My house smells like slow-cooked pot roast and marijuana.
Well, I’m slow cooking a pot roast and simmering marijuana, water, and margarine (though the recipe called for real butter) to make weed butter. The cartoons my four-year-old daughter just left play noisily in the background. Every time she leaves to stay with her dad for a few days, by the time they are down the street I’m rolling my first blunt to the theme song of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
I cook real good comfort food for myself on the three days a week that my daughter, Madison, is away with her dad. Wow, I have a four-year-old child.
Around this time five years ago, in 2015, I gave up my studio apartment to travel in a musty 12-passenger van with the Second City National Touring Company as the newest member of BlueCo. I was listening to five adults make a bit out of every sentence, drinking my weight in Jameson from a flask I once used as a prop, and figuring out what my road to comedy success could look like. With BlueCo boasting alumni like Amy Poehler, Jordan Klepper, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert, I couldn’t help but tune out the bits, stare out into the middle-of-nowhere fields of America, and fantasize about where this part of the journey could take me. Would I eventually write my own show that would get picked up by a major network and last for years? Would I write a show that would tank and get cancelled before the first season was over? Would putting up with earning $110 a week, scraping together my out-of-town per diem to finance my life in Chicago, and rewriting the end of this Angela Shelton monologue to update the now-outdated-yet-still-applicable references get me to my dream? Would the person I wanted to be when I grew up, the person I’d been fantasizing about since I was my daughter’s age, suddenly appear now that I am at the Second City?
I became the first Black woman at Second City to perform on a resident stage throughout her entire pregnancy. I was the first Black woman to be a part of a show that cast two Black women at the same time. I was not the first Black woman to voice grievances about not having proper working conditions.
In September 2016, with a one-year-old and daily mounting frustrations, it was time to go. Not only would I not be returning for another revue, but I broke my contract and left the show early. Performing onstage, what I thought to be my safest space in the world, had become tainted and disrespected. In 2019 I went to a therapist who acknowledged my PTSD and the dark cloud of creative discouragement that hung over me.
Quitting Second City turned into an unexpected four-year break away from the thing that I loved to do and have done all my life.
How did I get here, still in Chicago, designing my own flyer for my own show and another for a friend’s show that I produce? Meal prepping for a kid-free three days, mentally preparing to get my hustle on as I navigate the vastly unfamiliar territory that is my comedy career? I’m too tired to check e-mails, finish that script, get those edits in, update my website, sift through the 500 new photos of me to find one to post Tuesday around noon, ya know, the same time I plan to announce that my 420 comedy show tickets are on sale (STRATEGY!). I’ll wear sweatpants on stage, the audience will roar, and I will have fun. Oh, of this I am sure.
- “Not only can I do this, but I can do this and get paid and be around people I like and have fun. What do I want? This is what I want.”
- elias rios photography
In 2008, after graduating from college, where I majored in jazz and spent most of my time in student government, the royal court, and singing in small bands throughout the city of Memphis, I followed my best friend Justin Key to Los Angeles to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I did the dual musical theater/acting track for two full years. I had access to large practice rooms with mirrors and pianos. I performed full-out everyday. For some reason, I knew that this would be my last opportunity to do nothing but that. I knew that adulthood loomed in the foreground and soon I would have to chase practical opportunities (like graphic design) that allowed me to afford to chase my dream of performing.
When I moved to Chicago from LA, my journey started at a Black-owned theater, eta Creative Arts Foundation. I was cast in my first show after singing a song from a fake show during my audition. Runako Jahi was my first director, and I still acknowledge him as my theater dad. I was cast as the comedic relief in that dramatic play set in the 60s. I was supposed to learn “C’est Si Bon” by Eartha Kitt. I didn’t. One day I was asked to sing it. I thought, “Nobody here knows French.” I sang the song with made-up French-sounding words, and when I was done, my castmates and Runako were impressed. I went home and learned it for real in case I had inspired anybody to start learning French only for me to be discovered as a fraud.
That’s my thing: pretending to be ready while learning on the spot, and executing a favorable rendition good enough to put up in front of a paying audience.
