Monday, August 10, 2009
Interview with a Comic Diva: Yamaneika Saunders
So, a couple of Sundays each month, David and I mosey up the street to the queer night spot Therapy in Hell's Kitchen for the comedy show hosted by Brad Loekle. Now, sometimes the show is a little bit on the wakka wakka side. In general, the first comic of the night, to put it gently, sucks yeast infected nuts. Not always, but sometimes. In general, as the show progresses, so does the talent. In general, the headliner never fails. Sometimes, though, the headliner blows your friggin' mind.
Yamaneika Saunders was the headliner, and she not only blew my mind...she blew it up. I was picking up pieces of my medulla oblongata off of peoples tables, from under bar stools, and out of folks' cosmos. This woman was a raw talent for tellin' the damn truth in a way that will have you laughing with her and at yourself. She uses comedy to examine the world, pick it up, shake it, and set it down again...giggling.
After the show, bold as brass, I stalked Yama. I also asked her if she would be willing to be interviewed for my little piece of the World Wide Web. She graciously agreed, and here is her dynamite interview. I can't wait to see where she goes, because she is going to go further than, I think, she even dreams about. Thank you Yama for taking the time to respond to these questions, and I am sending you much love.
You are funny as hell...a comedienne extraordinaire...what first pushed you to take the stage and make folks laugh? What is it that you get from being a comedienne?
Yamaneika: Aww, Thank you, Brandon . The first person who got me into stand-up was, surprisingly enough, my mother. We were living in LA and she (my mother) was taking stand-up classes with Sandi Shore. After talking to Sandi about me and how funny she thought I was, my mother enrolled me in a comedy class w/ Sandi per Sandi's request. Each class Sandi taught ended in a showcase, and I was fortunate enough that Sammy Shore (Father of Sandi and Pauly Shore) was the host for the showcase. Sammy pulled me to the side after the showcase and told me that I shouldn't take any more classes because I was ready to do it without training. Before all that happened, I was on my way to becoming a political science major w/ the hopes of being the first black female Supreme Court Justice.
Your persona on stage is a fierce, no shit taking, black woman that radiates a type of strong-black-woman ferocity that I recognize from my own family...off stage you are sweet as a peach...tell me a little bit about these two personas and how they interact with one another?
Yamaneika:My grandmother and my upbringing are responsible for my duality on stage and in life. I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, in a middle-class family, attended private school, and I am a granddaughter of ministers. There is this very religious side of me: the side that believes in Jesus and prays. That side is very sensitive and worries about others, would volunteer at a shelter and all that Mother Teresa shit! I go home at night and cry because I feel like I should be doing more to help the world, but I just don't know how! That's who I am when you meet me off stage: very sensitive, proper, and quiet.
However, when its time to perform you have to bring that alter ego out. That exaggerated side of you that needs to be heard. The character you see on stage is the person who says the things I would like to say in real life, but I just don’t have the balls to say. I’m so concerned off stage with hurting people’s feelings and disrespecting people that I often limit what I say to people that I don’t know.
Your beauty and blackness are front and center when you take the stage...how does your racial identity inform your comedy?
Yamaneika: I was blessed to come from a family that believed in telling you how beautiful you are. I grew up with an abundance of self-esteem and worth. Even in school when I was teased for being the only minority and being chubby, I still held my head up high. Kids would call me a nigger to my face and I would say, “takes one to know one” or “don’t you wish you had these nigger looks?” I was so confident.
I have always happy to be who I am. I believe that if you love who you are then you aren’t threatened by loving people for they are.
It wasn’t until the 7th grade, when another black student came to our school, that I realized how strong I really was. This student was feeling a lot of pressure and was desperately trying to fit in. I understood how hard it was because there were no other minority children at this school, not even an Asian kid and they are everywhere! I spent a lot of time defending this young lady and talking to her. I realized that she needed a little of what I had even if I wasn’t always sure of my real strength. It was through pep talking this young lady, and encouraging her, that I really realized that I could make people laugh. When she was being attacked I would go up to the kids who picked on her and would snap on their asses so hard! I would cut them down to size, and then crowds would form and people would crack up. It got to the point where people used to love to taunt us just so I could go off in a comical rant! In hindsight, it defeated the purpose of diminishing attention around us, but it also became very fun. I experienced much racism at the school, but the one thing that broke the barrier was humor. Humor knows no color.
Comedy is a way for me to say to the little dark black girl "you are beautiful" or to the unloved woman "I love you". This society is structured to divide us on many levels. I hear from the industry all the time that I can't reach the important audiences (which to them are white males). I have just as many white men who approach me after a show, as anyone else. Am I a woman? Yes. Am I black? Yes. Am I a big girl? For now. But ask me if I had the same feelings this 19 to 35 year old male demographic had when I had my heart broken for the first time, had my feelings hurt, or when I heard my mothers voice over the phone. We all have things that connect us as humans, which are what I like to tap into.
