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Diversity problems persist for Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, students say

Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Amy Poehler. (Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

Rita Chinyere was a longtime student in the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy community until this week, when she finally had enough.

Chinyere, 31, recently published a post on Medium called “Why I’m Quitting UCB, And Its Problem With Diversity,” accusing UCB of paying lip service to diversity in comedy but doing little to advance it.

The Upright Citizens Brigade, whose founding members include actors Amy Poehler and Matt Besser, is an improv troupe and accredited theater school that’s now one of the most well-respected in the country. Poehler wrote at length about the group and how much it means to her in her memoir “Yes Please.” UCB is best known as an incubator for “Saturday Night Live” writers and actors. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the stars of the Poehler-produced “Broad City,” took classes at UCB. So did “SNL’s” Sasheer Zamata.

“UCB does not care about black people or minorities,” Chinyere wrote. “It does, has done and will continue to do the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining diversity not unlike the entertainment industry at-large. As nine openings on house teams quietly came and went, not one POC was added, despite the fact that in the past year, two POC have stepped down. We are technically less diverse from a racial standpoint.”

“House teams” refer to groups that perform under the UCB umbrella: the Harold team, which is UCB’s most prestigious performance team, and the Lloyd team, which is something of a feeder for the former. Being asked to join teams is a critical step in a person’s career; that’s when they become official members of the brigade. When people get hired, say, to write for “SNL,” it creates openings on the teams. The UCB also offers invitation-only Advanced Program classes which often feed into the house teams.

“I’m more than familiar with the level of talent and the number of talented minorities, talented people of color that are in the system, and that for some reason are going unnoticed and that are being passed up, and that they’re sort of in this holding ground, if I’m being quite honest,” Chinyere said in an interview with The Post. “You’re in this structure that requires you to pay for classes to stay relevant and so you’re paying for these classes, but you’re not moving up. You’re not getting selected. … It’s not because there’s a lack of talent. I cannot stress that point enough.”

UCB offers diversity scholarships which provide opportunities for people of color to take its eight-week improv classes for free. However, Chinyere accused UCB of fostering an environment that was hostile to people of color. She wrote:

I’ve been discriminated against in classes and during shows. The first white person I met in 101, became friends with and later lived with said his first thought upon meeting me, without hearing me speak (I have a British accent ps) was, “oh great, a sassy black b—- from the bronx. This is gonna be fun!” That is something he said to me. That is something he thought. It is a thing a lot of people think.
I recently asked why there were less diverse performers represented on stage and much to my shock, the person’s response was “because there probably aren’t enough funny minorities in the system.” I nearly exploded. But it made me think, if this guy thinks that, HOW MANY OTHER PEOPLE THINK THAT? That is scary.

Chinyere’s post created rumbles throughout New York’s improv community, prompting others, such as Milly Tamarez, to respond and highlight their own experiences. Wrote Tamarez:

It’s hard for me to see people who have made me uncomfortable with their racist/misogynistic/homophobic game moves in improv classes move on to higher levels while teachers insist that I am the one that needs to grow as a player
I’m aware that I can talk to UCB staff about these issues, however, I have gone to UCB twice with concerns about my treatment, race issues and the lack of transparency for who gets accepted to the Advanced Program. All I have gotten is a compassionate and heartfelt shrug.
… racism, misogyny are not always so obvious, and are often systemic. And it’s hard for us to question the systems and institutions that reiterate these injustices in our everyday life. And that’s the case for the ASPs and UCB. Maybe it has nothing to do with race but that’s just who the best people are at the time, but I just look back on the past three years in this community and remember how many times I have been discouraged by this system and thought about giving up.

This isn’t the first time these issues have bubbled up in the comedy troupe. Chinyere told The Post that a group of students met with the UCB “powers that be” in January 2014 and offered suggestions for how to improve the experiences of students of color.

“Nothing was addressed on that list,” she said.

In December of 2013, before they hosted the Golden Globes, Tina Fey and Poehler sat down with Marisa Guthrie of the Hollywood Reporter.

[‘SNL’ lacks diversity in the cast, and in the writers’ room]

That was the year “Saturday Night Live” was being roundly criticized for its lack of diversity, and in particular, the years-long absence of any black women in its cast. Naturally, given Fey and Poehler’s reputation as feminists and champions of women in comedy, Guthrie asked about the issue.

After a lot of public criticism, SNL is adding African-American women to the cast. Do you think that criticism was warranted?
Fey: I think Kerry Washington did such a great job on the [Nov. 2] show [in a sketch that addressed the controversy]. And you saw how great it was for Jay Pharoah to have someone playing Michelle Obama opposite [his President Obama]. So I feel like they registered that really quickly and they’ve acted on it really quickly.
Poehler: Ugh, I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.

Last month, Poehler found herself the subject of controversy because of a joke about Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, and singer R. Kelly on the Hulu show “Difficult People,” which she produces.

