Hulu’s Woke is a satirical take on what it means to be a Black creative who doesn’t want to be labeled in a society that constantly wants to fit you in a box. The series, which launched today, was co-created by Keith Knight, an award-winning cartoonist whose comic strips include The Knight Life, (th)ink and The K Chronicles, and it actually draws from Knight’s life.
In Woke, Keef Knight (played by Lamorne Morris), is conflicted about how engaged with societal issues his art should actually be, and he wonders why he can’t just be a man in the world instead of always being defined by his race. That’s until he actually has a traumatic experience with the police. From there, Knight goes on a downward but comedic spiral of ptsd as his zany friends, and also cartoon versions of random objects, from a pen to a recycling bin, talk him through the process of getting his life back on track.
Sasheer Zamata plays Ayana, a queer reporter, one of said zany friends, who calls Knight out on his “New Black” BS and generally serves as the voice of reason. Here, we chat with Zamata about taking responsibility for the art she puts out, how she unplugs when times get crazy, and more.
Hello Beautiful: Tell me about the element your character brings to the show and what attracted you to the role.
Sasheer Zamata: Ayanna is the woke guru of the show. She’s trying to bring Keef Knight to the woke side. He’s an artist and went through a very racially charged incident with the police, and she feels it’s his responsibility to talk about this stuff in his work. I like this character because it’s not very far off from me. I do like putting issues in my work. I like talking about my life. I’m a Black woman in America, I can’t ignore it. I like being the person that’s calling things out and asking my friends to do the same.
HB: You mentioned you feel you are responsible for what you put out and that you do try to put relevant issues in your work. Does that apply to all Black creatives? Do they have personal responsibility to educate with their art and does it hit differently now given the times we’re in?
SZ: I don’t want to put that responsibility on anyone’s shoulders. You can do whatever art you want to do. No one has to do it because they’re Black. I find it hard to create art and not talk about Black issues because I mostly talk about my life and what I’m doing and how I’m existing, so to ignore my blackness would feel off. But there are times where we just need to laugh to keep from crying and we need something to be a palette cleanser, so thankfully, we’re at a point where there’s a plethora of voices out there that you can hear, and you can tune into, and hear their version of this world, and I think that’s great but I do like it when people use their voice to talk about what’s happening in the world, especially now because this is a very extreme year for a lot of reasons, and we are at a point where more mainstream voices are speaking up and doing things, like, the NBA has such a huge platform, and they were like, we’re not going to continue until actual moves are made on these issues because we’re Black and you cannot watch us and use us for entertainment if you’re going to keep killing our people, and I love that. And the more that happens, the more change we’re going to get, so I do think it’s important for people who have a very large platform to use it in that way because change can happen.
HB: One of the nuances of your character was that she was a sneakerhead. Are you into sneakers in real life?
SZ: I’m very new to sneakers, and when we were shooting the show they would ask, “Do you like these sneakers?” and I’d be like, “They look good, I guess.” I so was not a sneaker head and now I’m learning that I do like sneakers and which ones look good on me. T. Murph was the legit sneakerhead on set like, he actually has closets full of sneakers and would know when things came out like, the specific version of it and stuff, and that’s all beyond me but I do like them.
HB: Even though Woke is a comedy, it still tackles heavy subject matter. There’s a lot of heaviness going on in the world and it’s important to take care of yourself. I know from your Instagram that you are into pole dancing. I’m also a pole dancer and understand how therapeutic it can be, but with the coronavirus situation going to a pole studio might be tricky so what are you doing these days to take care of yourself?
SZ: I’ve just been trying to stay strong because I know the studio will open again one day. I hope to go back to it but it’s been months that I haven’t done it so I’ve probably lost a lot of muscle strength. When I did it, it was such a nice example of how quickly my body can change and how quickly I can adapt to new moves. When I started, it was like, yeah, I’m strong, I can do this and then it was like, whoa, I’m using muscles i’ve never used before this is crazy. Then after a few months it’s like, now I can hold myself up and now I can climb and go upside down. That was exciting to see how the journey can go and see wow i’m adaptable, I can grow that was very cool to see.
HB: But you roller skate too, so you can do that outside.
SZ: Absolutely. Roller skating makes me feel like a kid. I feel very playful when I’m roller skating and it’s nice to just have an activity to go outside and have an activity to do. Here’s a way to social distance hang. You don’t have to be next to anybody. We can all wear masks and be outside and again, it’s another skill that I’m developing and trying to figure out how to do new tricks, how to go backwards, figure out how to be smooth, because it’s a really fun way to get places when you know how to do it safely.
HB: To take it back to Woke. It’s a quirky show so what are some of your favorite elements?
SZ: I love the animation of the show. It’s a really cool way to showcase what’s going on inside of Keef’s mind because he goes through that extreme incident with the police in the first episode, and the rest of the season is analyzing the lasting effects. There aren’t too many things I’ve seen on a mainstream show that talk about ptsd or just the lasting trauma people have after a racially charged incident like that and I think it’s great that we’re seeing that, and then I feel like the animation illuminates the things he’s going through in his head, and it’s a cool tool for the show to use.
I hope viewers have fun. It’s a fun show, it’s funny and I also hope they learn along the way. I think comedy is a good way to help break down people’s defenses so that they can accept new information, so I hope people come away with some new perspectives on things, and I hope they continue the conversation with some of their friends, and their family, and their community and really take the message into their actual lives.