Wanda Goes There
Outspoken comedian/actor/writer/producer/activist Wanda Sykes delivers the laughs

By Lee Valentine Smith

As the 50th anniversary of the historic Stonewall Riots approaches, Atlanta Pride salutes the incident with a series of special events, including an evening of comedy and activism with Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro. The show marks the first time the queer icons have performed on a bill together and their divergent comedy styles should be equally thought-provoking and hilarious.

The Atlanta Pride Committee and The LGBT Institute at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights are partnering with the Fox Theatre to present the show. LGBT advocate and activist Feroza Syed is scheduled to emcee the show. In a statement, Atlanta Pride's Executive Director Jamie Fergerson said, "We are thrilled to cap off more than a dozen Stonewall Month events at the Fox Theatre and look forward to an enduring partnership that recognizes the rich diversity of our community."

The Stonewall Pride Celebration reflects on a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of New York's LBGT community in reaction to a police raid on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village. The gatherings are often cited as the main inspiration of the gay liberation movement, nationwide Pride Parades and the continuing fight for LGBT rights.

Recently INsite spoke with Sykes by phone about her return to stand-up, the importance of activism and her current TV and film projects.

Are you excited about your return to Atlanta?

I love coming to Atlanta. Great city, always a nice audience and good food. I've had a lot of good times there. I think the last time I was there, I played the Tabernacle.

The show at the Fox brings attention to the Stonewall uprising which was a pivotal moment in American history.

Yeah, I think it's really cool that they're bringing attention to it. People in New York and all, they know about it but it's nice to branch out and bring some light to it in Atlanta, also. Especially with the climate of today, it's especially timely.

Today's events eerily parallel the international drama of the late '60s.

Yeah, that's right. It's just normal what's going on. Sometimes I don't even recognize this country because of all the craziness going on. African-Americans have been saying forever about what's going on with the cops, how we've been treated and profiled and all the racism. Now that everybody has cell phones, people are actually getting videos of it. But it's crazy how, even with evidence, people are still putting their spin on it.

You'd think after 50 years, there'd be some serious changes in the collective mindset. There have been some, but we still have a long way to go.

Yeah. It feels like now we're in reverse, just going backwards.

But people are continuing to stand up and make a difference.

Yeah and I think those Parkland high school kids are incredible. I really think they're going to make a big difference and get some stuff done.

You'll be getting some hilarious work done at the show with Tig. That's a genius bill.

Yeah, I love Tig. This will be the first time we've done a big show together. We both have totally different styles and sensibilities. It's really gonna be a fun show.

I noticed on your website that you'll be doing stand-up sporadically during the summer. With your schedule, I'm surprised you have the time to fit in short tours.

Oh yeah, I'm booking dates. I've got a new hour and working it out and just having a blast with it. I'm finally getting back to doing more stand-up. I didn't really realize how much I'd missed it. I took off like a year and a half so it's great to be getting back out again.

Will the new material lead to a new special at some point?

I think so. If not by the end of the year, at the top of next year.

There are a ton of great comedy specials vying for attention now. Do you think we've reached a glut of them yet?
I don't think so. It might feel like that, but we have so many more outlets now. The good thing about Netflix is specials can just live there. If you miss something you can always go back. 'Oh, I didn't know this person had a special.' The thing is, everyone wants to laugh right now. Now on broadcast TV, with the success of Roseanne, they're bringing out more comedies this season, which is great.

You've seen so many changes in television over the years, both in front of and behind the camera. What has been the biggest change you've experienced?

There's just so much of it now. Comedy of course, but great dramas, too. And now outlets like Netflix are luring away a lot of people who started out in broadcast television. They're getting people like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, in order to bring that type of cachet to the newer channels. You have so many options of where to take a project now, so networks are having to be a little more flexible to keep up. So now at 10 o'clock, you can hear "shit" on network TV. Just to compete with all the other outlets. Artists want to go where they have the most freedom, so networks are really having to step up to keep the good shows going.

You have several different television projects with your own Push It Productions. A couple of unusual game shows and a comedy about a Muslim Model. That sounds pretty unusual.

We were working on a project for ABC with [actress-comedian] Zainab Johnson, which was basically about her life. It went to pilot, but it didn't get picked up. But we're working with her on some new things too. She's very talented [the 2013 winner of HBO's American Black Film Festival Comedy Wings Competition, and a semi-finalist on NBC's Last Comic Standing]. Hopefully we can get something going for her.

You always have a ton of projects going at the same time.

Yeah, I'm on a new show on Comedy Central and I'll be on a few episodes. It's called The Other Two. Lorne Michaels' company is producing it. We just started that. And for Tru-TV, Talk Show: The Game Show is doing well.

And one very interesting new film, Hurricane Bianca: From Russia With Hate. Tell us about that. The previews look wild.

Oh she is so funny! I saw her doing shows at Cherry's at Fire Island, so I've known her for years. I was so happy that she had so much success on Drag Race. Then when she asked me to do a cameo in her movie, I said sure. It was fun.

You hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2009 and it was great, and recently Michelle Wolf did an excellent job with it. What did you think of it?

I thought so, too. I thought she was great at calling them all out.

When you did it, the times were so different. Those reaction shots of President Obama laughing at your material are priceless.

Yeah, but this guy now, he won't even show up because he can't take a joke. Hopefully we can turn it around and get things going for November.

But fearless comics, like Pryor, Carlin and you have always challenged authority.

That's pretty much the job of an artist. It's what we're supposed to be doing.

These days people are so easily offended. Where do you draw the line of good taste?

Well, sexual abuse isn't funny, or children, or anything that's really mean-spirited. But my rule is basically if I can make it funny, then it's ok.

I know you'll have plenty to talk about in Atlanta with everything that's going on.

It's pretty killer right now. I'm like, 'Ok Wanda, go ahead girl!' I was at the Improv at West Palm Beach this past weekend. My wife actually came to the show. She watched it and she was like, 'My God! You're really going there.' She thought it was great because there's a couple of things I'm talking about, that people go, 'Oh God no, how is she going to get out of that,' but then I deliver with a big laugh at the end. She was like, 'Whew!' But I think that's what it's all about. I love those moments.

Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro perform June 20 at 8 p.m. at the Fox. Visit foxtheatre.org and atlantapride.org for information and tickets.



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