The Upright Citizens Brigade is a prestigious improvisation training center created by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh that serves a direct pipeline for many alumni to shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. But after dedicating six years of her life to studying at UCB in New York City, Rita Chinyere suddenly quit a few days ago, citing the school's lack of commitment to expanding diversity as the reason behind her exit.
And she didn't go quietly — using interviews she conducted with other students of color and statistics about the school's racial composition, Chinyere penned a long essay about UCB's lack of diversity. In her post for Medium, she wrote, "As someone who is not a current performer at UCB and likely never will be, I have nothing to lose. I will gladly sound the alarm. UCB does not care about black people or minorities. It does, has done and will continue to do the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining diversity not unlike the entertainment industry at-large."
Elaborating on her essay, Chinyere told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview, "I think the biggest problem is a reluctancy to admit and accept that there is a larger diversity issue at the school and at the theater."
Chinyere wrote that 12% of performers at UCB's New York location where she was based are people of color. She went on to cite that one of UCB's highest profile performance teams — Characters Welcome — currently features zero actors of color (Chinyere clarified to BuzzFeed News that those numbers are inclusive of all people of color, not just black students).
She decided to write the post — titled "Why I'm Quitting UCB, And Its Problem With Diversity" — to give voice to several students of color who wished to remain anonymous out of fear that speaking out would hurt their futures at the institution and in comedy at large.
"The final straw was taking a step back and recognizing that in my fifth year, nothing had changed," Chinyere told BuzzFeed News. "In the past couple of weeks, some guy got hired to write for SNL, someone else with Seth Meyers – a bunch of openings came up. Out of nine openings, not one person of color got on? That was striking to me. That was the nail in the coffin."
Chinyere said that students of color have spoken with UCB administrators for years, complaining about the lack of diversity initiatives to no avail. After her post went up and circulated through the comedy community, she spoke with UCB officials, including Besser — the two went back and forth on Twitter about her concerns — and she concluded that there truly was a lack of awareness about the school's diversity issues.
Besser was not available for comment and his representative referred BuzzFeed News to this statement he made to Splitsider.com: "We agree that there is a problem in the sketch and improv community where in general there should be more interest from a more diverse sampling of our society. That is precisely why we do have diversity scholarships and why we've put together a diversity program to try to figure this problem out. I think it's pretty awesome we just gave out 300 diversity scholarships this last year in NYC alone. And best of all, nothing we are doing is written in stone so we have an open door at the UCB, where a new Director of Student Affairs is here to hear any suggestions or issues."
The lack of diversity in the comedy world has been under the microscope since late 2013 when SNL cast member Kenan Thompson failed to explain why there weren't any black female comedians on the show and creator Lorne Michaels said he hadn't found a black female comedian who was "ready" for the sketch spotlight. Not long after, UCB alum Sasheer Zamata joined the nearly all-white line-up and comedian Leslie Jones soon followed.
Despite exiting UCB, Chinyere remains hopeful that change will — eventually — come.
"They're very much aware that diversity is an issue in ... comedy overall. They're not blind to that," she said. "I've received a note from the artistic director – we had an exchange. It ended with her wishing me the best and [saying] she was sad about my decision. I spoke to one of the co-founders of UCB and it seemed like there was some disconnect. There's a receptiveness to do something to bring about change, but talk is cheap. Let's see some action before I start making any sort of distinctions on whether or not this has worked."