Last night, I went to see Everything is Great Again, the current sketch-comedy show running at The Second City in Toronto. In my favourite sketch, a (white) yoga instructor (Lindsay Mullan) is spewing her Namastes and gushing to the three yogis (all non-white) that she doesn’t see colour. She leaves the room, and as they continue stretching, the three yogis talk about how they hate it when people say that.
“Is she blind?” one of them asks.
Then, as good comedians might, they go on to explain the particular shade of their skin using food similes. The woman in the centre (played by Paloma Nuñez) admits, “I’m a custard yellow right now, but give me 24 HOURS in the sun!,” and the audience laughs, and I think, yes, and I think, this sketch gets it: how we're often asked to prove, even perform our race, our colour, for others.
Dealing with racism and homophobia in other sketches, the show opts for a different approach in this one by addressing internal conflicts felt by people of colour, conflicts that often manifest themselves as guilt. As the sketch develops, each character accuses the other of not being a proper person of colour, as not being rightly of their culture.
A West Indian man (played by Brandon Hackett) is asked how he can claim to be a black man when his favourite show is Downtown Abbey. Fine then. He dares Nuñez's character to speak Spanish. The only Spanish she knows is “Dos cervezas por favor.” She manages to say it, with difficulty, and the crowd laughs. She is embarrassed, guilt-ridden. The third character (played by Ann Pornel), admits that she too, doesn’t speak the language of her ancestors. “When I order dim sum,” she shouts at the front of the stage, her face contorted under the bright lights, “I have to point to what I want!” She hides her eyes for shame! We laugh.
These admissions set off a chain reaction. Each character continues to admit all the ways in which they betray their culture. Hackett’s character admits that he has more white friends than black friends, that when a past boyfriend sexualized his black penis, he only replied, “then ride that anaconda, ride it.”
Nuñez, who is also part Jewish, has her character admit with exaggerated shame, that the only time she’s ever embraced her Jewish heritage was to go on a Birth Right trip.
Finally, Pornel’s character points to an Asian woman in the crowd, and screams, “My ancestor!” The fourth-wall broken, we laugh. She goes on to talk about the embarrassment she felt, growing up, whenever her parents spoke English, how she hated their accent, imitating it so that we laugh, too, and yet it's a strange, nervous laughter - what are we complicit in when we laugh with her (at her?) ?
At one point, the three of them are standing close together on centre stage. Hackett’s character says: “We may have forgotten our histories but history won’t forgot us.” The audience laughs at the grammatical mistake (I could unpack this, too, but I'll go on). I try to wrap my head around the idea (could it be true? Could this be the idea that absolves me of my guilt?), but the sketch moves faster than me, and of course, like everyone else around me, in this small, dark intimate space, I am laughing.
And inside of my head, while I’m laughing, the entire time, I’m thinking, yes, yes, yes. This is how I feel most of the time. Like a traitor to myself. But “you have to do you,” one character tells another, the white spotlight shining on them in the middle of the stage.
The sketch ends when all three realize that all of these admissions have been said under a white light. “What the fuck?” one of them says. We laugh. They dismiss their admissions. The stage goes black.
This sketch was brilliant. To, in the end, acknowledge that this was a white space after all, makes it so that we have to recognize our laughter as participating within this historical and political framework of colonialism, racist bullshit, assimilation, etc.
By laughing, we forgive the characters, who by this point are guilty, shamed, and embarrassed.
But by pointing out the white light on the stage, they tell us they haven't forgiven us, and who are we to forgive them? They're well aware of the white-gaze, of the performance of race.
As a writer of colour, grappling with my understanding of what it means even to be that, the sketch felt liberating. By laughing, I got to forgive myself, too, for all the small, important ways I've been a "bad" Persian. And, maybe, if history won’t "forgot" us, as Bartlett's character says, it’s because we are increasingly moving into white spaces, changing them, and in this way, making history. You will see my colour, and I will not be forgotten.
The show runs until mid-July. Highly recommend!