The calls for Saturday Night Live to find itself a black female cast member were loud enough that Saturday Night Live itself had to echo them, running an opening sketch late last year in which guest host Kerry Washington had to play Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Today, news broke that SNL had finally hired its first black female star since Maya Rudolph — Sasheer Zamata — giving it someone to (potentially) play Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
All good. The next step will be making sure Zamata has someone to play besides Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Impressions, for better or worse, have been SNL’s bread and butter for decades; pretty much everyone in the cast needs to do them (Rudolph had a famous Oprah) and presumably so will Zamata. It’s one reason that diversity on SNL matters for practical reasons and not just social ones: you need people who can play everyone in the wide world of public figures.
But what will make Zamata’s hire worthwhile, for her and for the show, is making sure that she gets written great, memorable characters who aren’t black female celebrities as well. It’s the difference between being an African-American woman SNL star (a funny performer who is black and female) and being the African-American woman SNL star (a performer who’s specifically there to be black and female). That may seem like semantics, but it’s also about what real diversity on a cast means — giving a performer like Zamata the kind of range that the show’s most successful white men have had (and white women, and black men like Eddie Murphy).
It’s the kind of range you see on a show like Key & Peele, which over three seasons has gone from a clever change of pace to an unmissable comedy show. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, neither of them needing to be “the black guy” (or rather the mixed-race guy) on the show, have created themselves a wide range of characters. Some are famous black figures (President Obama); some have race as central to their character, but in a tangential way (Key’s substitute teacher to a class of white kids); some are just fantastic, weird, non-race-specific creations (Peele’s portly, lonely nerd Wendell).
SNL will be a little more diverse now, and that’s good. And it’ll be a great thing if the range of roles Zamata gets is diverse too.