Anna Mwalagho’s one-woman show about being Black in the US brings power to comedy

Illustration of Anna Mwalagho
Nishali Naik/Staff

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“And then, it hit me. I’m Black!”

Anna Mwalagho used the classic comedic device of repetition to hook this same sentence into multiple jokes in her one-woman show, “Never Thought I Was Black Till I Came To America,” on Thursday evening, and each time warranted louder applause than the time before. She walked onto the stage, suitcase above her head, dancing and singing in Kiswahili, her stunning voice reverberating around the walls of Oakland Museum of California’s James Moore Theatre, every molecule in the room gravitating toward her. From the very beginning, she made her presence known; she didn’t just make sure she was listened to, she made sure she was heard.

An internationally revered actress, comedian, spoken-word artist, dancer, singer, songwriter and storyteller, Mwalagho kept her audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of her show. Through the course of her performance, which blended comedy with song and dance, Mwalagho covered a startling range of topics associated with her experiences as an immigrant from Kenya, Africa, in the United States — topics ranging from from Popeyes’ fried chicken, Black American men and white landlords to the racism she faced. All of this underscored her process of embracing who she was, and the importance of rhythm. 

Mwalagho’s experiences are incredibly unique. She made clear to her audience the distinction between being an African immigrant and being a Black American in the United States. Yet, through her comedy and conversation, she manages to make her narrative surprisingly relatable by dissecting familiar topics and introducing her opinions on them. For one, she thinks it’s ridiculous that Americans begin dancing with a “5, 6, 7, 8.” Music and dance should be made entirely separate from math; she expressed how perplexed she is at the audacity of the three activities befriending each other in this country. 

The audience members of Mwalagho’s show were not passive because Mwalagho didn’t allow them to be. Her comedy is educative without being controversial; she does not try and impose her political opinion onto her audience, but she still encourages them to be more aware, more informed. 

She achieves this by constantly shifting between stand-up comedy, poetry, song and monologue. She even includes moments in her performance in which the audience is left to listen to sounds that weren’t just her own voice. At one point, Mwalagho allowed audiences to hear poetry she enjoyed listening to — verses played around her as the lights on stage were dimmed while she closed her eyes, listening to narrations about the struggles of her ancestors. She was not afraid to be vulnerable with her audience as she deeply breathed in and out, listening to poetry that she had heard perhaps several times before but nevertheless seemed to move her immensely. 

Mwalagho urged her audience to remember to thank their ancestors for letting them live the way they do today. She prompted her listeners in the room to think about the path the activists before them paved, naming figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, as enablers of equality for Black people not only in the United States, but across the world. 

Like her lyricism, music and dance were also recurring themes in Mwalagho’s performance. She explained that the reason she’s been known to simply break into song and dance is because “Dance keeps us living, loving and laughing.” And it was clear her audience did not disagree. 

Through her performance, her coherence and the large presence she created for herself in a society that would rather have her remain small and silent, she placed poetry in particular and art in general at the pedestal it deserves as a tool for revolution.

Mwalagho was an absolute pleasure to watch, not just for her humor but also because she radiates positive energy in every way possible, entirely embracing the idea of “Hakuna Matata” but not before declaring: “Disney, it’s not your quote, it’s ours!” Timon and Pumbaa wouldn’t be the least offended though — they’d be too busy rolling over laughing to care.

Anoushka Agrawal covers culture and diversity, contact her at [email protected].