SNL had been under fire for years for not being diverse and in in 2014 the voices got louder when Kenan Thompson, who usually tasked with playing black female characters, told /react-text react-text: 213 TV Guide /react-text react-text: 214 that the lack of women of color on the show was due to a lack of qualified candidates. He said: “It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” The backlash against him was swift and it intensified the spotlight on SNL’s diversity issue. The stats are no better for other women of color. SNL hired it first Latina in 2016, it’ first Muslim American in 2009- to date no Asian or Native American woman has been hired to the cast.
SNL even tried to poke fun at the issue by having Kerry Washington play both Michelle Obama and Oprah in the same skit. While Washington exited the stage to change, a voiceover and scrolling text read: “The producers at SNL would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter, we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” The skit ended with a cameo from Al Sharpton, saying: “What have we learned from this skit? As usual, nothing.”
On May 20, 2017, at the end of Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) Season 43, Sasheer Zamata, left the show after 4 Seasons. As much fanfare that was created around her hiring, there was no fanfare or official goodbye when Zamata quietly exited stage right for the last time.
With Zamata’s exit, there are only 2 women of color left on the show. Here’s a look at the 10 women of color who have been part of Saturday Night Live during it’s 41 year history:
1. Sasheer Zapata
Featured & Repertory Player
Sasheer Zamata was destined for stardom- her parents named after the alien flower-like crystal called the “Sahsheer“ from the Star Trek episode. She was a founding member of the University of Virginia’s long-form improv comedy troupe, Amuse Bouche, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She recently talked about this experience at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn–“This is probably a lower-stakes thing, but in college there was only one improv team when I was starting, and it was a bunch of white dudes—which is fine, they’re funny. But it was just one note and I didn’t think that was ok—like that was the only comedy we could absorb at the time. And also I didn’t make the team, so I was like, alright! [laughs] I’ll start my own group.
“I started my own group with one of my close friends, who’s still doing comedy and I felt like we just had a wildly different voice because we had more women, we had more people of color and the group still exists at the school—and it opened up another opportunity for more people to create and do stuff. Out of that group came a sketch group, and then out of that came a political humor column, and it begat more things.”
Zamata has been a regular at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City and her on-screen credits include MTV’s series Hey Girl, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Inside Amy Schumer sketches for CollegeHumor.com and she also voices the character Sally in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Zombie mode.
Zapata was hired in December 2013 and officially joined the cast in January 2014 during its 39th season, when SNL was being publicly criticized for not being ethnically diverse. Zamata became the first black female cast member hired in 7 years since Maya Rudolph left in 2007.
Zamata described the pressure of her very public audition process to Vanity Fair. “It was weird to have a very public audition in that way. No one else gets that. There’s no other kind of mass call for cast members. I was in the press for just auditioning. I’m getting all these texts and e-mails that are like, ‘Good luck!’—which is so nice and wonderful that I got so much support, but also so stressful. It’s historically a secret, and now it’s a very public thing. It was a very weird way to go through that.”
Zamata debuted on SNL as a featured player in the January 18, 2014 episode. She was promoted to repertory player in the first episode of Season 41. Some of her recurring characters include Janelle, a teenage girl who hosts a Youtube channel called How 2 Dance with Janelle but is unaware of how her developing sexuality is coming off to viewers, and Keeley, a contestant on an African-American centric version of Jeopardy! called Black Jeopardy!. She was also known for her celebrity impressions Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Tyra Banks, and Beyoncé. She quietly left the SNL this year.
It’s not all fun and games for Zamata. She is a celebrity ambassador to the American Civil Liberties Union where she works with the Women’s Rights Project, which seeks to break down gender biases and “ensure equal economic opportunities, educational equity, and an end to gender-based violence” with a particular focus on women of color. Zamata has openly talked about her experiences with discrimination and colorism and how she’s been stigmatized for her darker skin tone, she hopes to turn her experiences into a message of self-acceptance and body positivity for women in all shades.
2. Leslie Jones
3. LaKendra Tookes
2014 – Present
LaKendra Tookes was hired as a writer in December 2013, along with Leslie Jones. Tookes, a comedian and actress was former news reporter who had performed at the iO West Theater in LA. She’s appeared on the shows Red Oaks and Friends of the People. While Tookes has not appeared on-screen like Jones has, there have been many cast members who started out as writer and went on to join the cast.
