“If all we have to fear is fear itself, why be afraid?”
That’s the center thought anchoring a brand new festival hitting the city of Toronto this weekend. Starting today, Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre is home to “BRAVE: The Festival of Risk and Failure.”
The current social and political climate provides the perfect backdrop for this festival which steps away from focusing on safety for a two-week run, challenging festivalgoers to be brave and create new ideas. Toronto’s first multidisciplinary arts festival to celebrate risks failures and triumphs, welcomes a great slate of artists and comedic voices like John Waters, Bassem Youssef and one of our favorite comedians, Gina Yashere, who will be part of the show “Tellin’ It Like It Is” next Friday July 20th. The show stars Yashere along with Award-winning actress and comedian Cathy Jones.
I got the chance to talk with Gina ahead of the show to talk about the idea of bravery in 2018, particularly bravery in stand up comedy.
Yashere definitely tells it like it is, or at least the way she sees things. She’s an imposing figure on stage- tall, tatted with some strong choices in accessories, and a booming fantastic voice to complete the picture. And she carries an aura of fearlessness to the stage. It’s an attitude she’s needed to cultivate in her life, so it’s a natural fit for her to talk about these ideas on stage. “I don’t like deliberately do that. I’m just political by virtue of who I am. I’m just talking about my life. But because I happen to be a black, gay, female immigrant, then obviously I’m going to be talking about that stuff,” she said. “I just talk about whatever I want to talk about and then people take from it what they want. So I suppose people say my stuff is brave because I do tackle sex and racism and homophobia.”
The current resurgence of boldfaced racism has led comedians like Yashere to need to take on these topics more regularly. She doesn’t think racism has risen, but it has become more visible, and Trump has been a catalyst that has emboldened many to express racist views out loud. “I feel like black people have known this shit was happening all the time. I’ve been saying this to you guys for years, you weren’t listening. It was all bubbling along under the surface of the water and now the pipe is pulled out and everybody can see what was underneath. Whereas back people, we’ve been seeing that shit forever.”
And it’s not just in the US, it’s happening in the UK and other places too. “I feel like the whole world is taking a step back 60 years.” Having traveled the world extensively, Yashere says she feels like Canada is closer to getting where we need to be socially, but they’re not exempt from these problems. “There are still instances of racism in Canada. I talk to black people who are from Canada and they say don’t be fooled by the nice personalities and the nice persona. There’s still a lot of discrimination that we face here. I’m not Canadian, as an outsider to Canada I feel that I see the better side of Canada and I feel like it seems to be better than the UK and from where I come from. But black people in Canada beg to differ.”
This new climate brings a new responsibility to combat it on stage, but it discussing controversial subjects like racism and homophobia on stage definitely takes bravery, and also finesse. And comedians like Yashere who like to push the line have to know when to cross it and when to stay in safe territory. Some comics go too far and find themselves forced to make apologies or risk losing gigs; others refuse to be censored regardless of consequences. Gina falls into the latter category. “There is a lot of censorship going on in comedy now. And I’ll tell you now, I’m never gonna be one of those comedians forced to apologize for what I said. Whatever I say, I said it, I stand by it. I’ll never apologize to anything I say on stage. Having said that, there are a lot of racist and homophobic and transphobic comedians out there, and they need to be held to account.”
Although she stands by her comedy, that doesn’t mean anything goes. She’s not afraid to say things that might upset those with delicate sensibilities, but there is a difference between having something to say and just saying offensive things. “Some comedians are just being offensive for the sake of it. It’s the shock value. It’s being seen as cool. I can say this because I’m a comedian, I’m cool. And its shock factor…but there’s nothing backing it,” she said. And there’s one category of comedians who she feels should be more careful over how they talk about certain topics. “Most white straight males comics should not be doing jokes about race or homosexuals because you’re the majority, you’re the one coming from a place of privilege. Most white straight male comics should not even be touching that because they haven’t got the skill. But then, comedians like Bill Burr and Patton Oswalt, I would listen to them talk about any subject. Not everybody has that skill set.”
Provocative subjects are a staple in her sets, but she knows how to tell if material has gone too far. “As a comedian, you know when your stuff is offensive; you know if your stuff is racist. Because if you’re talking about a specific group of people, and you’re not comfortable doing that material in a room full of the people that you’re talking about, then deep down you know that your stuff is racist,” she said. “This is how I test out with my materials. If I’m talking about a particular group of people, I will do that material in front of a room full of those people. And that’s how I know that my stuff is not offensive. If I’m talking about a minority of people, I’m going to take that material to them first.”
Her fearlessness she says, came in part from an influential figure who fans are already familiar with from Gina’s stand up– her mom. “I think is a very brave woman and a lot of immigrants are. When you leave where you’re born, and leave where you’re used to living and go to a totally different area of the world and start your life again, there’s a there’s a huge amount of bravery in that. And people just don’t really understand that.”
But Yashere said she was born to be bold. “I think it was probably part of my character. My mom always tells the story about when she was pregnant with me, because she had twins before she had me, so apparently there was a lot of room in there. And when she was pregnant with me she had a lot of student doctors feeling around on her belly. And at one point they couldn’t find me because I’d gone walkabout. You know what I mean? So she said from then she knew that this kid was going to be crazy. So I think it was part of my DNA coming out. I’ve always been sort of adventurous and wanted to do different things. So that was part of the reason why I bet my mom tries to reign me in. Because I was always the kid running into walls and running off into the street as a toddler and have her chase me through the streets so I didn’t get run over by cars. It’s in my DNA.”
The Brave Festival starts today and runs through July 29th in Toronto. Go to harborfrontcentre.com for tickets and more information.