AN INTERVIEW WITH THE HOST OF “THE ORIGINALS OF COMEDY”
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Saturday, April 17, 2010.
Black British comedy is alive and kicking, with stars such as Reginald D. Hunter, Gina Yashere, Stephen K Amos, Slim, Kojo, Quincy and many others bringing their skills to audiences across Britain and also entertaining our cousins on the other side of the pond in America
Before these current leading voices, there were Felix Dexter, Miles Crawford, double act Jefferson & Whitfield, Felicity Ethnic and Leo Muhammad – comedians who made their mark with headline shows and sold-out tours across the country.
Now, these pioneers of new variety and contemporary Black British Comedy, who used to showcase their talent at Blues dances before hitting the big time - are about to thrill people up and down the UK with a national tour starting at the Barbican in London.
Host of this new show is the award-winning Angie Le Mar.
Le Mar is already one of the country’s top performers; she is the director and star of Funny Black Women on the Edge, which can be heard on digital radio channel The Colourful Network, and her popular Choice FM (London) Saturday morning show, not only discusses important issues it also regularly attracts black celebrities.
As well as writing hit plays Do You Know Where Your Daughter Is? Forty, and The Brothers, she is also the first Black British woman to play to sell out audiences in London’s theatreland, and she also had a stint in the West End hit The Vagina Monologues.
With her own production company Straight to Audience, Le Mar has seen Black comedy emerged, evolved and developed over two decades. And she has previously toured with the other stars of The Originals. Given this rich career history, the hardworking business woman is well aware of the need to keep things fresh in the fast-changing world of comedy.
“We have to come with where we are today; and that’s the great thing because some of us have been going anyway on the circuit …Jefferson and Whitfield, Felicity, Felix, Miles, Leo have all been going… the only thing that was nostalgic was coming together for the photo shoot; so to see each other after all these years was very powerful, and we all got on,” she says.
Le Mar recognises that comedy nowadays is very different from the time when she was a newbie; she knows that a presently thriving circuit now has comedians right up there with actors, singers, musicians and DJs in the entertainment world hierarchy. It’s a healthy state of affairs and something which Le Mar is proud of. Sadly, the times when Black British shows like The Real McCoy, Blouse and Skirt and Desmond were on British television have long passed. It’s a state of affairs which troubles the comedian whose TV appearances include Grumpy Old Women, Tales From The Front Room, and Get Up Stand Up.
“We built audience without television, through word of mouth; breaking box office [records]. Then we had The A-Force, The Richard Blackwood Show, Jocelyn Jee, Gina [Yashere] - I thought it would snowball - then one day you say to yourself: ’why am I paying my BBC fee licence again?'. We have come to a standstill…”
Despite this lack of current TV exposure for Black Britain - although comedy shows and performances of all types are never off TV screens - the space for Black British comedians to bring their own take on life is moving from the margins onto the mainstream. Emphasising the experience and versatility of The Originals, it’s a condition that she truly understands.
She says: “It’s growing but I don’t know if it’s going to catapult itself from here. With The Originals it’s the individuality of the comics - when you see Felicity, or Felix and Miles and Leo and Jefferson and Whitfield - straight away you know they are not going to cross each other’s material. When I look at some comics today I think: ‘another comic could have told his jokes'; comics have merged into one.”
That’s an observation that could never have been made about African American megastars such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, both of whom she respects in today’s congested comedy galaxy.
“Chris Rock finds a way of going to that bigger and Blacker style; but Dave Chapelle has that kind of Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, deep truth style. Dave Chapelle is it for me; he has nothing to lose – the best comedy is when you have nothing to lose."
Acting, comedy, radio broadcasting, and production company work - and being a mother – are all on Angie Le Mar’s CV, but she has no qualms whatsoever about spreading herself thin or suffering a burnout. With regular travel to the United States, where she has played the world famous Apollo in Harlem, New York, Le Mar is impressed by what she sees as the more confident and open minded outlook in America.
And although she is dyslexic, the mega success of Funny Black Women on the Edge convinced her of her writing abilities; she drew from that well of confidence to learn to direct and also to move into radio broadcasting.
“First of all you have to get rid of the mindset that says: ‘jack of all trades; master of none’. That’s a lie to con us - to make us think we can only do one thing. This country can make you feel like that.”
One of the aims of her Straight to Audience Production Company is to broaden the audience for entertainment from and about the Black community in the UK. The global success of films on the Black experience in the USA proved this, and Le Mar sees a similar process working the other way round – with plays, films and comedy from this side of the Atlantic being performed throughout the Diaspora.
“We are - as Maya [Angelou] says - more alike than unalike. People are human and if it hurts a female it hurts a male; cast The Brothers white or Asian and it is about betrayal. I am looking at developing Forty for an American audience; all you have to do is tweak it because Forty is universal.”
With options to do so many things – radio, TV and writing, theatre is Le Mar’s first love.
“If someone said: ‘Angie for the next five years you’ll be doing ‘Funny Black Women on The Edge’ I would be the happiest. Television doesn’t give you that room or that instant feedback; in the theatre looking back at the audience and getting back what you gave is special.”
And despite appearances on Grumpy Old Women the effervescent Le Mar is happy with her life.
“I think they needed a Black woman for that” she says. “I have a great life, my children are healthy, I have a lot to be grateful for - the only thing to be disappointed in is our kids killing each other.”
The Originals of Comedy
23 - 24 April 2010 - 19:45
London, EC2Y 8DS
020 7638 4141
Tickets: £10 - £ 26
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.