By Sadé Carpenter
Second City alumna Tina Fey hosted the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL) last Saturday, now in its 39th season. As she introduced the six new cast members, it was hard not to notice one detail – all of them are white, and only one is female.
Following the episode, media outlets raised questions about the show’s absence of color. In an interview with theGrio, Jay Pharoah, one of the two black cast members, shared his opinion that SNL should be more diverse, and could start by hiring a black woman.
Niccole Thurman, a biracial actress, singer and improviser based in Chicago, can relate. Featured in “What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You: A Chicago Review” at The Second City’s UP Comedy Club, Thurman says it is noticeable when a multiracial society isn’t reflected onstage.
“It can be challenging to be a woman in comedy, it can be challenging to be a minority in comedy,” she said. “My parents are black & white – why can’t we represent that onstage or onscreen?”
There should be more diversity in theater, Thurman says, but not solely in an attempt to fill a quota. Drawn to roles that allow her to highlight a person’s imperfections, she says she embraces her differences and believes they help her stand out when she auditions.
The eldest of three girls, Thurman was born in Kansas and raised by a single mother, but both parents had an affinity for music and the arts. She recalls her mother teaching her and her sisters the harmonies for “Chapel of Love” by The Dixie Cups, which they performed at family gatherings. Never formally trained, Thurman’s husky low alto serves her well at The Second City, where she sings onstage and in videos for The Second City Network.
“They have everything. You can sing, you can dance, you can play music, you can act, you can improvise,” Thurman said. “That works for my kind of skill set as well as me being a loud, goofy person. My personality just fits with Second City.”
Thurman graduated from the University of Kansas with a theater degree. She performed in “Country of the Blind” at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. before moving to Chicago in 2007. Before interning at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Thurman interviewed with Dionna Griffin-Irons, Second City Director of Outreach and Diversity.
“Niccole was eager, curious and selfless,” Griffin-Irons said.
Griffin-Irons says she looks forward to seeing Thurman’s point of view as a woman of color come across in her work. An alumna of Second City Detroit, she says she has seen many women use their voices onstage as an opportunity for truth telling. While she says she is not excited about the lack of diversity on SNL, she is not the one casting the show and believes actors can get over that hurdle.
“The impetus is always on us…to create more work, increase our visibility,” Griffin-Irons said. “Any who remembers our history knows that one door closed doesn’t stop progressive action. You go to the next door.”
Thurman’s mother, Amy Thurman, said while she is admittedly biased, she never doubted Niccole would push past her limits, overcome shyness and pursue her goals.
“I really feel super proud and excited,” Amy said. “She generally has a good energy, but she shares her greater self, her most positive self with the audience.”
“What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You” (90 minutes plus intermission) is playing on open run Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays at 4 p.m. at the UP Comedy Club. Click here for tickets. Also catch Thurman on “Local, USA” on WTTW, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. beginning October 22.