January 06, 2014 1:19pm PT by Lesley Goldberg , Seth Abramovitch
'Saturday Night Live' Adds First African-American Female in Five Years
NBC's Saturday Night Live has added an African-American woman castmember: Sasheer Zamata.
The Upright Citizens Brigade alum has boarded the Lorne Michaels-produced late-night sketch series and will make her debut Jan. 18, when Drake hosts.
The casting comes after showcases featuring black female comedians were held in New York and Los Angeles after the long-running sketch series faced widespread criticism that the new cast of SNL lacked minority faces and specifically the inclusion of an African-American woman.
The auditions were the first in the history of SNL to focus exclusively on minority women and were a proactive response on the part of producers to rectify season 39's diversity problem. SNL skewered itself in a sketch in which host Kerry Washington was run ragged playing everyone from first lady Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey to Beyonce.
Zamata is a University of Virginia alum and becomes the first black female SNL castmember in five years -- since the departure of Maya Rudolph. The comedian was one of two finalists -- Amber Ruffin was the other -- in contention for the new castmember spot.
The series this year added six new comedians -- all white save for Noel Wells, who is of Hispanic-Tunisian descent. Of the 16 castmembers currently on the show, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah are the only African-Americans, while Nasim Pedrad is Iranian-American.
The first showcase audition was held at the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 1 at 10 p.m., where actresses like Misty Monroe, a Groundlings Sunday Company alum, Amber Ruffin, Simone Shepherd, Tiffany Haddish, Nicole Byer and Bresha Webb were among a dozen hopefuls vying for the coveted spot, as was Darmirra Brunson, the comedian Pharoah had recently suggested should join the cast "because she's black, first of all, and she's really talented." The second showcase took place in New York on Dec. 1, and was attended by Michaels himself.
With Seth Meyers' likely departure from SNL coming this spring, the plan has long been in place to boost the team by one player come midseason -- but the groundbreaking showcases suggest the game plan had shifted to focus solely on the addition of an African-American woman.
The move to add another female castmember arrives as Pedrad's future with the veteran sketch series remains murky. SNL's longest-tenured female castmember signed on to co-star in Fox's Michaels-produced John Mulaney comedy series, reprising her role from the pilot originally developed for NBC.
When Pedrad signed on to the pilot in April, she would have departed SNL had NBC picked up Mulaney to series. This time around, sources tell THR that the Fox series' production schedule does not conflict with SNL and Pedrad will be able to maintain her presence on the late-night staple. Time will tell if that proves to be true.