Robin Thede broke new ground with her weekly show.
“I was speaking a language that no one in the comedy world was speaking.”
Actor and writer Ashley Nicole Black hopes her career sets an example for other diverse voices. By Martin Wilson
“When I started out acting, I got a lot of messages like, ‘Well, obviously a plus-size black woman can’t do this,’ ” says Ashley Nicole Black ’08 MS. “ ‘Maybe you can write or maybe you can teach.’ Then, my first job in television was on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I applied as a writer. I got the job, and pretty quickly Sam offered me an on-camera role. It was exactly the thing that so many people had told me would never happen — and it happened immediately.”
Whether you know Ashley Nicole Black as a correspondent on Full Frontal or from her viral tweets with Elizabeth Warren, she has certainly become a multiplatform powerhouse. Alongside fellow Northwestern alumna Robin Thede, Black recently made the leap to HBO, where she writes and stars in A Black Lady Sketch Show, a buzzy comedy that was quickly renewed for a second season.
But her road to TV stardom was not nearly as rapid. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Black idolized actors Camryn Manheim and Gina Torres. “They stood out to me because they were alone,” she says. “There weren’t a ton of plus-size women on TV. There weren’t a ton of black women on TV. So, whenever there was one, I honed in on her.”
Black went to college to study acting, but after getting cast only in smaller supporting roles, she assumed she would never fully achieve her dream. “So I went into the graduate performance studies program at Northwestern to get the theoretical background,” she says.
After taking an improv class at Chicago’s famed Second City theater, Black knew it was time to free herself and unleash her full, comedic vision as a writer and performer. She left the doctoral program, having earned her master’s in performance studies. After working at Second City for five years, Black landed at Full Frontal. In the end, she says her experience at Northwestern probably helped her stand out in a crowded field. “People took an immediate interest in me because my point of view and my voice were so defined and so different,” she says. “That’s partly because I was coming out of academia, speaking a language nobody in the comedy world was speaking.”
“When I was starting out, I couldn’t point to any one person and say, ‘I can do that,’ ” adds Black. “Now the idea that people can point to Full Frontal or A Black Lady Sketch Show and go, ‘Oh, there’s a place for me, there’s a finish line for me’ — I think that’s really great. Hopefully these shows provide that finish line for people to keep those diverse voices in the pipeline.”
—Martin Wilson ’10 MS