You only have to listen to a few minutes of Sasheer Zamata’s “Best Friends” podcast, co-hosted with her IRL bestie and fellow comedian Nicole Byer, to get a sense of who she is: thoughtful, fun, and capable of deadpanning a punchline that makes you laugh while upending your perspective. That’s who she is when she’s excitedly free-ranging topics with Byer—from Donald Trump’s latest debacle to whether Avril Lavigne really has been replaced by a clone—and it’s exactly the energy she’s giving me as we talk on the phone.
“I mean, look, we’re just talking about things that upset us or bring us joy,” Zamata says about the project, now relegated to Zoom-only conversations. “And that is necessary for people to hear.”
It’s true. There are a lot of things going on in the world, least of which in Zamata’s adoptive city of Los Angeles, where the Indianapolis native is, like all of us, trying to make the best of her quarantine lifestyle. “It’s so crazy,” she says. “Like, I didn’t realize how noisy my home was until we had to be at home and work. There’s helicopters flying, gardeners, random animals I’ve never heard before…”
Though she’s been home for the last who-knows-how-many months since stay-at-home orders went into place, Zamata’s already-impressive resume, which includes The Weekend and three years on Saturday Night Live, has continued to grow this year. In addition to the podcast, she’s had recurring roles on the series Robbie and The Last O.G., the latter alongside fellow SNL alum Tracy Morgan. Now she’s on the new Hulu comedy Woke as Ayana, an artsy lesbian she describes as the “woke guru” to a cartoonist (Lamorne Morris) grappling with his newfound awareness after being racially profiled by the police.
It’s a role tailor-made for Zamata, though she laughs about being cast without an audition: “I love that I’m associated with, I guess, wokeness.” The actress has been a celebrity ambassador for the ACLU for years, calling her relationship with the social justice organization “symbiotic” because it’s taught her about issues and cases that helped inform her worldview, particularly as a public figure. “I want to be able to use my platform in a way that feels good to me,” she says. “I care about social justice issues. I want to talk about them. I want to help inspire people to talk about it with their community.”
But though social consciousness is an extension of Zamata’s work and celebrity—partly, as she says, because “I am Black and a woman, and live in America and have a very unique experience that is valid and deserves to be visible”—she doesn’t project that intention onto anyone else. “I don’t want to put on every single Black person that they have to tell Black stories or their specific story,” she adds. “If you don’t want to hear those stories, there are people who won’t tell [them]. Or, if you want to hear them, there are people who will. Thankfully, there’s this choice.”
That’s exactly where Woke sits: at the intersection of choice when faced with the question of wokeness. On one end, there’s Keef (Morris), an artist who is Black, though his work isn’t about being Black. He worries he could lose his largely white audience if he decides, upon reflection of the police incident, to insert his cultural perspective into his work. On the other end is Ayana, who is unapologetically Black and tells Keef he can be, too.
“I’m trying to let him see that you can put yourself in your art and your art will actually be better if you do,” Zamata says. “And, you know, fuck what other people think. If you’re real, the audience you want will come to you.” Zamata herself has over 63K Twitter followers, despite not following anyone. She laughs, explaining that it’s “just to streamline my timeline. I don’t want to waste too much time on social media seeing what everyone else is up to.” She pauses. “I mean, I still do that. It’s not like I’m perfect.”
Speaking of shameless imperfections, in the gray area of the Woke spectrum lies Keef’s roommate, Clovis (T. Murph), who really just cares about sneakers and girls. “These are all valid perspectives and I’m so glad they’re all on one show,” Zamata says. “I like that [Woke] doesn’t shy away from topics that people think are hard or scary to talk about. It’s cool that we’re in a state where people are open to doing something like that.”
Woke also allows Zamata to do what put her on the map—comedy, honed from her years in stand-up and at the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade. She can easily, for instance, riff back and forth with Morris when Keef tries to wiggle out of presenting an illustration of a white character—blackfaced with a Sharpie at the last minute—to impress a “super Black” art crowd.
“I love being able to play with this character,” Zamata says. She enjoyed her experience so much, she even stuck around when she wasn’t filming. “I laughed so hard watching other people’s scenes. It was a true joy to be on set.”
These days, the girl who once made a crowd of 800 teenage peers at government camp roar with laughter when she opened a speech joking about their dorm’s rickety elevator—”You better vote for me before you die in this elevator”—is now finding her own happiness in roller skating. If you follow her on Instagram, you’ve already seen her gliding around with a big smile under her mask.
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“It’s a fun quarantine activity because we can skate and be six feet apart and everyone’s wearing masks,” Zamata says. “I love it because after I’m done, I feel like a kid. Like I’ve really played hard.” That feeling also applies to the career choices she’s made thus far. “I try to choose projects because they feel fun to me and will maybe help me grow or show a new side of myself,” she says. “As long as it still feels fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”
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