The Ethnic Rainbow: How Brandon Ash-Mohammed is letting queer comedy shine in living colour
For too long, queer comedians of colour didn't have their own stage — but that's finally changing
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
When Brandon Ash-Mohammed started doing stand-up comedy in 2010, he could count on one hand how many fellow LGBTQ folks of colour were doing the same.
"Literally the only queer people of colour that did comedy in Canada were me and Martha Chaves," he says. "I did not know of any gay Black men who did standup even on an international level. And for me, as a queer person of colour, I was like, 'Where do people like me fit in in this comedy scene? We don't see ourselves reflected on stage. We don't have any safe spaces.' So for years, I always had this idea of a show but everyone was like, 'There's no people, there's no people.'"
That all changed when the landscape of comedy in Toronto specifically shifted, thanks in large to Chanty Marostica starting Queer and Present Danger — a move that opened up so many spaces for LGBTQ comics of all backgrounds to feel safe and supported.
"All of these queer people of colour starting coming into the scene," Ash-Mohammed says. "So I was like, 'Maybe I have enough people to finally do a show.'"
Ash-Mohammed absolutely had enough people to do that show, which he named The Ethnic Rainbow and held for the first time at Toronto's Comedy Bar in February 2018.
"Originally we didn't think it was going to be that big of a deal," he says. "So we just had the small room at Comedy Bar, and then Comedy Bar was literally getting phone calls like crazy. They were just like, 'We're overwhelmed, we don't know what to do, this has not happened before.' So then they were just like, 'Why don't we add a second show?' So we have added a second show at 6:30pm on a Sunday and it sold out. That's unheard of."
The Ethnic Rainbow has continued ever since, with the latest show being presented as part of the We're Funny That Way Festival, which runs June 12-15 at the Tarragon Theatre. Co-founded in 1996 by comedian Maggie Cassella and filmmaker David Adkin, it was the first international queer performance festival.
Ash-Mohammed feels the success of The Ethnic Rainbow shows that there's definitely been progress since then.
"Things have changed a lot," he says. "Things are getting better, though there's still not that much representation especially for gay men in comedy...especially for gay men in comedy in Canada. In the U.S. there's definitely been a push and there's more and more queer men of colour coming up: Jaboukie Young-White, Larry Owens, Joel Kim Booster, Dewayne Perkins, Leo Torres."
It's not quite the same in Canada, but Ash-Mohammed will continue to help change that.
"There needs to be more of an initiative to include queer people of colour," he says. "It's just like — a lot of the times it's only white gay people who get the attention, or they'll see white gay people and think that's the same thing. Queer people of colour have a completely different experience and a completely different history."
And it's not just the comics themselves who benefit when there's representation on stage.
"I remember after the first show there was this old gay Trini man," Ash-Mohammed recalls. "He came up to me and he just hugged me and was crying, and he was like, 'Oh my God, I'm so happy that I could finally see things like this. I'm half Trinidadian and my dad is white, and it's so awesome that I finally got to see something like this this in my lifetime."
Thanks to Ash-Mohammed and his fellow comedians at The Ethnic Rainbow, so many other folks will get to say the same.
The Ethnic Rainbow at the We're Funny That Way Festival. June 14, Tarragon Theatre. www.werefunnythatway.org