SNL Casts First Black Woman Since 2007

Sasheer Zamata in the opening credits of SNL
Sasheer Zamata in the opening credits of SNL

-by Sea-Jay Van der Ploeg- January 18 was a milestone episode for “Saturday Night Live. ” That evening, the show debuted new cast member Sasheer Zamata, the first black woman to join the SNL cast since 2007. Zamata’s appearance not only marked a new stage in her career but also acted as an opportune response to recent controversy about the lack of a black female comedian.

Zamata, 27, hails from Indiana and is a graduate of the University of Virginia. Before joining SNL, she performed with Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. This program also propelled the careers of notable SNL alumni such as  Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, and Bobby Moynihan. Zamata also appears in various television and online comedy sketch programs from MTV’s “Hey Girl” to the webshow “Pursuit of Sexiness.”

So, she is black–why so much buzz? Ever since Maya Rudolph, SNL’s last black female cast member, left the show six years ago, NBC producers have been facing increasingly harsh feedback about the lack of cast diversity. This fall, the criticism worsened, because five out of the six new additions to the cast were white men. This lack of a black female member was obvious in multiple sketches. On multiple occasions, black male cast members, such as Kenan Thompson, expressed frustration about dressing in drag to portray female characters. When African-American actress Kerry Washington guest-starred in November, SNL writers satirized the situation by making Washington switch between black female icons Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyoncé in rapid succession all in one scene. The scene ended with this statement rolling across the screen: “The producers of ‘Saturday Night Live’ would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight….SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast…We agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future…Unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

On the night of her debut, Zamata portrayed an assortment of characters, including an aunt at Drake’s bar mitzvah, a teenybopper at a friend’s sleepover, and pop star Rihanna. Response on Twitter and other social media was overwhelmingly positive, and the public expressed anticipation of future performances. Yet, as Anika Hartje ’15 noted, “SNL has put so much unnecessary pressure on Zamata… People made it into a big deal, but in reality, all they did was hire a black woman, and that shouldn’t be news. But all in all, it’s about time.” While the public has the tendency to place Zamata in the spotlight on the basis of race, we should not forget the original reason why Zamata was hired: her gift for comedy. The casting of a black woman is a great step forward for SNL, but, in the end, Zamata’s comedic ability, rather than the color of her skin, is what matters the most.