On stage you seem to evoke the comedy styles of everyone from Moms Mabley and Aunt Esther to Monique...who are your influences?
Yamaneika: I think I evoke those feelings from some, because we like to categorize people to understand them. I have great respect for Moms Mabley and Lawanda Page [Aunt Ester from TV’s Sanford and Son], I definitely have watched and listened to them and respect their comedy styles. A lot of people compare me to Monique because we are both big girls and from Baltimore , MD, but that is where the similarities end.
My influences are Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce (I do have a few problems with Bruce, but I respect him), George Carlin, and Paul Mooney. I respect people who aren't afraid to go against the grain and speak their mind, like it or not. I like to push the envelope. I love when people say, "No, she didn't just go there!” I will go there, I live there, I bought a house there and I hope that eventually I'll have a few neighbors there so I can have a cook out in "Thereville.”
I spent the first few years of doing comedy being that reserved little girl that my grandma wanted me to be. Don't act ghetto because everyone is expecting that, remember that as a big girl people will expect this, as a woman people will expect that. That is too much shit to think about. Like Frank Sinatra said, "I Got To Be Me"!
As a full figured woman, you talk about size in your comedy. You work the body you have, and you work it well. How does the way that society treats folks that aren't a size 0 impact how you personally move through the world and how you decide what to bring into your stand up?
Yamaneika: Well, I try not to let being big define my material because I’m more than just my size. I have plus sized jokes because its relevant to my current life, but I don’t hate skinny girls. My material is very conversational so I try to focus on those things in my life that I can talk about and people can relate to, not everyone can relate to being fat so if I limited myself to that content I wouldn’t go very far.
I do think that being a big person has opened up different realities to me in this world, it can be a struggle sometimes. I also know that I have advantages, because (not be cocky) I am a “cute” girl so that helps me maneuver were some people who are plus sized and “unattractive” are restricted. I do feel an impulse when I see big people in the audience to do material that about being big, because my big jokes are uplifting and not self-deprecating. Big people laugh, cry, eat, shit and fuck just like the rest of the world.
Sometimes, comics will say its easier for a big girl to get up and make people laugh cause they think we are automatically funny. I disagree, at the end of the day I have to say funny stuff just like everyone else; no one is giving me pity laughs up there!
You are a straight woman (I am assuming here) that I met doing stand up in a queer bar...how does your sexuality come into play in your stand up? Your work resonated with folks in the audience despite sexuality differences, why do you think that is?
Yamaneika: As I said before, when we relate to one another on a human level race and sexuality can’t divide us. I grew up in a very religious household starting from the age of eight, but before we became so “sanctified” my grandparents owned a nightclub and my mother was the DJ. We knew how to party, and we knew how to socialize; I never lost that ability. When I’m on stage, I am there to have a good time. There was a time when I had a real fear that I would be rejecting God if I kept doing gay shows, or supporting my gay friends and then God said to me, “love”. I literally heard a voice say “love”. God put me here to send love and not to judge, that is what He does.
So, what I focus on is loving my audience and sharing my life with them. Let the rest of the people fight over those things. I don’t see race, I don’t see sexuality, I don’t see anything but another human being on the stage when I perform. I’ll never forget one night I was in Connecticut and there was a cute chubby guy in the front row. I said that I would love to take him home later on that night. He turned red and started to look a little uncomfortable, as if I was picking on him. He finally said, “I’m not what you think.” I said, “I know you’re gay, that’s why I’m hitting on you. I love a man who doesn’t want me, it’s a challenge”, and I threw him a little wink. He laughed and his friends relaxed. He came up to me after the show and said, “I loved you. You were the first comic who didn’t make me feel uncomfortable in this gayphobic town”. I could tell he thought I was going to make fun of him being gay, but what I noticed when I spoke to him from the stage is that he was trying hard to relax so I was going to help him relax!
Who gives a shit if I’m straight (well, every female comic these days is gay … so, I’m not making any commitments to that status) and who gives a shit if I’m a woman. I’ve been put down, I’ve been talked about, I’ve been rejected, and I’ve overcome. So, let’s talk about that shit so we can move on!
You are an amazing performer...how can folks that want to hear you, see you, love you find you in this big wide world of ours?
Yamaneika: My website YellinGirl.com is under construction, so people can check me out at www.facebook.com/yellinggirl. I keep peeps posted on my events. Don’t be afraid to add me!