We talked to the busy comic/producer/nurse about her Things Black Girls Say show, the SheDot Festival, and how her material about being a mom might be the thing comedy bros find most uncomfortable.
We at Torontoist have been fans of stand-up comic Zabrina Chevannes for a while now; we included her in our Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh feature in 2012. Chevannes is still performing on stages all over the GTA, but lately, she’s also been producing the show Things Black Girls Say, where she gets to feature other black female comics she herself is a fan of.
This weekend, Chevannes will host a showcase in the SheDot Festival for female comedians, and also, a taping for Things Black Girls Say; this summer, she debuts her first full length show at the Toronto Fringe Festival (fellow funny Lady Rhiannon Archer is also debuting a one woman show in the same Fringe venue, the Theatre Passe Muraille Back Space).
We met up with Chevannes at Spirits Bar & Grill to talk comedy, specifically producing a show for and featuring black women, and how that could have a positive ripple effect for Toronto comedy, as the SheDot Festival is doing with female comics in general.
Torontoist: Let’s start with Things Black Girls Say. The first two shows sold out, yes?
Yeah! I started it because I’ve been doing the open mic circuit a while now, and it seemed like there wasn’t a lot of black women doing comedy [in Toronto]. There was me, and Keesha Brownie, and Dana Alexander, who lives in London [England] now, where she tours all the time successfully. But I’ve started finding other women; there was Aisha Alfa, who moved here from Winnipeg, and Aisha Brown… and one day I thought, “it’d be so cool to do an all black girl show,” and immediately after thought, “what—I can DO that! I know so many women now!”
Because at a lot of the open mics and stand up shows I’ve done, it’s been just me and a bunch of young white dudes, so obviously I’d feel out of place, like, “ohh… I don’t have any jokes about masturbation, but mostly about my kids.” I’d sometimes end up following the guys who talked about masturbation for six minutes by talking about old men and their junk, from being a nurse… and that would get so awkward.
So I called up Keesha, and we went out to The Nubian Show to promote it, and surprisingly, when we did the first show, a lot of black women came out. They were so into it.
You mentioned on Twitter that you started the show more because you didn’t see a lot of black women coming out to comedy shows. We’ve heard a lot about getting more black women on stage, but with an all black women line-up, you’re getting a lot of them out in the audience, which seems to be lost on some producers.
Yeah. The women can relate to the material, and for me, I can talk about being a black female, and I know I’ll get more understanding and acceptance from the crowd. Also, take away me being a black woman, and i’m still usually the only mother on stage at shows, and when I say, “yeah, I’ve got kids”, I’ll see some of these young white dudes in the audience who actually look kind of scared!
After the TBGS shows, I’ve had women coming up to tell me about how their dad is just like mine, and their family is just like mine. So that’s cool.
I know a lot of other black women, and mothers, and they’re not usually going to be much interested in seeing a lot of the shows I get booked on, where I’m the only woman, for instance. They want to see a few more comics that they’ll relate to. For our show, it hasn’t been all black women; I had Sandra Battaglini on the first show, and Ernie Vicente, who’s Filipino, on the last one. It’s just, the majority of the bill will be black females.
Are you hoping for a trickle down effect – to see the women on your bills getting booked on more open mics and comedy shows around Toronto, like yourself? You’re one of the busiest comics in Toronto; you’ve done shows all over town.
Oh, yeah – I’ll do Laugh Sabbath, and Spirits open mic, and just last week I did a show that was an all vegan crowd… I’ll go up everywhere. But I get why some of the women find it weird to be in the green room with other comedians, and they’re having conversations where you’ll just feel so out of place. As a comic, you just want to be able to get up on stage and have people who relate to you; it’s not even a race issue, in a way.
There was a really wide variety of cultures at your last TBGS show; comics were talking about their Island ancestry – Trinidad, Jamaica, the Caribbean – or their African background, or of being mixed race, for instance.
It was so diverse – you have all these black women on the bill, but we all come from really different backgrounds. It can be really weird; like, I remember being at a show with two black comics on it, and one of them said, “isn’t it redundant to have two black guys on the bill?” Stuff like that is so annoying, ’cause we’re all so different! I wanted to show you could have all these black women on a show, but you’ll get such a different experience watching each comic. I mean, is it redundant when you have all white guys on a comedy bill?
Which many, by default, are.
I don’t know if it’ll make much of a difference. I really just want to put on a successful show.
But it really does. in that same Twitter discussion, comics were pointing out that it’s really just lazy of bookers and producers of comedy shows not to have more diverse bills. But having a show like Things Black Girls Say do well means they can come out, see the show getting full houses, and start booking comics on your bill for their own shows, like, a pot friendly show in the East End, or an open mic downtown.
Oh, totally! Lianne Mauladin, who does the Mary Janes of Comedy show, she came out, and told me after, ‘I can’t believe I haven’t seen so many of these women!’ So she’s booked some of them on her show now. I think a lot of producers just don’t know there’s all these black women doing comedy in Toronto.
We’re taping this weekend, and my ultimate goal is to take it to clubs and see if we can book a tour with the show, maybe even take it to the States.
Let’s talk a bit about the SheDot Festival that’s on this weekend, too. Because women in comedy faced a lot of the same issues we’re talking about here, and it’s gotten a lot better in recent years—to the point that there’s enough women doing comedy in Toronto to sustain a whole festival.
For sure—it’s so much better. Last year‘s [SheDot Festival] was amazing. Maybe a year and a half back, I did a podcast with Martha O’Neill, one of the producers of the festival, and she was telling me about the idea. And a few months later, here were all these amazing women — from Toronto, from Canada, even the States—in one place.
In Boston, they have a women in comedy festival, which was great, but when I was there, I didn’t feel it the way I did here. Because the Toronto fest is run by all these amazing comedians – all the producers are so funny – and it’s different when something’s run by comedians, rather than fans of comedy, y’know? And last year’s SheDot was so well organized, and the shows were all packed, and everyone was so friendly and supportive, and the whole festival, I felt like I wanted to be there for every moment. The Americans loved how, well, you know the whole cliche about Canadians being so friendly. It was the most fun experience, both on and off stage. I loved it.
This year, you’re hosting the Unleashed show?
Yeah, Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. in the [Comedy Bar] main space. It’s going to be a dirty show. I might lead with some material about my kids off the top, trick the audience a bit before it gets really raunchy, ease them into it. All the girls on the bill are great, so it’s going to be a lot of fun—Saturday night, and then Sunday night, too.