I met Rueben Echols while performing my second play at eta, and he recruited me to work at Black Ensemble Theater. I performed in kids theater during the day and on the mainstage at night. At the kids show, we were given the freedom to “make the character your own.” It came naturally. I had been making things my own since my days at Gary Christian Center, a nondenominational church that really became my first audience. You need somebody to do announcements? Perfect time to joke in front of an entire congregation. Drama club? Sign me up, please. Praise dance? Youth choir? My church experience was really a Christian version of Fame. It’s where I started paying my performing and rehearsal dues. At Black Ensemble Theater, I got a chance to do it all again—sing in beautiful ensembles, dance intricate choreography, and perform shows for a live crowd.
Soon I was encouraged to reach out to the Second City. I had never heard of the place and at the time, I was looking for the next paying show I could be cast in. At my intro to the comedy theater, people were talking about paths, buckets, and the training center. But my eyes floated to the casting wall that displayed all of the current paid working talent. The question “What do you want?” was asked, and I said, “I want to be on that wall.”
Classes at Second City? No, thank you. I had just racked up massive student loan debt training in LA and was already getting paid to do shows as an actor in Chicago. Instead, I booked a role at Court Theatre’s The Mountaintop. What did I want? A job.
I returned to Second City after closing The Mountaintop just as they were launching the Bob Curry Fellowship, a program dedicated to training underrepresented voices. There, I met my closest friends, friends who shared a lot of my thoughts, concerns, and questions about our career paths.
The more tumultuous my Second City life became, the more I craved to just simply play on stage with people I trusted. I’ve been fortunate, then, that I’ve gotten to play with my friends in 3Peat, a group formed a few years ago by Black improvisers who were tired of being the only Black person in an improv group. They held down Monday nights at iO and would often ask me to join. I valued my Monday nights, and the last thing I wanted to do was leave my kid and the south side to go to another improv theater. But the players at 3Peat were becoming a much-needed community outside of the white improv world.
Those Monday night shows at iO and our road trips were like my Second City National TourCo BlueCo days reimagined, but with faces that looked like mine. Nobody was concerned about “getting a stage,” everybody was hungry for what was next, and nary a cultural reference of mine hit the stage floor because it was held tenderly by a Black playmate of mine. “Yes AND, Vanessa went to have BIG FUN!” The audience would laugh so hard whether they knew the reference or not, because we set it up sweet and we would be laughing enough anyway.
We’ve done some really cool things together, like creating sketches for Comedy Central. In our first round of pitches, The Blackening, written by Dewayne Perkins, was selected for us to shoot. By this time, some of 3Peat’s members lived in Los Angeles and New York. After multiple calls, notes from Comedy Central, and a few video chats, we headed to New York to shoot overnight in a big, creepy house in the woods. The sketch premiered on April 13, 2018, and within the first few hours we got two million views. The views and shares kept going up, and we eventually got up to 15 million, which led to us working with Comedy Central more. We were performing all over and enjoyed being on set with each other. It further opened my mind to the world of my possibilities. Not only can I do this, but I can do this and get paid and be around people I like and have fun. What do I want? This is what I want. I want to work in a healthy environment where I get to make art that I think is funny and cool with people who I love. And those environments, sometimes, have to be self-created.
I’m transitioning from my dream of performing live onstage to the dream of being in film and TV. Sometimes the transition is weird, unrecognizable, and lonely. The transition feels less like a decision and more like a deliberate set of longterm choices, strategies, teams, connections, appointments, and meetings. I’ve grown accustomed to not performing nightly, but I really do miss the instant gratification. Ultimately, being in the right environment is more important to me.
Now, between producing one-off comedy shows, I develop my own story ideas and form writing partnerships with people I admire. I write webseries that I want to make. I design title-card art. I’m going back to finding my love for performing, period. And if I want to perform at this level, I have to create some of those opportunities myself because they don’t come fast enough on their own. I create those opportunities wherever I am. And today, it’s in my kitchen slow cooking a pot roast and simmering weed butter. v