4. Melissa Villasenor
2016 – PresentLaKendra Tookes
2014 – Present
5. Nasim Pedrod
Featured & Repertory Cast Member
2009 – 2015
in 2009, Nasim Pedrod became SNL’s first female Middle Eastern featured cast member. Born in Tehran, Iran, Pedrod immigrated to the US in 1984 with her family. She graduated from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, where she was a cast member of the UCLA Spring Sing Company. She performed her one-woman show, Me, Myself & Iran at the Sunday Company at The Groundlings, ImprovOlympics and the Upright Citizens Brigade. She received a LA Weekly Best Comedic Performance of the Year Award for her lead role in the spoof, After School Special.
Pedrod has made television appearances on Gilmore Girls, The Winner, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and she had a recurring role on ER as Nurse Suri.
Pedrod was promoted to a repertory player in 2011 and left the show in 2014 to work on the show Mulaney , which was cancelled in March 2015.
She has joined the second season of TBS’ ensemble comedy, People of Earth as Special Agent Alex Foster, “a smart, dedicated FBI investigator getting a second chance after recently being disgraced.”
Comedy also runs in the family, her sister is Nina Pedrod, is known as a writer and producer for shows New Girl and 30 Rock.
6. Noelle Wells
Era: 1985-1986LaKendra Tookes
2014 – Present
7. Maya Rudolph
Era: 1985-1986LaKendra Tookes
2014 – Present
Maya Khabira Rudolph (born July 27, 1972) is an American actress, comedian, and singer. After becoming a member of The Groundlings improv troupe in the late 1990s, Rudolph joined the NBC television series Saturday Night Live, on which she was a cast member from 2000 to 2007. She then ventured into film, appearing in 50 First Dates(2004) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Since leaving Saturday Night Live, Rudolph has appeared in Grown Ups (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), Grown Ups 2(2013) and Sisters (2015). She has also lent her voice to the animated films Shrek the Third (2007) and Big Hero 6(2014). In addition to her film appearances, Rudolph also starred as Ava Alexander on the NBC sitcom Up All Nightfrom 2011 to 2012, and co-hosted her own variety show Maya & Marty.
udolph was born in Gainesville, Florida, the daughter of soul singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton and composer, songwriter, and producer Richard Rudolph. Her father is an Ashkenazi Jew, and her mother was African-American. Her paternal grandfather was Sidney Rudolph, a philanthropist who once owned all of the Wendy’s and Rudy’s restaurants in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Her great-grandfather was Lithuanian; he was born in Vilnius, changed his surname from “Rudashevsky” to “Rudolph”, and was one of the founding members of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rudolph’s parents moved to Los Angeles, California when she and her brother Marc were very young, and they grew up primarily in the Westwood neighborhood. Near the end of the song “Lovin’ You“, Riperton can be heard singing “Maya” over and over again. Riperton incorporated this into her performance of the song on The Midnight Special. Riperton died on July 12, 1979, at age 31, from breast cancer. Rudolph’s godmother was R&B singer Teena Marie. In 1990, Rudolph graduated from Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California, where she became friendly with fellow students Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black, and continued her education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in photography from Porter College.
Saturday Night Live
In May 2000, Rudolph joined the cast of Saturday Night Live as a featured player for the final three episodes of the 1999–2000 season, after a stint as a member of The Groundlings improv troupe, where she met future Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte. Rudolph’s musical talents were frequently employed on Saturday Night Live. She sang as Beyoncé Knowles in the Prince Show sketches, as the “Space Creature” in the Gays in Space sketches, except for the one on the season 31 episode hosted by Peter Sarsgaard, because it aired around the time Rudolph was on maternity leave. Friend Will Forte substituted for her during that episode. Her ability to change her looks and her command of many accents also led to her playing an unusually wide range of ethnicities on the show, often with only a change of wigs. As “Nooni Schoener,” Rudolph, along with Fred Armisen, created a couple from an unspecified Scandinavian country, who have unplaceable accents and bewilderingly foreign manners. Rudolph was also able to play male characters such as Scott Joplin, Justin Guarini, and Mario Vazquez.
