Sasheer Zamata On Why We Need Spaces Where Women Can Be Heard
Actor and comedian Sasheer Zamata is no stranger to politics. From her three years on SNL (playing characters like Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, or Keely on “Black Jeopardy”) and her other acting roles, to her incisive standup, Zamata regularly finds ways to use humor to examine the persistent, daily challenges faced by women and African Americans. It’s an emphasis that has not gone unnoticed, and in 2015 the ACLU even named her their Celebrity Ambassador for the Women’s Rights Project, partnering with her to raise awareness for gender and racial inequality. Having left SNL in the spring of this year, Zamata has now moved on to other projects, one of which is her return to the popular literary salon Women of Letters.
Given the state of our culture, events like Women of Letters, which put an intentional spotlight on the stories of women, offer valuable political work in creating a society that more properly recognizes — and normalizes — women as creators and thought leaders. To learn more, I spoke with Zamata about her reasons for returning to the event and what her message is for America right now on the state of women’s rights.
Zamata’s responses are italicized.
Hi Sasheer. What inspired you to get involved with this month’s performance of Women of Letters?
I’ve done Women of Letters before and it felt cathartic to write something so personal and share it with an audience. I also loved hearing stories from the other women on stage, so I’m happy to be a part of this show again.
Women of Letters, founded in Melbourne, Australia in 2010, is a monthly event celebrating women and the power of letter writing. Now a fixture in the U.S. as well, the salon assembles New York’s leading female writers, actors, musicians, comedians, and politicians to read personal letters inspired by a particular theme. Over the years the show has raised over $850,000 for charities including the New York Women’s Foundation, PEN International and Millay Colony, and past participants have included Molly Ringwald, Jean Grae, Kathleen Turner, Margo Jefferson, Martha Wainwright, Aparna Nancherla, Siri Hustvedt, Edie Falco, Amber Tamblyn, and many others.
This month, on October 19th, the show debuts at City Winery, a larger venue after years of sold-out shows at the more intimate Joe’s Pub. This month’s theme is “A Letter to My Little Lie,” and joining Zamata on stage will be author Marcy Dermansky, guitarist and composer Kaki King, host of the Lit Up show Angela Ledgerwood, model and co-founder of Urban Bush Babes Cipriana Quann, and attorney, journalist, an author Rafia Zakaria.
The event acknowledges that letter writing is, for many, a lost art. What is your relationship to written letters these days, and why is it important to preserve this method of communication?
My relationship to letter writing, like most people, has waned. My dad was in the military and we moved around a bunch when I was younger, and I remember writing letters to a friend I made in Virginia. The letters stopped when we became teenagers and found other interests, but it was nice to get a thought-out letter someone wrote just for me. Even if the content wasn’t exciting, someone thought enough about me to share their time and life with me, and that feels good.
Events like these, which put an intentional spotlight on the stories of women, remain crucial for both the arts and society at large. In film, women continue to appear onscreen less than men do — even when women play the lead roles — and during the 2015–2016 TV season, 79% of shows featured more male than female characters. In theater, the push for gender parity is a frequent conversation, as male playwrights continue to receive about three times as many productions as female writers, and men also occupy the majority of leadership positions.
At museums, we see the same problem, and in the dance world, and in the music industry, and in the video game industry…etc. These absences are significant, as these fields also cultivate many of our most visible public figures and involve work that is heavily rooted in representation and self-expression. Limiting women’s voices (sometimes literally) in these areas makes them less visible and influential in our culture as a whole, giving them fewer outlets to convey their experiences, shape the world according to their needs, and generally assert their relevance and value.
Could you talk about the significance of the show’s celebration of women and why creating an intentional space for female storytelling is so important?
As an occasional audience member and consumer, I like hearing women’s perspectives. I like hearing perspectives from men, too, but sometimes I hear stories or viewpoints from women, and I can relate to them more because I’ve felt the same emotions. I think, “Ah yes, I GET this.” It feels good when your thoughts and feelings are reflected in art, but women don’t always get to experience that because we’re not given as many platforms to create or express ourselves as men. So I think it’s important to create spaces where women can be heard, so their messages can reach an audience that’s been longing to hear it.
This last point cannot be stressed enough, as women’s representation can be mistaken as simply an issue of fairness when there is really a deeper, more existential problem in play. We live in a society where sexism is rampant and in which women are frequently viewed as inferior to men, even as more than half of all men believe women face no barriers to success. And even when women do have a seat at the table, they may not be seen as equals, with their success often dependent on their ability to navigate the toxic behavior of their superiors.
Just look at the Harvey Weinstein scandal, where actors like Gwyneth Paltrow had to retain public ties and relationships with their abusers or risk damaging their careers. It’s clear that women’s underrepresentation isn’t simply an oversight (which would still be a problem) or a lack of good talent (as women tend to pursue arts and humanities education more than men), but part of a recurring pattern of people not equating women, whether intentionally or subconsciously, with the same capability, intelligence, and even humanity that they attribute to men.
Lastly, in the spirit of the salon, if you were to write a (very short) letter to America on the state of women’s rights and equality in the country right now, what would it say?
Listen to women.
This month’s Women of Letters runs October 19th at City Winery in New York. You can follow Sasheer on Twitter @TheSheerTruth. Her stand up special Pizza Mind is available on Seeso, Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify.