Sasheer Zamata graces familiar stage
SNL cast member, UVA alum talks about her voice and representing her truth
Sasheer Zamata is a 2008 graduate of the University’s Drama department. Since graduating, Zamata joined Saturday Night Live as a cast member in 2014. She has performed stand-up comedy throughout the country and has appeared in a variety of sketches with Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and College Humor, among other outlets.
Zamata returned to her “old stomping grounds” Aug. 22 for a set at the Jefferson Theater. Arts & Entertainment spoke with her about her career and her performance.
Arts & Entertainment: How does it feel to come back and perform in the city where you went to college now that you are such an established success?
Sasheer Zamata: It feels really cool. I love Charlottesville so much and I really enjoy when I get to come back. It’s a bit weird to come back as an adult versus when I was in school, because I just see everything a little bit differently. But I am so excited to go back and actually see my old stomping grounds.
A&E: How do you look back on your time here in relation to the rest of your career arc?
SZ: I feel like U.Va. did a really good job of creating an environment where students felt like they could create the environment. It felt really self-run: if you saw a void you could fill it, which I loved. That’s why I created an improv group and a theater group and was able to do so many things that were my choice. I feel like that carried on into my career.
A&E: While at the University, you auditioned for a previously-established improv group, only to not make it. You responded by co-founding an improv group of your own, Amuse Bouche. Did going through that instill something in you?
SZ: Definitely. Most of the stuff that I have really gone for was based out of rejection. I’m kind of used to rejection. But that’s okay, in this business you have to be. Once I got a “no,” I was just like, “Okay I’ll just do my own thing,” and my own thing turned out to be a really great thing that other people really enjoy, too. I don’t mind hearing the “no” because at least it gave me an opportunity to try to do it on my own.
A&E: In recent years you have let your voice be heard on social issues: you are the American Civil Liberties Union’s ambassador for women’s rights, starring in a pretty hilarious YouTube video on the subject, and earlier this year you wrote a Lenny Letter titled “On Fixing Hollywood’s Diversity Problem.” To what do you attribute your voice on these issues?
SZ: I just see that as things that I like to talk about. These are things I question and think about and want to discuss with other people and get them thinking too. I feel like I can’t help but have that be conveyed in my work and have it come out because I naturally am intrigued by these topics, so how could I not talk about it?
A&E: You were hired by SNL after a months-long search for the show’s first black female comic in what was then over five years. At the same time, you are just a comedian, writer and actress trying to make a career for yourself. Do you feel any added pressure to be, or represent, anything else?
SZ: I don’t feel any pressure to represent anyone. If people feel like they can relate to me, that is so great. But I don’t feel like there is any community that is relying on me to be a representative. Or maybe there are, but I don’t feel like I have to make sure that I am the spokesperson for a certain group of people. I am my own person and everyone else is their own person and there is no way to lump us all together and be like, “Well, she’s the voice of all black women.” That would be horrible, because I am not, I am the voice of me and there are probably a ton of black women who don’t feel the same way. I just try to think about myself and what I like to do or say, and represent my truth.
A&E: What kind of material do you have in your set right now?
SZ: My material is based on stuff that has happened in my life: stuff about my family, interactions I’ve had, stuff about race, relationships, things that I notice in society. A lot. It all comes from a truthful place.
A&E: What message do you have for students at U.Va. hoping to monetize a passion in the arts?
SZ: I would say just follow the fun. If you do something that you’re passionate about, that is fun to you, keep going. If it starts to not be fun, and it is more of a stress, then maybe consider how to change that or do something else. Everything I did to get to where I am now was so fun to me. I feel lucky that I kind of fell into a situation where the things that I enjoy are the things that are paying me. It took me years to get to that point but I could not imagine myself doing anything else. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, then do it. But, if you can’t, then just keep going for that goal no matter how long it takes.