Comedian Gina Yashere makes voice heard through bold stage presence

Ameena Golding/Staff

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A quick scan of comedian Gina Yashere’s YouTube videos and Netflix special makes it clear that she is disgusted by New York — specifically, she repeats that New York is filthy and dirty as many as 10 times in one show.

This, of course, seems overdone when watching from the distance provided by a screen. In person, when the time came for this same bit, the joke was met with uproar and cheer.

Originally from London, Yashere performed in Berkeley for the first time Sunday night to a enthusiastic, hooting crowd at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.

It became immediately clear that Yashere’s charm as a comedian shines when she’s performing live — from her exaggerated body movements to her loud, staccato enunciation of every word, Yashere knew how to grab her audience’s attention. As a part of this stage presence, Yashere would repeat lines for emphasis, but this often didn’t have the effect that she wanted. Instead of highlighting her point, her repetition of lines belabored her jokes.

After two bold opening acts, Yashere still stood out. Performing after Oakland-based Karinda Dobbins and Richmond-based Shea Suga, Yashere danced out onto the stage and began an hourlong performance that was rich with material from her life, from her childhood in England to her experience moving to America.

Yashere readily jumped into her experiences with racism, microaggressions, sexism and homophobia. Before launching her stand-up comedy career, Yashere worked as a lift engineer, where she faced the racism of her predominantly white coworkers. Whereas England was a space for open aggression toward her, Yashere has found that America is rife with more microaggressions, or “the assumption that you don’t belong,” as she put it.

Yashere reviewed various microaggressions that she experienced, from being questioned in a first-class lounge to being mistaken for a waiter — following her adept storytelling skills, the crowd paused at the horrifying moments of prejudice and cahooted at her clever retorts in each instance. But her point wasn’t simply to amuse — as Yashere put it, she was “training” the white crowd so it would not repeat the racist offenses itself.

It was not the microaggressions or the racism that were funny, but the mocking of people who imposed racist assumptions upon Yashere — and this was the beauty of Yashere’s performance. She made jokes about her experience with bigotry while aggressively rejecting prejudicial viewpoints.

There were moments, however, when Yashere perpetuated troublesome stereotypes herself. As Yashere recounted her experience touring Asia, she explained that each Asian country had a different reaction to her identity. Calling out anti-Blackness in Asian communities, she demonstrated how Vietnamese people giggled at her and Indian folks mistook her for a man. While Yashere had the right to mock those who were racist and sexist toward her, she chose to do so through stereotypical clichés and heavy “Asian” accents. In effect, the overwhelming laughter by the predominantly white Berkeley audience at these stereotypical portrayals of Asians was uncomfortable.

Following this bit, Yashere brought up how she found that people in China spit and cough more than she’s ever seen in her life — though she promised the crowd she wasn’t being racist, the joke fell flat. Sensing this tension, Yashere immediately transitioned to more charming, heartwarming stories about her Nigerian mother and growing up in England. These stood out, as they unsurfaced her experience as the child of an immigrant. She spoke to the very relatable yet troubling experience of growing up only to find yourself distant from your own heritage.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Yashere said that she does not intentionally make her comedy political — but sheerly through her lived experience as a Black, gay immigrant, jokes about her life are inherently political.

And on Sunday night, these jokes brought the crowd to a standing ovation. Though her set included outright unfunny moments, Yashere made sure her voice was heard, expressing her frustration and laughing at the absurdity of life itself.

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected].