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Channeling Beyoncé: U.Va. Alum Sasheer Zamata Brings Bold Comedy to ‘SNL’

“Saturday Night Live” is about to get a jolt of adrenaline.

NBC announced Monday that Sasheer Zamata, 27, a 2008 graduate of the Department of Drama in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, would become the late-night comedy sketch series’ newest cast member.

As a featured player, Zamata is scheduled to make her debut appearance on the Lorne Michaels-produced program Jan. 18, when actor-rapper Drake will be the host.

Like her “SNL” predecessor, 1992 UVa. alumna Tina Fey, Zamata acquired many of her skills as a performer, actress, writer and comedian as a student at the University.

“She adds to a rich tradition of U.Va. alumni who are forging notable careers in the arts today,” said Jody Kielbasa, vice provost for the arts, who said he was “absolutely thrilled” to learn of Zamata’s addition to the “SNL” troupe.

Since graduating from U.Va., the Indianapolis native has been performing in New York, primarily with the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisational group that also helped propel Fey to superstardom.

“Sasheer has an amazing stage presence and excellent timing,” said Theresa Davis, associate professor of cross-cultural performance in the Department of Drama and founding artistic director of the Cultural Awareness Troupe.

Davis directed Zamata’s first U.Va. stage performance in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” According to Davis, the experience inspired Zamata (who at the time used her last name, Moore,) to major in drama.

“I have this memory of Sasheer standing powerfully on stage, connecting with the audience, claiming her space and speaking her truth,” Davis said. “It was evident that she was destined for the arts.

“I remember Sasheer as being energetic, bright, determined and passionate about her vision. During her time in the drama department at U.Va., she developed her talents as an actor, improv artist and director. Sasheer was always committed to putting work on the stage that presented a variety of cultural experiences.”

Zamata’s hiring ended a midseason talent search – the first in SNL’s 39-year history – that focused exclusively on minority women. The series had faced widespread criticism that the program’s cast lacked minority faces; in response, it held showcases featuring black female comedians in New York and Los Angeles, which served as casting calls.

Zamata will be the first black female to perform regularly on SNL since the departure of Maya Rudolph in 2007. Since its debut in 1975, the show has had only four black women in its regular ensemble.

“Sasheer will bring a fresh perspective to the cast of this NBC institution as she continues to expand her talents as an artist, writer and performer,” Davis said. “She has a unique artistic voice that deserves to be heard. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is lucky to have Sasheer join the cast.”

“If you asked me to describe Sasheer in one word, it would have to be ‘vivacious,’” said her academic adviser, professor of acting Richard Warner. “I recall our meetings were always energized by her radiant smile and offbeat sense of humor. She was a confident, poised, ambitious and well-spoken individual.”

While at U.Va., Zamata developed her positive outlook on life as a result of a horrifying car accident, in which she was struck by a speeding car while in a crosswalk. She described the transformational experience in a 2010 essay that appears in the collection, “Souls of My Young Sisters.”

Awakening in pain in a hospital emergency room, Zamata was stunned to see how many people were there hoping she’d pull through.

“This show of love made me realize how I underestimated the value of other people,” she wrote. “The goodness in others surpassed the drama that was depressing me. I found happiness from this event, and I plan to spread it to others.”

After that, Zamata began to embody a more upbeat spirit. With a fellow student, she helped revive the Paul Robeson Players, a U.Va. African-American theater ensemble that had been defunct for a decade. In a 2008 U.Va. Today article, Zamata conveyed her excitement about the group as a way of celebrating African-American writers and performers.

That season, Zamata directed the play “Whoopin’ Momma and Dookie Braids,” written by Brittani Wade, then a second-year student who was inspired by her experience of having grown up poor in a violent Chicago neighborhood.

Zamata said that her goal was getting more African-Americans interested in theater.

“It was amazing to me to see how many black students were in the crowd,” she said of the play’s run. “Ideally, you want to go anywhere and be able to see someone on stage that looks like you.”

At U.Va., Zamata also performed with the First Year Players in “Sugar” and “Godspell,” directed “A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant and a Prayer” and acted in “The Vagina Monologues” for U.Va.’s Spectrum Theatre. She was also the co-creator of Amuse Bouche, the University’s only long-form improvisational comedy troupe.

“Sasheer is a social critic and a satirist,” Warner said. “She had something to say to all of us as a black woman – something quite truthful, even painful – and she decided to tell us the truth that she saw around her in a funny and playful way in the characters she creates.”

The range of Zamata’s achievements at such a young age are impressive:

  • Her highest-profile gigs include sketches on FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” and Comedy Central's “Inside Amy Schumer”;
  • She stars in a popular Web series, “Pursuit of Sexiness,” sketches about best friends looking for “good men, easy money and free meals”;
  • Cosmopolitan named her as one of its 13 funniest women to watch in 2014 (and presciently tabbed her as one of the top contenders to join “Saturday Night Live”);
  • She has acted on MTV’s “Hey Girl” and ABC’s “Would You Fall for That?” as well as many commercials for top brands;
  • Her 2012 video, “Chioke Nassor’s Storytime: Sasheer Meets Her Flasher,” based on a true-life experience, was the subject of a piece in Think Progress on the use of sexual assault-based humor in comedy;
  • Zamata is especially known for her Beyoncé routines, and on her Facebook page, describes herself as “Actress. Writer. Comedian. Beyoncé.”

“I don’t think you can say that Sasheer’s recent happy news was an overnight success story,” Warner said. “She has worked diligently in New York since she graduated doing stand-up, commercials, HBO specials, videos and Web series. In other words, she took her great ability to create work – something she discovered at U.Va. – and turned it into a successful performance career.”

“I am so glad that Sasheer made the choice to pursue her passion,” Davis said. “I knew her to be bright, bold, talented, provocative and inventive. She was an absolute joy. As an improv performer and comedienne, she is hysterical, daring, quick – a brilliant performer. Sasheer is fierce!

“I am grateful to have worked with her – and I know the best is yet to come.”

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