[Amy Poehler’s ‘Difficult People’ slammed for Blue Ivy-R. Kelly joke: Here’s why it’s extremely meta]

Part of the criticism of the decision to include the joke was the way it trivialized the alleged serial abuse of R. Kelly’s victims. Once again, Poehler and her Smart Girls organization, to which people were directing their displeasure on social media, elected not to respond.

Her actions were emblematic of the issues Chinyere and Tamaraez both wrote about. The Post emailed Poehler’s publicist for comment on this story and has not heard back. Through his publicist, Raina Falcon, Besser declined to comment. Falcon referred The Post to Besser’s remarks to the industry site Splitsider.

“We agree that there is a problem in the sketch and improv community where in general there should be more interest from a more diverse sampling of our society,” Besser told Splitsider. “That is precisely why we do have diversity scholarships and why we’ve put together a diversity program to try to figure this problem out. I think it’s pretty awesome we just gave out 300 diversity scholarships this last year in NYC alone. And best of all, nothing we are doing is written in stone so we have an open door at the UCB, where a new Director of Student Affairs is here to hear any suggestions or issues.”

Chinyere told The Post she spoke to Besser by phone Monday, following an exchange on Twitter.

“I think what happens is there’s a lot of talk at UCB about diversity. There’s a diversity program. No one can tell me what the purpose of the program is or how it’s helping shepherd people of color through the system, so we’re failing,” Chinyere said. “They’re failing.”

Keisha Zollar served as the diversity coordinator for UCB for four years starting in 2010. Last year she resigned from the post, an unpaid work study position that covered two classes every six months. She’s a teacher at UCB, and also performs on a house team called The Governess. She stressed that her public comments to The Post were representative only of her thoughts, and not those of UCB.

“Even if you have not personally felt it at UCB, the comedy community or even the world at large please trust me when I say many, many, many people relate and empathize with Rita’s post,” Zollar wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “I will say, as a teacher, as a performer and the former diversity coordinator, THERE IS A REAL PROBLEM WITH DIVERSITY.”

The problem that Chinyere highlights in her essay is not uncommon in the entertainment industry; it’s one that we’ve seen play out over and over this year. Even within spaces that consider themselves progressive, people who think of themselves as well-intentioned liberals often do not want to hear about issues with diversity. It’s as though liberalism automatically confers anti-racist credentials, precluding such individuals from criticism when they fall short.

That’s what lay at the crux of Jon Stewart telling former “Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac to “f— off” after Cenac aired concerns about Stewart’s Herman Cain impersonation. “He got incredibly defensive,” Cenac said as he recounted the story on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast.

[Matt Damon faces online backlash after dismissing diversity behind the camera in Hollywood]

Chinyere imploring Besser not to “explain diversity slots to me” smacks of the frustration and exasperation that registered on the face of producer Effie Brown during the season premiere of “Project Greenlight.” Brown found herself on the receiving end as Matt Damon explained diversity to her. “You do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” he said.

Then there was soap opera actress Nancy Lee Grahn’s reaction to Viola Davis’s acceptance speech after Davis became the first black woman to win a trophy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series at Sunday night’s Emmys ceremony.

[‘You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there’: Viola Davis on her historic Emmys win]

“I’m a f—ing actress for 40 yrs,” Grahn tweeted. “None of us get the respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled.” Twitter quickly responded to explain how race made Davis’s experience different.

“Viola Davis — I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel like she dropped the mic in her Emmy speech by speaking to a real truth in the lack of representation and the hardships,” Zollar said. “I am thrilled she named other actresses and really… called to action and held the industry accountable. … Even though UCB is a school and it is trying, and a lot of good people with good intentions work there — I think there’s a lot of great people with good intentions — I also think it is a part of this larger conversation of holding people accountable.”

[Ripping Patricia Arquette to shreds]

Even Patricia Arquette, who found herself facing a similar controversy earlier this year after her Oscar acceptance speech was criticized for singling out white women’s plights under the guise of women’s rights, tweeted Grahn to tell her she was in the wrong. “Stop that right now. It is a venue for whatever the WINNER wants 2 say.It is her win. She is saying something that is proven.”

Grahn said in a now-deleted tweet that she felt “betrayed” by people “she would have marched for” because of their “meanness.” Her remaining tweets speak volumes still.

Zollar told The Post she felt there was a gulf between the good intentions of her colleagues and the actualization of them, and the biggest mystery is how to bridge that divide.

“I find it troublesome that I find the same story being repeated from lower-stake improv teams at probably small-community level to higher-stake comedy worlds,” Zollar said. “One of the things I spout all the time is let’s not pretend tokenization and individual success is institutional or systemic change. …I feel like there are a lot of people calling for systemic change in comedy, in entertainment, in the way we consume information, and I’m excited and hopeful and scared and concerned. Hopefully that representation will come. Hopefully that access will come. Hopefully the undermining of different voices will start to become less and less. That is my hope.”

“I’m very sad [about leaving],” Chinyere said. “UCB is a place I called home for nearly six years … it’s unfortunate, but that’s what I’m willing to lose to hopefully bring about change.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Milly Tamarez’s name. The post has been updated.