UC Berkeley students collaborate with Margaret Cho, bringing comedians to campus for ‘Front Row’

Alexandra Nobida/Staff

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For the first time in its three-year run, Cal Performances’ “Front Row” has sold out Zellerbach Hall. On Wednesday, an all-star team of Asian American comedians including Margaret Cho, Ali Wong, Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu will convene in a program centered on issues such as race and power. The team behind the provocative and dynamic event? Eleven undergraduate students.

“Front Row with Margaret Cho and Friends” is driven by the student curators of Cal Performances, a team of 11 undergraduates who spend months planning, organizing and executing the event under the mentorship of Cal Performances associate director Rob Bailis and staff. The student curators, who represent a diverse range of passions and academic focuses, develop and participate in all aspects of the event. They seek to engage UC Berkeley students in cultural, political and social issues of relevance to their lives.

“We need to have an evening where we see how people have started out with nothing … and created for themselves a beautiful life — who have carved out a niche for themselves, fearlessly, not being intimidated by people saying no,” curator Lila Mullins said.

Mullins and her fellow curators hope that Cho and her guests, with their experiences and perseverance throughout their careers and lives, can inspire the student-only audience. “They’ve managed to create something from nothing,” Mullins said.

The students are responsible for developing a creative vision for the event, which is defined by selecting a host for the evening. Students aim to recruit a headline artist whose personal experiences will engage UC Berkeley students in relevant cultural issues — in this sense, Cho fit the bill perfectly.

The Bay Area native’s unique brand of activist-charged comedy compelled the curators to unanimously support her hosting.

“She’s at the intersection of so many experiences and viewpoints in the world,” Dylan Stover, who joined the Front Row team this year, said. “Because (of that), we thought she would be great to bring a platform for all the communities she is a part of. How can people with power use that to enable others – to give historically silenced people a voice?”

Featuring a female host was particularly important to this year’s student curators because the two previous hosts – Metallica drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich in 2016 and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, in 2017– were white men. For curator Salwa Meghjee, Cho’s unfiltered personality and emphasis on activism resonated with her personal interests. “Margaret Cho is everything I would want a woman to be,” says Meghjee, who The Daily Californian previously featured for her all-female theater company. “She is fiery and powerful and defies every idea of what an Asian woman should be like or what she should do.”

Once Cho’s participation was confirmed, a collaborative development process ensued, during which the curators found that their visions for the evening aligned closely with Cho’s. In a series of Skype interview sessions over the course of the fall semester, Cho presented her intended themes for the event and proposed a selection of guests to invite as participants.

“The more we talked to her, the more we realized we were basically on the same wavelength,” Stover said. “It made the process a lot more streamlined and easier to make the bigger decisions about what the show would look like.”

From there, the shared vision could be fine-tuned and prepared for the stage. The final product stands as a performance and conversation among Cho, Wong, Nancherla and Kondabolu. Cho will moderate the comedians’ conversation, and then audience members will be able to live-tweet questions to them.

The curatorial team hopes that the comedians’ stories will be particularly resonant, as the artists share themselves outside of their stand-up. “We want to separate the person from the persona,” Stover said. Because of the conversational format, audience members will surely get an intimate sense of the comedians’ true selves. “We want to understand the people, identities, and places that have shaped (these comics) into the person they present on stage,” Stover added.

In the days leading up the event, the student curators are working on their curatorial statement, a director’s note of sorts that encapsulates the themes of the show, and the shared creative vision between Cho and themselves. The process of writing the statement, which will be included in the program, is reflective of the students’ continued emphasis on dialogue.

“As were walking out the door, we’re still having those conversations,”  Meghjee said. “It’s really fun and interesting to watch them continue outside of the room and to know that the space is always open to have those discussions.”

As a production created by and for students, the student curators hope the same process of personal exploration and questioning is shared among the audience members.  

“We want people to come in and laugh, but we mostly want people to come away thinking about who they are and how they can use whatever they have to facilitate other peoples’ platforms and how they can use their privileges to help in other fights on campus and around the world, Stover said.”

“Front Row with Margaret Cho and Friends” will take place Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall.

Contact Rivka Batlan at [email protected].