This fall, I was lucky enough to head to Second City Hollywood Studio Theater in Hollywood during the 4th annual Los Angeles Diversity in Comedy Festival and catch the NYC-based all-black female comedy troupe, The Black Pantherettes. Just in time since the troupe had to head back to New York for their residency at The Peoples Improv Theater (The PIT).
The Black Pantherettes consists of five incredibly talented women beginning with its founder, Chicago native, Lauren Vernea (Art is Charisma), Pittsburgh native, Sheree Grate (Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man), Trinidad born and Brooklyn raised Kezia Bernard-Nau (Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Rock Video), Brooklyn native, Tamyko Vassel (Evil Rising) and Harrisburg, PA native, Alexis Braxton (Foster Sin).
A crowd favorite among their sketches was the game show in which the contestants competed for reparations. An absolutely brilliant concept executed flawlessly. I was absolutely enthralled. Their sketch show seamlessly balances political commentary and pop culture satire which is not an easy task to begin with but is a skill that is appreciated now more than ever before in today’s political climate.
“I think for me, it’s really important to comment on what’s going on, what we see in the media, especially the frustration with what’s going on politically and people getting away with certain things in the music industry,” says Bernard-Nau. “How can I work it out as an artist? When we sit down and talk about sketches, it’s something that we try to include. We’re not just blindly trying to make people laugh, we’re trying to make them laugh and think and inspire them or simply to have a better day. That’s how it balances out.”
Their sketch show also includes original songs and music parodies which had the crowd rolling with laughter. You’ll have to seem them live to see what they parody, I won’t spoil it for you. But with so many songs to choose from, I was curious to know how they make their choices. “We play with a lot of things. We walk out laughing because we try so many different things,” Grate says. The group agrees in unison. Vernea adds, “Also things that compliment our personalities. We rap a lot and I like rapping… it’s a lot of fun, so it’s really what’s fun about the sketch.”
With such a masterful show, it’s almost hard to believe that the troupe started coming together just a year ago when Vernea met Bernard-Nau through a Pilot they were both working on. Keeping in touch, Bernard-Nau introduced Vernea to Grate, whom Bernard-Nau met through acting school, as well as making an introduction to Vassel. Grate and Vassel auditioned and later, Braxton auditioned, rounding out the troupe.
“I felt ready,” Vernea says on forming the troupe. “I had been doing this for awhile. Before I got to New York, I started a theatre company and I did work in Chicago. Leadership is natural. The hard part is all of the administration that goes into it and wanting to be in things and act but having to direct and do the business of it.”
In a short amount of time, the troupe found a way to balance it all while finding their voice, finding their mark on the stage and leaning in. This success is owed so much to the germination period of the troupe.
“When we first started out, Tamyko and I were very new to the writing and Lauren encouraged us to write our own stuff,” Bernard-Nau says. “We would write a standalone script, Lauren would review it and critique and polish it off and it was great because that entails a lot of trust and vulnerability. That was handled really well. Especially as new writers, being your own worst critic and having that space to have it polished and grow into something even better and funnier built al lot of trust in the group.”
“When it comes to writing sketches, it’s gotten to a point where I know them so well now,” Vernea points out. “And they’re starting to write more and they’re all so talented and funny. It works really well.”
A big component of the success of this troupe is the open collaboration. “One adlib and they’ll be like ‘Keep doing that’ so it’s like whoa,” Braxton says. “I can do that to heighten the joke. Those things are welcome. There are some writers I’ve worked with where they don’t like that but it’s very much collaborative.”
Detailing one of the sketches in the show, Grate adds, “The Morgan Freeman Shawshank Redemption joke was an adlib. Half of the time we’re cracking up so you’d think we were just messing around.”
After watching their live sketch show, it’s clear that they are not messing around. They grab your attention from the very first second and don’t let you go until the very end. They play to each other’s strengths impeccably and aren’t afraid to challenge themselves and the audience. “I wanted to play roles that are really different but I realized that it takes awhile to find your niche and get really good at it and then good at going out and doing different things. What can I bring into this role that’s different? It’s then when the audience has fun,” Bernard-Nau says.
The troupe also highly values time to break, rest and refill the creative well, coming back to the table even better than before. They count exercise, meditation, talking to each other about their lives during their down time, and watching each other work during rehearsals among the many ways they refill the well.
When it comes to the craft of comedy, this troupe admires the best. “I really love Robin Thede as an actor and writer,” Vernea says. “The way she can mold herself into any character, it’ incredible. I think she is a great advocate for Black women in comedy and setting the bar. Those are the people I take notes and would love to work with.” The comediennes also share their admiration for the work of Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Martin Lawrence. “Martin and his physical comedy, he will do anything for a laugh. It makes me think, I can do that. I can be as wacky and zany. I’m going to do it,” Braxton says, a smile in her voice.
Kevin Hart and The Wayans Bros. also get shout outs. But wait. There’s more. “I definitely grew up in the In Living Color era. I love Key and Peele. I like some of Amy Schumer’s work. There’s so many people that inspire you, they all can show you something,” Vassel adds.
I can’t help myself from laughing in agreement at the end of the conversation as Bernard-Nau adds, “Back in the day, my first inspiration for sketch was Mad TV. I remember watching it and going to school the next day and acting it out and getting in trouble. How could you not go to class and not repeat that?”
For more information, visit The Black Pantherettes.