- Created on 01 November 2013
This Oct. 29, 2013 photo released by NBC shows actress Kerry Washington, right, with cast member Taran Killam during a promotional shoot for "Saturday Night Live," in New York. Washington will host the late night comedy sketch series on Nov. 2. (AP Photo / NBC, Dana Edelson)
NEW YORK (AP) -- Kerry Washington's turn as host of "Saturday Night Live" this week gives that television institution something it hasn't seen much lately: a black woman onstage trying to make people laugh.
The show's diversity has become an issue, pushed to the forefront by comments from the two black male cast members.
No black women are among the 16 repertory or featured players currently on the show. While Eddie Murphy, Garrett Morris, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan and current cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah have been major "SNL" players, the 137 people who have been cast members since the show started on NBC in 1975 include four black women.
The most recent, and most prominent, was biracial Maya Rudolph, who left in 2007.
Founding producer Lorne Michaels, who is still the show's top executive and generally keeps the casting process mysterious, said he's well aware of the issue and is on the lookout for black women as potential cast members.
"It's not like it's not a priority for us," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday night. "It will happen. I'm sure it will happen."
Pharoah told the website The Grio recently that he hoped the show would have a black woman in its cast, and he had a suggestion: Darmirra Brunson.
"Why do I think she should be on the show?" he said. "Because she's black, first of all, and she's really talented. She's amazing. She needs to be on 'SNL.'"
It's not clear whether she was ever considered, although it's currently a moot point. Brunson is a cast member on Tyler Perry's show, "Love Thy Neighbor," on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network.
Thompson, who Michaels said is as good as anyone who's been on the show, blamed a lack of quality black comediennes. "It's just a tough part of the business, like in auditions," he told TV Guide. "They never find ones that are ready."
That didn't go over well in the comedy community, with several people coming forth with suggestions for Thompson. "It was kind of an unfortunate, unthinking thing to say," said Miriam Petty, a Northwestern University communications professor and expert on black popular culture.
Sketch comedy troupes like Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and the Groundlings are fertile ground for future cast members. Current players pass along recommendations, like when Tina Fey touted Amy Poehler. There are often specific needs: "SNL" was particularly seeking men this year because Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader left the show, and Seth Meyers is soon to graduate to his own weeknight show.
Michaels said "SNL" is particularly interested in sketch comedy experience, a different skill than stand-up. He also wants to make sure that a new cast member has some seasoning and won't be overwhelmed by the pace and attention.
"You don't do anyone a favor if they're not ready," he said.
Two of the black women who were on the show - Danitra Vance and Yvonne Hudson - lasted only one season each during the 1980s, although Michaels said that wasn't necessarily an indication they weren't ready. The third black woman cast member, Ellen Cleghorne, was on from 1991 to 1995.
There has often been criticism through the years that late-night comedy in general is a boy's club, particularly a white boy's club (There aren't any Asians or Hispanics on the show either, male or female, though cast member Nasim Pedrad is Iranian-American).
Petty said she didn't think there was a conscious effort to be exclusionary on "Saturday Night Live." "But when most of the people in the boardroom (making casting decisions) are white men, that's going to happen," she said.
The show still is an important part of the culture, and misses something when there's a lack of diversity, she said. She cited political humor as something that would benefit from different perspectives.
Discussing the issue on Roland Martin's radio show recently, comic Kym Whitley wryly noted, "They do have sisters on there - they're just brothers playing sisters."
Not anymore. Both Thompson and Pharoah are balking now at performing in drag. They won't put on wigs, makeup or dresses to portray Oprah Winfrey or Whoopi Goldberg, for example.
Performing in drag has been a contentious issue among black comics, even as people like Perry and Flip Wilson portrayed signature female characters. Having men portray women frequently turns them into cartoonish or stereotypical characters, said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
"You are almost locked into certain types of portrayals of black women, if you have them at all," Hunt said.
- Created on 31 October 2013
Keshia Thomas (pictured below center), a Black woman who protected a White man at a Ku Klux Klan rally back in 1996, recently recalled her act, according to BBC News.
"I knew what it was like to be hurt," Thomas said. "The many times that, that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me."
Thomas was 18 years old, when Klansmen decided to hold a rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., her hometown. Known for being a heavily liberal and multiracial area, hundreds of residents gathered in a show of force against the group.
Though officers protected the White supremacists with riot gear and protesters were held behind a fence, the rally soon turned hostile. A woman holding a megaphone reportedly noticed a White man among them wearing a confederate T-shirt. She reportedly notified protesters who then proceeded to chase him from the crowd.
Though it's not known if the man was a Klan member, protesters allegedly yelled, "Kill the Nazi," before knocking him down. They reportedly began attacking him with wooden sticks from their signs.
For Thomas, the situation had clearly gotten out of hand.
