I watched Saturday Night Live this past weekend, eager to see the star of Scandal, Kerry Washington host. Though, on the heels of the conversation around the lack of Black women in the cast, it was entirely possible that expectations would be too high to make the show anything but a disappointment.
The diversity discussion was addressed immediately in the cold open:
The sketch wasn't so much a wink to the audience as a promise; a wait-and-see acknowledgement and plea to not give up on the show quite yet.
There was a lot of good that happened throughout the show -- like Jay Pharoah having a chance to shine and show off his non-impersonation comedic skills, as well as the talent of many of the female cast members. Most of all, Kerry Washington was terrific with her energy, timing, physical comedy and interpretation of the material she was given to work with.
What was not so terrific was the material Washington was given to work with. I felt sad and defeated much of the time watching the show. It felt obvious to me that the diversity problem is as much in the back of the house (writing staff) as it is in the front of the house (cast).
Some reviewers managed to see past what wounded me to highlight some elements that worked. Probably they went in with a different perspective and set of expectations than I did. If you didn't watch the show, you can read the recaps at The Huffington Post and Vulture, and watch clips of the sketches, and see if you agree.
The review that hit closest to home in capturing my feelings after watching was by Soraya Nadia McDonald in the Washington Post. Ms. McDonald also felt the lack of diversity in the writing room.
Saturday’s broadcast revealed that the biggest weak spot isn’t the lack of diversity in “SNL’s” cast (though that’s certainly troubling); it’s the lack of diversity in its writing room. SNL has no idea how to write about black women without referencing the same tired tropes that follow us through media.
The diversity discussion around SNL and, specifically, Black women was launched by an interview with cast member Kenan Thompson, who said both that he would no longer play Black women in drag and that there were no Black women on the show because in auditions they are "not ready."
Many years ago, I helped out a friend who ran The Groundlings' box office by working there on weekends. During that time, they had an interim director and were looking for a permanent replacement to run the theater and their programs. I applied and offered an extensive plan for what I would do if I got the job. One of my key initiatives was that the Groundlings would do outreach to increase the number of young people of color taking their classes and ultimately joining their performing troupes.
Saturday Night Live auditions are by invitation only. Lorne Michaels has to hear of you, and decide that you're intriguing enough to consider. This has long limited the pool of potential SNL players to primarily performers at the Groundlings in Los Angeles, Second City in Chicago, and stand-ups working in New York -- and, later, the Upright Citizens Brigade. Many, if not most, of the success stories from SNL have one of those launching pads in their background. That's why diversity in those theaters matters.
Second City and UCB both have diversity programs (I am both a little thrilled and saddened that UCB includes age in its diversity outreach, but that it starts at over 35). The Groundlings has enough talented Black alumni to create the popular show The Black Version. And it's all important and all good. But in 2013, there are so many other avenues to find diverse talent. Lorne Michaels does not have to go to three theaters in big cities to find great talent. All one needs these days is a laptop and an internet connection.
There are Black women and Asian comics and funny people of all kinds across the country for Lorne Michaels to fall in love with and hire both to write and to perform. Kerry Washington proved last night that talent is talent. I hope SNL means what it said about things changing soon, and that it happens before they fall in love with any more Matthew McConaugheys.
Did you watch Saturday Night Live with Kerry Washington? What did you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Maria Niles blogs at PopConsumer
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