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Off the back of her four-night performance at the Udderbelly Festival in London in May, Gina Yashere is coming back to the UK to perform at the Africa Utopia Festival at the Southbank Centre (13 September) this week.
Originally from Bethnal Green, London, Gina became a star on the comedy scene after debuting at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, performing on TV and stages around the world, before finally settling in New York. We caught her ahead of her return to London for Africa Utopia.
Living in America must make keeping things hard, even with modern technology, but Gina is resolute: ‘I come back to London all the time, usually two to three times a year, and keep coming back to cultivate my fans and spend time with my friends and family.
‘Usually when over here I try to stay with family or at my brother’s house, or with my cousins so I can spend time with them.’
On her return for the Africa Utopia Festival, Gina said, ‘This is trying out the jokes and gearing up for a big tour next year. This festival [at the Southbank centre] is slightly different to the rest of the tour though.’
Africa Utopia is a celebration of arts and culture from the continent, with musicians, artists and cultural debates happening this week, 11-14 September at the Southbank Centre, London. The tour referred to is a UK-wide tour starting in January 2015, and ending at the O2 Academy in London, with dates TBC according to her website.
So why did she move to the US – was it personal or for career advancement purposes?
‘Bit of both to be honest – since I was six I had this dream to go and live in the States, and even when I started work, I worked for an American company. When I became a comedian it became the perfect place to travel and I have been all over the world.’
Her international status is certainly not contested – she’s been booked far and wide – but she has a particularly strong American fanbase that can be seen on her latest DVD Laughing to America.
One of the biggest questions about Gina Yashere is about her private life, because, despite coming out as a lesbian on stage in 2009 (WAY before Ellen Page did it, just for the record), and discussing her relationships with a Guardian blog ahead of her last show at the Southbank Centre in May, she prefers to keep things private.
When asked about the impact her sexuality had with her family, she kept it simple: ‘I don’t discuss things like that – they are private.’ Fair enough.
In America, more prominently than anywhere else at the moment, is there a huge juxtaposition between representation in the media of LGBT+ people and the political situation – you can’t go a week without the international LGBT+ press announcing another slight shuffle forward or backwards in legislature in the United States.
Gina commented by saying, ‘[The situation is] definitely improving to do with the LGBT stuff- we have sitcoms [etc.], but women and black women specifically have had more issues of late, but normalising things like that has worked a lot.’
We asked whether the recent push forward for LGBT+ rights, with regard to things like the repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and same-sex marriage, has left behind racial equality.
She responded: ‘You don’t need to push it because people become uncomfortable with that. Things need to improve and issues need to be talked about, but people give it lip service and I don’t see anything changing yet.’
Lip service, it seems, hits the nail on the head.
Again, America more than anywhere else at the moment is juxtaposed with issues to do with race, because while the country’s first black president sits in the position of the most powerful man in the world, statistics show that the prison system still has a majority of inmates from black and Hispanic backgrounds. The most powerful torch on that particular issue of late has been Orange is the New Black, so we asked Gina about her thoughts on the show.
‘Orange is the new Black is really good in the way they depict people and show their lives as opposed to just stereotyping them. It’s a great show, they covered the issues really well. The statistics are correct [with regard to the racial imbalance in prisons], and there needs to be work done on why poor people are in there.’
Does she see people reacting positively to the way that prison life has been shown?
‘I’m not a politician!’ she says.
On the new show, she says: ‘[It’s about] everything that has been happening to me over the last year, and the move to New York with the jobs I’ve been doing there.’
We certainly can’t wait to see it.