Her final episode as a cast member was on November 3, 2007, with host Brian Williams and musical guest Feist, the last episode before the writers’ strike. She returned on October 25, 2008, in a featured guest appearance as Michelle Obama and sang a duet with Kenan Thompson about Amy Poehler‘s newborn. She then also appeared in the 2008 Christmas episode, where she reprised her role in the sketch Bronx Beat, with Amy Poehler. She also appeared in two sketches in the 2008–09 season finale with Will Ferrell. She appeared in a Weekend Update Thursday sketch during the fall 2009–10 season as Oprah Winfrey speaking on behalf of Chicago‘s bid for the 2016 Olympics. She also appeared on the show in May 2010 to perform in skits including “The Manuel Ortiz Show” with Betty White. She returned to Saturday Night Live for the season 36 premiere, hosted by Amy Poehler, performing the “Bronx Beat” sketch and that same season for episode 700, hosted by Tina Fey. On February 18, 2012 she returned to Saturday Night Live as a host for the first time and reprised her roles in sketches such as “Bronx Beat”. She once again returned to SNL on December 19, 2015 for the Christmas episode hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to reprise her role in the “Bronx Beat” sketch. She appeared once more on the 41st season finale (hosted by Fred Armisen) as Dilma Rousseff on Weekend Update.
Rudolph’s characters on the show have included “Attorney Glenda Goodwin” and “Megan” from the “Wake Up, Wakefield!” sketches. Rudolph has done a number of celebrity impressions on Saturday Night Live during her tenure, including Amanda Byram, Ananda Lewis, Barbra Streisand, Bern Nadette Stanis (as Thelma Evanson Good Times), Beyoncé, Charo, Christina Aguilera, Condoleezza Rice, Darcel Wynne, Diana Ross, Dilma Rousseff, Donatella Versace, Donna Fargo, Emily Robison, Fredricka Whitfield, Free, Gayle King, Griselda Blanco, Halle Berry, Ivanka Trump, Ja’net Du Bois (as Willona Woods on Good Times), Jennifer Lopez, Joyce “Fenderella” Irby, Justin Guarini, Kara Saun, La Toya Jackson, Lisa Kudrow, Lisa Ling, Liza Minnelli, Lucy Liu, Lynda Lopez, Macy Gray, Mario Vasquez, Mary Roach, Maya Angelou, Melinda Doolittle, Melissa Stark, Michelle Obama, Mýa, Nelly Furtado, Omarosa, Oprah Winfrey, Paris Hilton, Patti LaBelle, Phylicia Rashad(as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show), Rocsi, Scott Joplin, Teresa Heinz, Terra Patrick, Tina Turner, Tyra Banks, Valerie Simpson, Vanessa Hudgens (as Gabriella Montez from High School Musical 3), Wanda Sykes and Whitney Houston.
- Beertje Van Beers
- Britanica of Gemini’s Twin
- Charli Coffee
- Cocktail Waitress
- Donatella Versace
- Glenda Goodwin
- Jodi Deitz (one of the co-hosts of “Bronx Beat”)
- Leilani Burke
- Megan (one of the co-hosts of “Wake Up, Wakefield!”)
- Mrs. Denmont
- Nuni Schoener
- Patti Sylviac
- Space Creature
Television and film
In addition to her work on Saturday Night Live, Rudolph has appeared on other television shows, including the CBS medical drama series City of Angels and Chicago Hope. She had small parts in Chuck & Buck, Gattaca, As Good as It Gets, Duplex and Duets; she was also a music supervisor for Duets. Her first prominent film role came in 2006 with A Prairie Home Companion. Earlier, she had costarred with Luke Wilson in the 2005 Mike Judge sci-fi comedy Idiocracy, although that film was shelved until September 2006 and then only given a limited release. She also guest-starred as Rapunzel in the DreamWorks animated film Shrek the Third. She guest-starred as Julia in The Simpsons episode “The Homer of Seville“. Rudolph guest-starred as character Athena Scooberman in NBC’s Kath & Kim, and starred in the film Away We Go with The Office star John Krasinski. In 2010, she appeared in Grown Ups starring Adam Sandler, where she played the wife of Chris Rock‘s character. In 2011, she appeared in Bridesmaids with Saturday Night Live colleague Kristen Wiig, and in 2013 she played a supporting role in The Way, Way Back as the girlfriend of Sam Rockwell‘s character. She co-starred in the NBC sitcom Up All Night, with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett. Rudolph’s self-titled variety show television pilot aired on May 19, 2014, but the show did not go beyond that. It was later announced that she would star in an NBC variety series Maya & Marty with Martin Short, which debuted on May 31, 2016.
