Black Women in Comedy Festival unites ‘overlooked’ comedians on new platform

Crown Heights comedian Meshelle was passed over time and time again when auditioning for HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” during the late 1990s.

“I was pregnant each time I auditioned, which might have had something to do with them wondering how serious I was about my comedy,” she told amNewYork. “That entire time, I got no stage time unless I did it myself.”

Being overlooked is nothing new for many female comics, especially those of color, but a new event will give them the spotlight — The Black Women in Comedy Festival.

The inaugural festival will feature more than 40 comedians across four Brooklyn venues between Feb. 28 and March 3, including Meshelle, founder Joanna Briley, Calise Hawkins and Pat Brown, who have been involved with shows like the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “BET ComicView,” the former “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and others.

“This is about having a platform,” Meshelle said. “The festival is not a separatist kind of movement and it’s not coming from a space of bitterness or disregard, it’s coming from a place of greater inclusion.” 

Meshelle joined the festival because she has been "overlooked" many a time and wanted to support the new platform.
Meshelle joined the festival because she has been "overlooked" many a time and wanted to support the new platform. Photo Credit: Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater NY

The 45-year-old self-described “Indie-Mom of Comedy,” started her career by producing a one-woman show, “Diary of a MILF: Mother I’d Love to Follow,” and has since risen with spots on numerous BET comedy shows, Nickelodeon’s “Search for the Funniest Mom in America,” and countless live shows.

“I produced and created [the one-woman show] out of frustration of being overlooked,” she said. “When people in the industry think about black women who are funny, they think about us in a linear way — while we do share an ethnic background, we are all so different. The general belief is that we all have conversations about soul food, dating and parenting … but we all deserve to hear the other stories and have a safe place to do it without being harassed for our gender or ostracized for having opinions about all of those things.” 

That was MTA station agent Joanna Briley’s goal when she decided to create the festival late last year. 

The 50-year-old Crown Heights resident has been doing stand-up for 15 years. Her one-woman show, “Swipe This: My Life in Transit,” uses the metaphor of an MTA ticket booth for the transitions we go through in life, and Briley has also done a show with other transit workers called “Laff Tracks.”

“As you know, MTA workers get a lot of crap,” she said. “My job is to get out there, laugh and engage with them so they see that we are regular people.”

Last year, she started questioning why there weren’t more women of color in the city’s comedy festivals, including those dedicated to female comedians and those in the LGBTQ community, and “got empowered,” she said.

“This was my baby that I always had in the back of my head and I just didn’t know how to unleash it,” she said.

In just three months, Briley found dozens of comedians and black, women and LGBTQ-owned venues in Bed-Stuy to host the festival. 

While the performers will have the freedom to present what they want, two shows are set with themes. The first, “Icons of Comedy,” will have comedians choose a comedy icon from the past or present who has empowered them or inspired them to get on stage. Another, “Black Don’t Crack,” will feature comedians who will have you guessing their age because they’re so youthful, Briley said while laughing.

The festival is also inclusive of LGBTQ comedians because “they are also underrepresented in the community and are part of the whole diaspora of black women,” Briley added. “There are so many of us in the pool together and we should unite so we can have a platform.” 

Joanna Briley, an MTA token booth worker, created the festival out of hopes for a platform for otherwise overlooked black female comedians.
Joanna Briley, an MTA token booth worker, created the festival out of hopes for a platform for otherwise overlooked black female comedians. Photo Credit: Fort47 Films

Meshelle said she plans on talking about “owning your womanism,” which she defines as celebrating the beauty of being a woman, which also means being real about what life throws at you.

“I’ve been married for so long, I talk about what life will be like after marriage; I talk about raising kids. I talk about being a vegan for 20 years when it wasn’t cool, raising black, vegan babies in Baltimore; doing Kwanzaa presentations with my kids at white, Anglo-Saxon schools; and being the only black girl at bar mitzvahs,” she said.

“I am so grateful that Joanna had the ovaries to plan something.”

If you go: Individual shows are $15 but festival passes can be bought for $50 to $100. Shows will be within walking distance from each other — Brooklyn House of Comedy, Joloff Restaurant, Tilly’s BKLYN, The Corners BK. Head to eventbrite for more information and tickets.