Arts & culture, Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, Performing arts

Students put on a show: Margaret Cho and friends at Zellerbach

By Joel Bahr

Comedians Margaret Cho (right, photo courtesy of Margaret Cho), Ali Wong (top left, photo courtesy of Ali Wong), Aparna Nancherla (middle left, photo courtesy of Aparna Nancherla) and Hari Kondabolu (bottom left, photo by Yoon Kim)

Comedians Margaret Cho (right, photo courtesy of Margaret Cho), Ali Wong (top left, photo courtesy of Ali Wong), Aparna Nancherla (middle left, photo courtesy of Aparna Nancherla) and Hari Kondabolu (bottom left, photo by Yoon Kim)

Ask Berkeley students who they want to invite to co-create a night of artistic entertainment for their fellow students in Zellerbach Hall, and you might get Metallica front man Lars Ulrich one year, writer and musician Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) the next. For spring 2018, the students chose activist-comedian Margaret Cho.

This is Front Row, the Cal Performances performance collaboration that seeks to draw students into fine arts by putting the reins in their hands. Students are encouraged to select an artist they look up to and then work with that star to bring in additional guest performers. The result is a one-night event in Zellerbach, the campus’s premier venue.

Cho is the outspoken Korean-American comedian whose dynamic and provocative style has earned her the nickname “The Patron Saint for Outsiders.” Appearing with her will be comedians Ali Wong, Aperna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu. The March 21 show is already sold out.

“One thing that we were very clear on from the very beginning was that we wanted someone with a different perspective – preferably a woman,” says Shannon Hong, a sophomore studying business administration and development and one of the nine students curating Front Row this year. “Then we decided that we wanted something that combined the relevance of the current times with entertainment. We thought that would most appeal to students right now.”

Junior Dianne Chung, a Front Row curator

“Front Row is designed by students, for students,” says Rob Bailis, Cal Performances’ associate director who helps facilitate and coordinate conversations between the students and artists. “It’s intended to offer students the opportunity to pick a national or international superstar who they feel has shaped their thinking or in some way really affected their life.”

Giving a voice to those left out

Diane Chung, a junior studying integrative biology and peace and conflict studies, decided to join Front Row this year after attending last year’s show. Cho’s visit is a way to give a voice to people who feel left out, she says.

“I want people who identify with Margaret to feel like they belong on stage,” says Chung. “You have a voice and you can express it – that’s what I hope the audience gets from this performance.”

“I’ve felt, at times, that my voice was insignificant,” Chung continues. “I want to empower more voices.”

‘The Patron Saint for Outsiders’

Cho broke into comedy as a 16-year-old in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. Since then, she has sold out Carnegie Hall while touring her stand-up special Notorious C.H.O , suffered from an eating disorder that put her in the hospital, starred in an ABC sitcom, launched her own clothing line, authored two books, toured 10 stand-up shows, won a Grammy (and was nominated for an Emmy), raised money for San Francisco’s homeless population, survived sexual assault and rape, competed on Dancing with the Stars, and won recognition as one of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time from Rolling Stone – all while advocating for marginalized communities and pushing for equality.

Given the scope and impact of her career, Cho was quickly the consensus choice among this year’s Front Row students.

“Margaret uses her comedy to talk about issues she’s facing as an Asian American woman,” says Hong. “She’s able to distill ideas clearly with comedy and connect to a broader audience, not just Asian American queer women on discussions on race and identity.”

“One thing we wanted to do was bring these conversations together in one night where people don’t feel like they have to listen to someone rant about politics,” adds Hong. “Instead, we wondered, ‘What if the audience could listen to someone talk about these issues and still get entertainment and joy from it and then walk out changed?’”

To achieve this, Cho and Front Row students have been collaborating via Skype for months in preparation of the performance. Early discussions helped set the tone for what will be articulated onstage on March 21; the students peppered Cho with interview questions to get to know her better:

Are there things that you just can’t joke about? ( Everything is okay to laugh about, she says. In general, if you can laugh about it, then you can begin the healing process of whatever it is.)

Do you tailor your material to specific types of audiences? ( It depends, said Cho. In Asia or in Europe she might alter her material more, but less so in the U.S.)

How did growing up in a politically charged 1970s San Francisco shape your life? ( It was different than any other place on Earth. Her father owned a gay bookstore staffed by gay employees. “The political climate and my environment were shaped by people like Harvey Milk.”)

Through understanding came mutual respect.

“I think they’re great,” said Cho of the Front Row students. “They’re amazing for wanting this event to happen.”

Front Row students, left to right: Kate Montana, Anna Bruns, Dylan Stover, Shannon Hong, Dianne Chung, Salwa Meghjee

‘We have to fight invisibility’

For Cho, Front Row will be a different kind of show, perhaps even a harbinger of a new era in entertainment. Cho’s co-stars for the evening are first-generation Americans who have recently found success in show business. Ali Wong’s 2016 Netflix special Baby Cobra was a breakthrough, and since then she has written for three seasons of ABC’s Fresh off the Boat and starred in the sitcom American Housewife. Aparna Nancherla has appeared on Inside Amy Schumer and written for Late Night with Seth Myers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Hari Kondabolu has also written for Totally Biased and co-hosts the podcast Politically Re-Active with Bell, as well as appearing on numerous late-night shows, including Jimmy Kimmel Live, Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman.

“[This show] is very timely,” says Cho. “I think we’re all talking about diversity in entertainment, and so this is the perfect thing to get into.”

UC Berkeley sophomore Shannon Hong

“It’s really about looking to create an entertainment world that reflects the real world,” she added. “For so long we’ve only been privy to stories and experiences of one group of people. Getting to expand that is really important. I love that we get to do that in our work. We have to fight invisibility. It’s very strange.

“When I started, there were no other Asian American women out there, and it was really isolating. And, that’s why I have such a kinship with these performers, because we really love seeing each other, and we love being together and doing this.”

Front Row was also conscious of putting on a great show. Members of the audience are encouraged to tweet any questions they have for the comedians during the performance so they can be answered during a Q/A period towards the end of the show.

“I’m very excited about just laughing,” says Hong. “It doesn’t all have to be lofty goals of political change or changing the world after a comedy show. For many people that’s just not realistic. But maybe people will feel like they have the ability to break into fields that they’re not necessarily represented in and still feel like you can influence and inspire other people — like how Margaret inspired a lot of us.”

“I think comedy is always a good way to put our ideas forth in a very disarming way,” says Cho.

“It’s got to be fun, it’s got to be funny. It’s got to have a lightness to it even though you’re talking about heavy things. The more kind of levity you can bring, the better. That’s why I chose these performers and that’s why I want to do this.”