Prior to joining Saturday Night Live, Rudolph was backing singer (1995–99) and briefly a keyboardist in the band The Rentals, with whom she toured for a short time. She also appears in the music videos of the songs “Waiting” and “Please Let That Be You”. She sang backing vocals for “Barcelona” and “My Head Is in the Sun,” both from the album Seven More Minutes. In 2004, she recorded a track with The Rentals frontman Matt Sharp, including a cover of Tegan and Sara‘s “Not Tonight.” Rudolph also performed “Together In Pooping” and “Little Roundworm” with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (Robert Smigel) on his album Come Poop With Me. She is in a Prince cover band called Princess with her friend Gretchen Lieberum.
8. Ellen Cleghorne
Repertory Cast Member
Ellen Cleghorne, a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn was the 2nd black female cast member cast on SNL. She was on the show for four seasons from 1991-1995. Her most popular sketches on the show was Queen Shaniqua, an Afrocentric critic, who appeared on the and Zoraida, an in-your-face NBC page and she performed impressions of Alfre Woodward, Dr Dre, Debbie Allen, Mary J. Blige, Tina Turner, Whoopi Goldberg and many more.
The Hunter College graduate, got her feet wet in several New York city comedy clubs and she appeared on Def Comedy Jam and In Living Color, which is where she got discovered by SNL producers.
Cleghorne left In 1995, to star as single mother Ellen Carlson on Cleghorne!, a sitcom that aired for one season on The WB network, and starred former SNL alumnus Garrett Morris. She had off and on appearances on Nickelodeon’s TV show The Adventures of Pete and Pete and had cameos in films Armageddon, Coyote Ugly, Little Nicky, and Old School. She also made a brief appearance in SNL alum Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2 in 2013.
After she left the show in 1995, she disappeared from the spotlight. She enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she worked to complete her Ph.D in Performance Studies.
In 2015, Cleghorne returned to 30 Rock for the show’s 40th Anniversary Special. When asked how she felt being on that soundstage again, she said, “When you leave the liminal stages, you move on but you remember that everything is in preparation for something else,”
9. Danita Vance
Repertory Cast Member
1985 – 1986
Danita Vance, was an actress and performance artist and she was hired as the first black female repertory player on SNL in 1985. Her year on the show was uneventful and was let go within the year.
Vance, appeared in “The Colored Museum” and “Spunk” at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
died on Sunday at the home of her grandfather, Clarence M. Edwards, in Markham, Ill. She was 35 and lived in Brooklyn.
But it was through her association with George C. Wolfe, the playwright and director who is now the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, that Ms. Vance was best known to theatergoers. In “Spunk,” Mr. Wolfe’s 1990 adaptation of stories by Zora Neale Hurston, she demonstrated “exceptional range in playing a trio of women who are in turn worn to the bone, full of sass and aglow with innocence,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. Ms. Vance received an Obie Award for her performance.
The Chicago native attended the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London and performed with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. In 1981, she moved to New York in where she found success on Off-Broadway with her 1985 revue “Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys”. The show centered around an assortment of funny characters that Vance created, which included a ghetto Shakespearean actress, a feminist stripper and a genteel “lesbian recruiter.”
Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990 and she used her experience in a performance piece called “The Radical Girl’s Guide to Radical Mastectomy.” She died August 21, 1994, she was 35 years old.
10. Yvonne Hudson
Featured Cast Member
Yvonne Hudson, was born July 9, 1954 and she was SNL’s first black female featured player during the 1980-1981 season. She joined the cast as a featured player in the show’s 1980-1981 season. She appeared in numerous uncredited roles times in background roles during the first five seasons of the show. She didn’t get her credited for her roles until she was hired in 1980. She was a featured player for only a year and after she was left go 1981, she continued performing uncredited appearances until 1984. Her role on SNL never led to any prominent parts and she ultimately disappeared from the film and television world.