SNL Adds Sasheer Zamata to Its Cast - But Will Things Change?


Yesterday, Saturday Night Live announced that Sasheer Zamata would be the newest cast member of the show. Her hire comes after two cast members, Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson, said they would no longer dress in drag to play the role of black women in sketches, as well as outcry over the reality that there hasn’t been a black woman on the SNL cast since 2007 when Maya Rudolph, who is biracial, was a regular . 

There is no mistaking all people deserve a chance to sit at the slapstick table, but the keepers of comedy's Camelot aren’t always thinking beyond the scope of what they see. In its 38 years of syndication, only a dozen of those years included black women in their cast. As excited as I am for Zamata, I am equally worried for the 27-year-old up-and-coming comedian.

Zamata is a perfect fit for the cast, from the way she holds herself on stage, to the inflections in her voice, to her natural hair – she looks the part of an All-American girl. Yes, that kind of All-American girl. Often times we forget that black women “are, too, America”. That they are an intricate part of the thread of this fabric, and their craft and talent shouldn’t be simply reserved for Black History Month, MLK day, and national Oprah day.

Diversifying a cast, of a long-standing show like SNL, is not about merely having a black woman, or some supposed affirmative-action push for equality. It’s about equity, creating a space where all people have the opportunity to showcase skills. But alas, some comedians share the sentiments of Kenan Thompson; they feel like black women comedians aren’t “ready”.

But who’s really not ready? I had the opportunity to chat with Cleveland comedian John Bruton. His insight, albeit abrasive, really challenged my thinking. Without him knowing about Zamata’s selection for SNL I simply asked: “Thoughts on the new SNL hire?” His immediate response was: “Who’s the new cast member? A black woman? If they don’t have new writers … nothing will change.” The truth is, we don’t know what the writers look like, and regardless to how meaningful it is to have myriad people in front of the camera, it is almost more important to have diversity holding the pen and paper. [Editor's update: today the Hollywood Reporter said that SNL has also hired two black female writers for the show.]

The conversation quickly turned to pacification. Bruton is of the mind that Zamata is a part of the cast “because someone complained, not because she earned it”. The idea that if people complain enough they will be pacified until a change is made, and as soon as they turn their heads to another issue to rally around, the problem quietly reverts back until it is pointed out again; perpetuating the cycle of temporary access and long-term exclusion.

With Zamata in tow, SNL is able to show again that comedy works with multiple hair types, skin colors, genders, and cultures. I’m hoping that she can thrive on this cast for years to come; that her comedy isn't subscribed to having to speak for her entire race; and that she's able to be a pivotal part of a new SNL, which pulls from the entire spectrum of the people of color experience. There are thousands of layers to the black woman, and often times you only see a few of those layers in the media. No matter who you are, it's important to see someone who looks like you, even if it isn’t a perfect representation.

I’m pulling for you, Sasheer.

I’m also pulling for LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones.The two women have been slotted to be behind the pen and paper writing for the show. Kudos to SNL for beginning the work of equity in front – and behind – the camera. Adding people of color isn’t about increasing their ratings, it is about broadening the story. Ratings just happen to be a side-effect. 

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