Ashley Nicole Black on Making Fans Feel Seen With 'A Black Lady Sketch Show' (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Created by Robin Thede and executive produced by Issa Rae, A Black Lady Sketch Show is television's newest sketch comedy series making waves by making audiences feel seen.
The half-hour comedy, described by HBO as “a narrative series set in a limitless magical reality full of dynamic, hilarious characters and celebrity guests,” features a core cast of four black women -- Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson -- bringing to life sketches that touch on social norms, sex, religion, dating and anxiety. “The major goal was to show as many different aspects of black lady life as possible,” Black tells ET, adding that the benefit of this series is being able to write and play so many characters that they’re not beholden to protecting the image of “the one black woman on a TV show.”
“When it’s all black women and you’re going to play 30 of them over the course of the season, then some of them can be really bad, some of them can be murderers, some of them can be jerks,” she continues, before revealing that in episode five, “there’s one character that I play is the most irredeemable character I’ve ever seen on television. There’s nothing good about her. She’s just a bad person.”
She adds, “It was so much fun to play, because I’ve never been able to wholly tap into every single aspect of yourself that you try to hide and not let people see.”
In addition to the most annoying woman in the world, Black has also played one of four girlfriends trapped in a house after an apocalyptic event, a very nosy security guard, a woman who is visited by Patti LaBelle after she gets dumped, and a badass-yet-overlooked agent named Trinity in the recurring sketch “Invisible Spy.” Her performances so far have been recognized by the likes of the AV Club, The Hollywood Reporter and USA Today, which rightfully dubbed her the show’s breakout star.
While Black says she loves every sketch, she’s probably most proud of the latter. “The ‘Invisible Spy’ sketches were really from the heart for me,” she says. “They came out so close to my vision. As a writer-performer, getting to do both and seeing it from beginning to end is really special.” An added bonus is that the sketch also features a cameo from Suits star Gina Torres, whom Black considers to be a TV legend. “I specifically remember when I was younger, there was one season of TV where there was only one black woman on TV and it was Gina Torres. And I was like, ‘I’m going to watch this show because Gina Torres is on it,’” she recalls.
Coming from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, where Black was an Emmy-winning writer and on-air correspondent tackling major political issues and news stories, the HBO series admittedly required a shift of gears -- albeit a welcome one. “The politics of it was starting to wear on me,” she says. Getting personally invited by Thede to join A Black Lady Sketch Show, she says, was “a dream” she couldn’t pass up. Black did, however, get her boss’ blessing before going. “She was like, ‘You're going to kill it,’” she recalls Bee saying, adding: “She’s been a champion for me from Day 1.”
Culturally relevant without being too topical, the HBO series requires Black, who got her start in comedy at Second City while earning a master’s degree in performance studies from Northwestern, to figure out “what’s happening in my life that I can make comedy out of,” she says. “Instead of turning on the news and the topic comes to you, you really dig deep inside yourself. You’re like, ‘OK, what am I feeling right now? What’s going on in my family? What’s going on with my girlfriends?’”
The end result are sketches like “The Basic Ball,” about a ballroom competition “for the rest of the LGBT cuties” competing in categories like “Clinical Depression,” Barbecue Daddies” and “Running Errands,” in which Black’s character wins “Awkward in the Body.”
“Something that I’ve always thought: It’s great that there’s more representation on TV, but whenever you see gay people on TV, they’re all super hot and super fabulous. And it’s just like, ‘Where are the basic gays?’” Black says of the inspiration for the Pose parody that first appeared in episode two. “A lot of the gay people I know are regular people and you never see them represented on TV. So I wanted to have a sketch that celebrated gay basicness.”
The sketch struck a chord among viewers; Black says her favorite Twitter reaction to it was from “this guy who was like, ‘As a basic black gay, I’ve never felt so represented before.’”
The tweet is just one of many similar responses she's received so far. “It’s been so positive, which is amazing,” Black says. “The thing I’ve gotten a lot that makes me so happy is people saying, ‘Oh, my God. I feel seen!’ Some people are like, ‘I feel seen and called out.’”