Laughter poured from Pomona College’s Allen Theatre last Tuesday, April 18, as students huddled into the packed room, finding seats in chairs or room on the floor, to see the Black Comic Cultures Stand-Up Showcase. With around 10 student performers, the event explored a variety of experiences through humor in a comfortable environment for student voices to flourish.
Organized by a Pomona Africana Studies class, Black Comic Cultures, students had the chance to share their own stand-up comedy routine to a large audience. The routines ranged from stories of Jewish summer camp to different ways of saying white people.
“It was a great safe space where everyone was able to talk about their experiences these past years,” Gabreila Guerrero PO ’23, an attendee of the event, said.
Professor J Finley, an assistant professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies at Pomona, teaches the class, which allows students to develop their own routines throughout the semester. By looking at the history of Black comedy, students were able to learn about Black comics to apply as a backdrop to their own stand-up.
“We go back all the way to slavery and think about the foundations of Black humor and folk humor,” Finley said. “[The class is] half cultural history of Black humor, and the other half is a practicum. So, students learn how to write jokes and perform stand up comedy.”
The dual act of learning the cultural significance paired with practice on stage is a process that Finley uses in her own research of Black comedy cultures. Giving students the chance to be vulnerable and put their skills to the test, she provided students with the necessary tools to feel prepared for the big showcase.
“We’ve been workshopping our jokes pretty much the entire year,” Charlee Mays SC ’26, a student in the class and comic for the showcase, said. “We’ve had creative control with our own routines and where we want to go.”
Providing flexibility for her students, Professor Finley allowed them to bring anything to the stage. Seen with the wide variety of stories shared, as well as the comfortability that each student presented, Mays expressed that there were no rules for their routines.
This comfort from the stand-up performers spread to the audience and opened up the space into a collective, inclusive experience. With relatable, never-heard before or completely absurd stories, audience members had the opportunity to feel involved in the storytelling space.
“I feel like it’s important to have student-led events … We’re sharing space [and] everyone was really comfortable,” Nasira Watts PO ’23, an attendee, said. “It was a safe space to make jokes.”
Despite the comfort that the class was able to create, performing in front of any crowd can be terrifying. With the bright purple lights on your face — which numerous performers emphasized during their routine — the act of performing stand-up is a massive undertaking that was not an easy feat for the class.
“There’s a community that brings together Black people from all around the 5Cs, and I feel like I do my best to create a space that is very inclusive, so it’s not excluding [anybody], but also that is fundamentally a Black cultural space.”
“It was really nerve-wracking,” Mays said. “I’m used to telling jokes, [but] not in front of a large audience where I’m the one talking at them.”
For Mays, it was her first time performing stand-up and stepping up to the mic took a lot of courage. Despite the nerves, Mays reflected on the instant validation that laughter carries and was excitedly considering the chance to do stand-up again.
This feeling was something that Finley hoped to see in her students. By providing them the chance to practice throughout the year, she was excited to see them apply the techniques discussed in class.
“It was fun [and] it was entertaining, but I also saw my students actually using some things that they learned from the text and integrating that into their humor,” Finley said.
By providing them the chance to practice throughout the semester, she was excited to see them apply the techniques discussed in class. These applications allowed for people outside the class to see the students’ learning in practice as well as to learn along with them.
“I wanted to see everything that they’ve worked on throughout the semester,” Guerrero said.
Reflecting this sentiment, the showcase created an environment of laughter and reflection of roles that comics bring into the future. In teaching a Black Comic Cultures class, Professor Finley was focused on highlighting Black voices in a way that allowed for a variety of people to interact with.
“There’s a community that brings together Black people from all around the 5Cs, and I feel like I do my best to create a space that is very inclusive, so it’s not excluding [anybody] but also that is fundamentally a Black cultural space,” Finley said.