Rihanna recast as the lead in the ’90s sit com Blossom. A grumpy teen hosting a slumber party. Drake’s fictitious uncle’s girlfriend.
No, this may not be an iconic list of comedic characters. But for many, this did not stop Saturday Night Live newcomer Sasheer Zamata from making an amazing debut.
“When Zamata appeared in the opening sketch as Drake’s new auntie, I figured she’d disappear like most new cast members do on the first few weeks,” said one observer on Gawker. “But when she appeared in almost every sketch after that (and pretty substantial roles for featured players as well), I was kind of shocked and happy for her. It’s still a bit early to see what the show does with her.”
Zamata met with positive reinforcement
Reactions to Zamata’s first appearance on the long-running comedy show have been resoundingly positive according to both online and real world reactions. Zamata, the first black woman to join the cast of SNL since 2007, is only the fifth black woman to appear in the ensemble in its 38-season history.
Her introduction came on January 18 in guest host Drake’s very first skit — a send up of what his bar mitzvah was like for a half-Jewish, half-black young boy.
Zamata’s only words in the sketch? “Mazel Tov.” She looked great in a black and white dress clutching the arm of cast member Kenan Thompson in that opening salvo, but did not say much more during the rest of her coming out.
“She came off like a prop, but it was her first episode,” wrote a commenter on black women’s web site Clutch magazine. “Hopefully we will get to see her hilarity shine soon, I love her. And hopefully they don’t just make her do black woman impressions.”
Speaking parts uncommon for new players
Zamata delivered scant lines while playing a young woman in school detention, and provided more of a rhythmic dance accompaniment to a music video-like routine called Resolution/Revolution, in which she danced and chanted those words, while male cast members and Drake rapped about not being able to break bad habits in the new year.
She spoke the most during a skit in which she played the whining daughter to Drake’s goofy dad, although the star part of that exchange went to another female cast member in a mostly-woman set-up involving a slumber party.
That might seem shocking when Zamata was hired amid a high level of scrutiny, after SNL received scathing publicity due to its lack of black women last year. Shortly thereafter, Zamata was brought on, in addition to two black women who are the first African-American female writers in SNL history.
Experts on the history of SNL have confirmed to theGrio that starting out newcomers with very light duties is common. In fact, Zamata may have been given more air time at her start than other women who have recently joined the show.
Some fans of the show online agree.
“It’s pretty much par for the course that new featured players get very little airtime,” wrote one thoughtful user on Jezebel.com. “She was given quite a bit more than usual, probably due to her newsworthiness, and probably as a result of their two new black women writers. But it’s her first show. There’s lots of time yet to go. All the regular cast members like Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong all started out as being barely used.”
Happy to see race-neutral hilarity
There were still those that complained about the cast and writers’ room changes as mere tokenism.
“Shame shame shame on you black people, still using skin color for jobs,” said one such critic on the Daily News web site.
Still, there was a resounding positive response to Zamata’s roles. With the exception of Rihanna, they were all race neutral, a positive move following a series of events leading to her hiring that have been fraught with racial and gender politics.
The two black male cast members of the show, Thompson and Jay Pharaoh, have been cross-dressing for several years when a black woman character was needed. There was some concern that with Zamata’s appointment, she would only be used to fulfill that role when necessay. Instead, in one single episode, she was able to both “play black,” and just be human.
This certainly portends a positive future for her integration to the SNL cast, not only as a black woman, but also as a seasoned comic.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb