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Photo: Derek Wood
Photo: Derek Wood

Comedy Wonder Woman Wanda Sykes

You’ve heard of Wanda Sykes because she’s probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian. Sykes isn’t limited to the stage though, gracing TV and the silver screen opposite stars like Don Cheadle, Larry David, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and countless others. Her voice can even be heard in the kids’ movie series Ice Age and in recent episodes of the Netflix hit BoJack Horseman.

Sykes is a veteran of the show business universe, getting her comedy start in the late 90s before joining the writing team of the celebrated, Emmy-winning Chris Rock Show. Since then, the prolific comic has acted in, produced and written everything from pilots and skits to feature films.

With a creative hand in diverse projects, Sykes has always had a soft spot for the art and freedom of standup. On her current Oh Well Tour, she’s tackling the nation’s political atmosphere and social issues, and the ins and outs of her own family life. We got to catch up with this tremendously funny wonder woman before she takes the Strathmore stage on November 3.

On Tap: Comedy specials and standup performances seem like a time for comedians to share their thoughts and feelings about the world with audiences. Is that how you look at it?
Wanda Sykes: I like to give you a snapshot of the lay of the land and what I think is going on with social issues and other things that are important to me. I spend a lot of time with my family, so I talk about that too. I’m trying to do it in a way that we can actually talk about things but have fun with them. I want to do it where we’re having fun and it’s not angry and saying everybody else is f–ked up. You want to point out hypocrisy on both sides.

OT: Your next comedy special will be on Netflix, but you’ve reportedly been critical of their offers in the past. What changed?
WS: I was speaking out more so in support of what Mo’Nique was saying. You have to get an offer you can live with, which is why I went with Epix for my last special. This time around, I was able to make a deal with [Netflix]. It’s great to be on that platform, because they reach so many people worldwide and that’s a great place to further your audience.

OT: You’re one of the most prolific comedians in entertainment, from writing and producing to doing standup. How do you choose what projects you want to do? What’s that process like?
WS: It’s about quality, [whether] it’s saying something or flat-out funny. It has to speak to me, and it has to be something I can make better. You have to tailor your approach to the project. If it’s writing, you have to discuss stories and what you want it to say. You go from there, [and] find out the best ways to service the project.

OT: Do you approach performing onstage differently than in a scripted setting?
WS:
Onstage when you’re doing a live show, it’s total freedom.
Every show I’ve done, there will be [at least] one thing that comes to me onstage. It’s exactly that [freedom], and that’s the beauty of standup.

OT: It feels like more often than not, comedians take flak from anyone and everyone. Has that become more prevalent in your industry? How has comedy changed over the course of your career?
WS:
It’s more eyeballs, but it’s also the access. The thing that drives me nuts the most is the cell phones at the shows – people recording the comics when they’re working stuff out. A lot of bits can get taken out of context when that happens. You’ll [see] someone and think they’re funny, and then you’ll see a clip that’s not and it’s because they’re still working on it. That hurts comedy and now when we’re onstage, we’re thinking about those repercussions.

OT: When President Trump was elected, some people thought that comedians would have a field day since politicians can be easy targets for jokes. Do you think that’s true with him, and will you work him into your standup at Strathmore?
WS: Oh, I’m totally going to talk about him. The thing is, there’s no comedian out there funnier than Trump. It’s hard to do a parody of a parody. You can’t make up the things that he says. For all presidents, there’s always been a nice debate because everyone isn’t for the same things. But you have to be able to go back and forth and talk about it. With this, things go straight to rage on both sides.

Catch Sykes at Strathmore on November 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$115 and can be purchased at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about the comedian at www.wandasykes.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @iamwandasykes.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

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Phoebe Robinson Finds Truth in the “Trash”

“I write in my own voice, with my own abbreviations. I’m a pop culture junkie, and I fully embrace it. That’s what made her notice me.”

Phoebe Robinson is speaking on the importance of being herself, including her signature comical abbreviations like “soc-meds” for social media, and the operative “her” is none other than Oprah herself. The comedian and author is explaining the MO of her career that eventually led her to pen a New York Times bestseller titled You Can’t Touch My Hair, adding Oprah and thousands of others to her fanbase.

You may also know Robinson as one-half of the 2 Dope Queens podcast, where she and Jessica Williams host and showcase the talents of comedians and actors from diverse backgrounds. And as the host of her own podcast Sooo Many White Guys, Robinson chats with an equally talented array of people from other creative industries. She’s hosted huge names like St. Vincent, Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem, just to name a few.

In the midst of the runaway success of her first book, hosting two popular podcasts and garnering multiple acting credits, Robinson penned another book: Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, out on October 16. This collection of essays sees Robinson attempting to balance the cosmic scales of the current messes surrounding feminism, dating, politics and more.

“Trying to find the humor in things really helps because right now, things seem really tough,” she explains. “So many people are trying to make things better. On a grand scale, is global warming melting all of us? Yes, 1000 percent. But it is really cool to see people who just had a regular office job and then decide they want to get into politics because they care about education or women’s or trans rights. [That’s] a reminder that not everything is lost. We fully have the potential to take control and right the ship any way that we want to.”

She’ll bring her book to life on October 25 at the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, organized by Brightest Young Things and curated by comedian Tig Notaro. Lincoln Theatre’s stage will be graced by both Robinson and Notaro at the festival’s opening show as Notaro “laughs at whatever nonsense I’m saying and makes fun of it,” Robinson speculates. She and fellow Dope Queen Williams are no strangers to the Bentzen Ball’s stacked lineup – they made an appearance in 2013 and grew a relationship with Notaro from there.

“When Jess and I were tossing around directors for our 2 Dope Queens HBO specials, we decided that we definitely wanted a woman to direct. We felt like so many times this opportunity goes to a guy. We both immediately thought about Tig and how that could actually work because her style of comedy is very different than ours, so that can enrich the process. That’s how we really got to know Tig and hang out with her. It feels really good to know that someone I admire and respect and think is really talented is becoming a friend.”

A common theme at the Bentzen Ball, and in all of Robinson’s work, is the mutual support and respect amongst creatives that allows voices not always given the mainstream time of day to thrive – and inspire others to do the same. Robinson emphasizes that with any kind of creative work, it’s essential to allow yourself the time to find your voice and create your own path rather than trying to fit in.

“While it’s good to want to do a late-night show or standup, or be mentioned in a magazine or have your book published by a certain publisher, I think there’s also something to trying not just to get a seat at the table but to creating your [own] table – making your own lane and traveling on that. The coolest stuff happens when you create your own lane and stay true to yourself.”

See Robinson open Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball on Thursday, October 25 at Lincoln Theatre. Doors at 5:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 and include a copy of Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay.

Learn more about the comedian at www.phoeberobinson.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @dopequeenpheebs. For more on the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, visit www.bentzenball.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt
Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt

NoVA Native Patton Oswalt Set For Kennedy Center Debut

Patton Oswalt can be described as something of a Renaissance man in entertainment. He’s found success as an author (both books and graphic novels), actor (in films and on TV), voice-over artist (video games, animation and TV) and on the comedy circuit.

The latter is where his true passion lies, as the comedian explains that everything he does is geared toward allowing him to continue doing comedy live in front of an audience.

“Acting in TV and film is just a way for me to increase my exposure and get the chance to do more stand-up,” Oswalt says. “I love the creativity of the business. It’s a happier life for me to live creatively, and it’s something I am always going to do.”

Raised in Sterling, Virginia, Oswalt attended the College of William & Mary where he majored in English. The idea to try comedy as a career came sometime between his freshman and sophomore year, and once the bug hit, he never looked back.

“It wasn’t my game plan when I started, but it developed organically and by senior year, it was all I wanted to do,” he says. “Back then, DC was a fun scene, but it was much more predicated on who was making more money and who was famous. Creativity didn’t really come first. It was more about status.”

Looking for bigger things, Oswalt packed his bags and started making a name for himself in San Francisco on its rising comedy circuit. From there, he headed to Los Angeles and hit the big time.

“The circuit in San Francisco was amazing – it was the opposite of DC. It was more about who was doing original stuff. Then I went to Los Angeles and there were different scenes within the scenes, which was fascinating to me.”

Since 2003, Oswalt has appeared on seven TV comedy specials and released eight critically acclaimed albums, with his 2016 Talking for Clapping recording earning him a Grammy.

On July 21, the comedian will play two shows at the Kennedy Center as part of the District of Comedy Festival, making his debut in the historic theater. Although he has memories of seeing comedy legend Gallagher and old film noir movies at the Kennedy Center when he was younger, he never dreamed that he would one day perform there.