"When people are in a crowd, they are more likely to do things they would never do as an individual. Someone had to step out of the pack and say, 'This isn't right.'" she said.
Consequently, Thomas threw herself over the man, protecting him from further harm.
Then-student photographer Mark Brunner, who witnessed Thomas' actions, was amazed.
"She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her," he said. "Who does that in this world?"
According to Thomas, "Violence is violence — nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea." Now in her 30s, Thomas has never heard from the man, but she did have an encounter with someone close to him: Months after the gesture, a man reportedly approached her in a coffee shop and thanked her. When she asked why, he said, "That was my dad."
Knowing the man had a son put things in even greater perspective for Thomas. "For the most part, people who hurt...they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let's say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?"
Now living in Texas, Thomas says she is looking toward the future and not her past.
"I don't want to think that this is the best I could ever be. In life you are always striving to do better." she said. "The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact or a smile. It doesn't have to be a huge monumental act."
- Created on 30 October 2013
Lake Providence, Louisiana (CNN) -- "You have to sit back and think why is God keeping this town alive?
"If we're the poorest and we have the highest unemployment and crime rate, why doesn't God just say I'm going to wipe this town off the map? Because he knows that, in a couple years, something big is going to happen for Lake Providence.
"He's waiting for us to start to believe in ourselves."
That's 18-year-old Frededreia Willis, one of the many amazing people I met in Lake Providence, Louisiana, which is the American capital of income inequality. East Carroll Parish, where Lake Providence is located, has a wider gap
- Created on 29 October 2013
FILE - This Oct. 1, 2013 file photo shows actress Julianne Hough at the 20th Annual "FFANY Shoes on Sale" Gala presented by QVC and FFANY in New York. Hough apologized on Twitter amid criticism for darkening her skin for a costume as Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black" at a Hollywood bash. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
NEW YORK (AP) — Is donning blackface to dress up as a favorite TV character ever OK for Halloween?
How about a bloody hoodie and blackface for a costume riff on the slain teen Trayvon Martin, or full-on minstrel at a splashy Africa-themed party for the fashion elite in Milan?
Each of those costumes made headlines this Halloween season. And the answer to each, African studies and culture experts said, is never.
"The painful history of minstrelsy is not that long ago for us to think that now, somehow, we can do it differently or do it better," said Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Julianne Hough found that out the hard way. She apologized on Twitter over the weekend amid criticism for darkening her skin for a costume as Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black" at a Hollywood bash.
Hough explained on Twitter: "I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."
There's a fine line between mockery and tribute — and it's a line that blackface has the power to obliterate, said Marita Sturken, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.
"It's never something very simple, and if you're going to don a costume and put on a black face there's no possibility of nuance there," she said. "It doesn't matter that it was a character from a TV show. That doesn't get her off the hook. If she's going to put some substance on her face, that constitutes blackface and this incredibly complicated history gets evoked."
Historically, blackface emerged in the mid-19th century, representing a combination of put-down, fear and morbid fascination with black culture, said Eric Lott, an American studies professor at City University of New York's graduate center. Among the most prominent examples: Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor.
"It's constantly a form of entertainment that backs itself into all kinds of trouble, whether political trouble around slavery or a kind of mental trouble having to do with fantasizing about black people," said Lott, who wrote the 1993 book "Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working Class."
As for Hough, he said: "It's just a stupid thing to do. It's a racist thing to do. What blackface does is give the white people privilege of representing black people, of taking black images and treating them as a thing owned."
Kelsey Crowe, who teaches social work in San Francisco, has been following the fracas on Facebook. She sees more tribute to Crazy Eyes than hatred in Hough's costume. Other recent examples are far more troubling, she said.
"Trayvon Martin, that's awful," Crowe said of two Florida men whose photo circulated on social media ahead of Halloween on Thursday.
One was in blackface with a simulated bloody bullet hole at the chest and the other simulated a gun to the head of the faux 17-year-old while dressed as George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon in Florida and was acquitted in court.
She was also "not into" the minstrel costumes in Milan. But the look for Hough "didn't strike me as exploitative at all," she said.
"In other cases blackface is used to make fun of people. I really saw this as a way to embody a character that you like," said Crowe, who will be a cat for Halloween with her 3-year-old daughter.
"Everybody likes the character of Crazy Eyes," she added, "but I guess that could be said of Aunt Jemima, too."
What if the "Rock of Ages" singer, dancer and actress had eliminated blackface from the equation, keeping her simulation of the Bantu knotted hairstyle worn by the character, along with the orange prison jumpsuit she and her friends zipped on as a posse of female inmates from the Netflix series?
"Yes, leave the skin color alone. Leave the stereotypical performance of it and I would imagine to some degree that could be middle ground," Blay said. "People dress up as other people all the time. That's what happens at Halloween. But she didn't do that. And as far as Trayvon, no. Never."