Performance » Comedy

Humorous Homecoming

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This Labor Day Weekend Indianapolis friends and family of Saturday Night Live cast member Sasheer Zamata have their holiday entertainment squared away, at least for Sunday evening. They’ll, no doubt, be at Fountain Square’s White Rabbit Cabaret, cracking up over the thought-provoking humor delivered by smart and sassy Sasheer Zamata. Hoosier politics alone should provide plenty of current affairs fodder for the hometown girl who’s made it big in the Big Apple.

The 29-year-old actress and comedienne goes by her first and middle monikers professionally. The uncommon name (pronounced Za-MATE-ah) became quite common in arts in entertainment headlines a couple of years ago.

It was big news in January 2014 when Zamata joined the SNL lineup as the first African-American female chosen to be a featured cast member since 2007, when Maya Rudolph left the show. At the time, Zamata was only the fifth such woman to do so in the show's almost 40-year run. And some of its current cast (and many others in the industry) were quite vocal about the show's obvious lack of diversity.

Sasheer Zamata helped make Zubenelgenubi's Magical Sky a reality at Pike Planetarium back in 2003. - COURTESY OF DEBORAH TEUSCHER
  • Courtesy of Deborah Teuscher
  • Sasheer Zamata helped make Zubenelgenubi's Magical Sky a reality at Pike Planetarium back in 2003.

Now settled into her sketch comedy roles on SNL, the Indy native has moved well beyond the brouhaha of the show's gender and race issues, but audiences this weekend shouldn't be surprised if she trots out a few such TED Talk topics during her stand-up act.

Zamata makes it clear that her comedy routine isn't about preaching and finger wagging, but she's comfortable entertaining relevant topics that find their way on stage.

Friends and fans here at home will expect such clever wit. Many likely remember the former Pike High School student who sang in show choir, played instrumental music and was a member of the National Honor Society, in addition to being in numerous other extra-curricular activities and athletics. And the fact that she attended one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse high schools in the city greatly helped inform her opinions.

"I had a very diverse group of friends at Pike, and going over to my friends' houses and seeing how different cultures lived definitely helped widen my scope of my community," she says.

And though she was an impressive student academically, and one who was involved in multiple school groups and activities, Zamata was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to acting.

“Her senior year, I did the musical Working [by Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame],” says Pike High School theater director Karin Stratton. “She had not auditioned for a musical or anything like that here at the school before. And then, she just showed that she had a gift for acting.”

Zamata wanted to fill an after-school void that she had her senior year, and that's when she gave acting a try.

From the Pike Planetarium to NYC and soon the White Rabbit Cabaret, Zamata has been wowing audiences for years. - COURTESY OF MARY ELLEN MATTHEWS/NBC
  • Courtesy of Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
  • From the Pike Planetarium to NYC and soon the White Rabbit Cabaret, Zamata has been wowing audiences for years.

“I had quit playing volleyball my senior year, so my fall schedule was more free than usual, and I still wanted to do an activity,” Zamata says. “I already performed in show choir and had friends in the acting program who performed in shows, so auditioning for a musical seemed like a great way to do something and still work with friends.”

In the audition, Stratton was impressed by Zamata’s “great sense of humor and timing,” and awarded her a role in the musical. And after witnessing the future comedienne’s natural wit firsthand, she recruited her for the school’s ComedySportz improv team, giving Zamata her first-ever taste of comedy performance.

“I didn't have any comedy background before I joined ComedySportz,” Zamata says. “I was a fan of the group because my volleyball coach from middle school would take us to see ComedySportz shows [on Mass Ave] at the end of the season, and I loved it. And then when Ms. Stratton asked me to audition, I was more than excited to do so.”

After graduating from high school in 2004, Zamata attended the University of Virginia, performing as a founding member of the college’s only long-form improv comedy troupe. From there, she moved to New York City and continued to blossom as a cast member of the Upright Citizens Brigade -- a comedy group known for producing the likes of Amy Poehler, Adam McKay and more.

While in NYC, she also began performing stand-up comedy on her own, sharpening her skills with every opportunity she was granted. Zamata says, “The New York comedy community is a great place to learn from others, and it's been a good space to hone my voice.” Having now made the leap to SNL, she’s been given the opportunity to showcase the summation of her comedic craft too.

Sasheer Zamata enjoyed her earlier role as a teacher's assistant for a semester at Pike High School. - COURTESY OF DEBORAH TEUSCHER
  • Courtesy of Deborah Teuscher
  • Sasheer Zamata enjoyed her earlier role as a teacher's assistant for a semester at Pike High School.

SNL has kind of combined all my skills into one medium,” Zamata says. “We're performing live in front of an audience, but also acting for the camera. But, I try to focus on the audience in the room and not think about the nation watching at the same time.”

In her time away from SNL, though, the comedienne has steered clear of mass venues for her summer stand-up tour, choosing smaller, less conventional establishments instead.

“I picked places that people would come to only if they know comedy or if they know me." she says. "Those shows have proven to be more fun. I also like the intimate feel of the rooms I've been playing, so I can connect with the audience more.”

Local fans can connect with Zamata this Sunday, Sept. 6th at the White Rabbit Cabaret in Fountain Square .

Still a fan of Zamata’s intelligent and witty comedic style, Stratten plans to attend her show, although she says, “I’ll be the old lady in the crowd.” Nevertheless, the high school theater director will again be looking on with joy, now witnessing her former student live out her dreams firsthand.

“It’s always been wonderful to see my students’ productions,” she says. “It’s really nice to sit in the audience and see them do what they’ve been created to do.”

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