“It feels good to be back in the area,” he says. “It’s a little surreal as I started doing comedy in DC in 1988. It’s going to be fun to be back in my neighborhood. At the time, my dreams weren’t big enough to think about playing at the Kennedy Center. I was only looking to get a solid 10 minutes.”

Oswalt is planning all-new material for the night, working on some of what he expects to be part of his next TV special. But don’t ask him for specifics, as he warns, “You should never ask a comedian what he’s going to talk about!”

His one hint is that his fans can expect some strong truths about what he’s seeing in the world.

“Being onstage in front of a crowd is just a great adrenaline rush. I love how everything I say came from nothing but now it’s a living thing outside of myself, living creatively. There’s nothing in the world like it.”

Although many people know him from his first TV guest appearance – Seinfeld’s classic “The Couch” episode – his biggest claim to fame early in his career was playing Spence on the Kevin James CBS comedy The King of Queens.

“One of the co-creators of [The King of Queens] was watching an HBO special of mine, and just saw me as Spence. I felt very lucky to get that part.”

Oswalt will soon be headed back to California to begin work on two network TV shows he’s a part of. He currently stars as Principal Ralph Durbin on NBC’s comedy AP Bio, which was recently picked up for a second season, and he’ll enter his sixth season as the narrator for ABC’s The Goldbergs in the fall.

“Michael O’Brien created AP Bio, and his stuff is just on the outer rim of absurdity. The fact he gets to do it in the format of a sitcom is amazing, and I’m so lucky that I get to be a part of it. For The Goldbergs, I pop in about once a week and it’s really fun. It uses nostalgia as a Trojan horse into general emotion and empathy, and that’s what I really love about the show.”

Before his TV shows pick back up, catch him live when he headlines Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival on Saturday, July 21. Shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m., tickets start at $49. Purchase tickets at www.kennedy-center.org and learn more about the comedian at www.pattonoswalt.com.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts:
2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Daniel Schwartz
Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Skin of our Teeth: quirky play a story for the times

With a whirlwind of huge time jumps, religious allegory and actor-audience interaction, The Skin of Our Teeth is one of those plays that keep you thinking long after the curtain has closed and everyone has gone home. And while I still find it hard to put into words what the story means on a personal level, I am certain that this is a play with a message that could not be better suited for the times. Running at Constellation Theatre until February 11, The Skin of Our Teeth was written by Thornton Wilder and has been directed by Helen Hayes award winner Mary Hall Surface for this production.

The play follows the story of the Antrobus family—husband George (Steven Carpenter), wife Maggie (Lolita Marie), children Henry (Dallas Tolentino) and Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese) and their maid Sabina (the fantastic Tonya Beckman)—in good times and bad and across vast time shifts. And I mean vast—the scenes range from the beginning of an Ice Age, to the Atlantic City boardwalk to a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter.

How can these times all be connected? Well the Antrobus’s are very old… George and Maggie have been married for 5,000 years to be exact. But they are simply your average family living in a New Jersey suburb, managing to survive all these Earth-altering events by… wait for it… the skin of their teeth.

And despite an unusual storyline and being written by Wilder almost 80 years ago, certain elements of the story may as well have been written for our modern era. Quotes from Maggie could be said by today’s feminists: “I have a letter…and in the letter is written all the things that a woman knows. It’s never been told to any man and it’s never been told to any woman, and if it finds its destination, a new time will come. We’re not what books and plays say we are. We’re not what advertisements say we are.”

Other’s talk about how in times of hardship, we must go on no matter what: “Do I have to explain to you what everybody else already knows – everybody who keeps a home going? Do I have to say what nobody should ever have to say, because they can read it in each other’s eyes? Now listen to me: I could live for seventy years in a cellar making soup out of grass and bark, without ever doubting that this world has work to do and will do it?”

While somewhat of a challenge to describe on paper, The Skin of Our Teeth adds up in person and is truly a funny, moving story that proves just how much the human spirit can endure. Constellation Theatre’s Source Theatre proved a great stage to host the show as its semi-circular stage allowed for wonderfully unique set designs and an intimate setting let the audience experience the full impact of emotions flowing across the stage. The unique characters and wildly imaginative storyline will truly stay with you long after the play is over, and as Sabina says to the audience at the end, the show doesn’t end with the curtain call; we have a long way to go and the end hasn’t been written yet.

Catch The Skin of Our Teeth at the Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre, running through February 11, 2018. Learn more here.

Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org