When the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square hosted the first “Women of Color in Comedy” festival in the Boston area seven years ago, a PC heckler shouted “Why don’t you do this more than once a year?” at host and owner Rick Jenkins.
UNSAFE: Karith Foster lost an Apollo Theater competition because she “wasn’t ghetto enough.”
As usual, Jenkins had a snappy and factual comeback: “We do. These comedians appear here all the time.”
What was different about that evening — which spawned a festival that’s grown into a three-night affair at a larger venue, this Friday through Sunday at Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway in Somerville — is that all the comedians were appearing together instead of scattered over a month’s different bills.
Jenkins’s rationale for founding the event was simple: “Boston comedy has a reputation of being a stronghold for middle-aged Irish and Italian guys. The reality is that it’s more diverse than people realize. My fear was that it would be seen as trivializing these women — that they’d be seen as women of color rather than what they are, which is some of the best comedians around.”
He needn’t have worried. Not only is the event today considered one of the annual highlights of the Boston scene, it’s firmly under the control of the comedians themselves. It also has a new name, “ColorStruck: Boston’s Seventh Annual Women of Color in Comedy Festival,” and it will feature a dozen performers this year, though not all of them will appear every night.
The new name was the idea of Dorchester’s Deb Farrar-Parkman, who’s also an Emmy-winning TV producer. She helped Jenkins with the first festival and has remained a performer and organizer. “ColorStruck is a term used to describe black people who are attracted to lighter-skinned black people. Here it has another connotation — of attracting people to the idea that this festival is of women of color. With comedians who are black and Asian all coming together, color is definitely going to be one of the topics, but so is romance and family and, really, everything any comedian would talk about.”
Since none of the comedians is a household name, the festival also creates a level of interest that none would have on her own. That gives its performers the opportunity to lure talent scouts and to showcase themselves as a group — which in turn leads to gigs for individuals and generates more dates for the festival line-up at colleges and other larger venues. In addition to Farrar-Parkman, this year’s roster includes Sandy Asai and Bethany Van Delft (Boston), Janet Cormier (Jamaica Plain), Coleen Galvin (Providence), Tissa Hami (Weston), Malissa Hunt (Braintree), Jen Ruelas (Salem), Ester Ku (Belmont), Sheila Jackson (Portland), and Vijai Nathan and Karith Foster (New York).
Foster, who’s originally from Texas but speaks more like a Valley Girl, is a particular contrast to the DefJam-style female comic. Even competing on stage at the Apollo, where humor tends to be generic, she stuck to her biographical observation humor. “I lost because I wasn’t ghetto enough, but I could tell that the audience was really enjoying listening to my own stories and seeing somebody who wasn’t neck-shaking or finger-wagging. . . . The comedy business focuses on what it thinks is safe and what it knows, assuming that’s what people will like. So this festival is really about letting people know there are other women comedians of color besides Wanda Sykes who have something funny and original to say.”