April 7, 2016 – Sisters of Comedy featuring comedians Agunda Okeyo, Gina Yashire, Kerry Coddett, Joyelle Johnson, Franchesca Ramsey, Sasheer Zamata, Yamaneika Saunders at Caroline’s in NYC credit Jen Maler

A source for that growth, she said, is to give more Black women a chance to perform and learn from one another. “Healthy competition is important,” she said. “I have high hopes for systemic change with Sisters of Comedy,” Okeyo said.

Okeyo discussed the need for sustainable comedic spaces within the Black community. She said that usually when Black comedians become successful, “it often means they have access to white spaces.” That access sometimes looks like being taken away from the Black community, altogether. 

“They tried to take Dave,” Okeyo joked, half seriously, in reference to the comedian who is most known for The Chappelle Show. “And he was like, I’m not trying to go there.”

Okeyo doesn’t want Black women comedians to be taken. “I don’t want to be taken,” she added. That’s part of why being in control of Sisters of Comedy is important to Okeyo. 

April’s show, which was dedicated to #SayHerName, featured Gina Yashere of The Tonight Show, Joyelle Johnson of Funny or Die, Franchesca Ramsey of The Nightly Show, and Sasheer Zamata of Saturday.

 

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