For years, the entertainment industry’s gatekeepers just didn’t “get” Amanda Seales, an actress, singer, poet and painter who hosts “Smart Funny and Black,” a live black-pop-culture game show.
“When you’re so multitalented,” explained Seales’s friend, SiriusXM host Bevy Smith, “it’s very hard for the entertainment industry to get it because they like you to have one note until they tell you to should try something different.”
But Seales has never been one to wait for permission, her friends say. At least not anymore. Seales loves being her “authentic self,” especially on social media, where she has nearly half a million followers. She calls out racists, bad boyfriends and her domestic shorthair Lando Catrissian. Her frequent posts on social media have bolstered her career as a truth-teller who tells jokes.
“I really just be in my house,” she explained to a crowd at a recent even held at the Wing in Washington, D.C. She delivers her prolific “PSAs” via Instagram videos. Without wearing any make up, she talks about “empowering your ego” and self-care. “And I’m single, so there’s time.”
Seales created “Smart Funny and Black” in her living room, and now, she’s selling out entire shows at notable venues, like the Kennedy Center.
The show is a live Quidditch match of wits mashed up with SNL’s “Black Jeopardy” sketches and a three-piece band. Confused? Basically it’s quintessential Amanda.
She bursts onto the stage wielding a microphone and gold lamé leggings, the evening’s “headmistress.” During the show, two famous folks (Tiffany Haddish, Estelle, Bomani Jones and Angela Rye have been guests) compete for the title of “Master Blackspert” by debating categories handpicked by Seales such as “baby hair” and “in da streets Barack Obama.” The show’s tagline: “By any joke necessary.”
Seales is nearly 20 shows into her “Smart Funny and Black: Lituation 101” tour. Of the 23 shows, 20 were sold out.
The popular comedy tour, which is a celebration of blackness, is a big deal. It’s also a familiar runway for Seales — being wheels up, poised for takeoff.
Seales was first poised to break out in 2004. Then a 23-year-old hip-hop head from Orlando, she’d been hired to host “Sucka Free Sunday” on MTV2. It was her first brush with fame and paying rent when the rent’s due. The buzz was palpable.
Broadway star Brandon Victor Dixon, Seales’s “brother from another,” tried to prepare her for what was coming. “Are you ready?” she remembered him asking in an intense stage whisper.
“It was so dramatic,” recalled Seales in between laughs. “And I was like, ‘For what?’ and he was like: ‘For. Your. Time.’ ” She cackled. “And within a year I was laid off — but it was a moment!”
It took Seales 10 years to get back to that level of fame. “Ten long subway train years,” she said. In between she made her own music, painted political art, produced funny Web series about pop culture and gave college lectures about street harassment. (Seriously, that MTV money paid for the last semester of her master’s in African American studies at Columbia University).
“I’m an artist through and through,” she said. “My thing about creating things is that it has to do two purposes: It has to serve me creatively but also has to serve the people.”
In 2011, another moment came. Hip-hop didn’t feel like home anymore. So she decided to dive into comedy for real. She changed her stage name from Amanda Diva (“it just felt stupid”) to her government name, Amanda Seales.
Now, Seales stars in HBO’s “Insecure” while maintaining her career as a “multi-hyphenate self-generator,” as Seales’s agent, Mark Gordan, calls her.
Seales is a one-woman show in the most literal sense; sitting across a couch from her, the space somehow feels crowded. Her face can cycle through a dozen expressions in as many seconds. She does voices (the white girl, her Caribbean mom, the publisher — yes, she’s coming out with a book). But she doesn’t code-switch. That’s not part of who she is.
“Amanda doesn’t like to be filtered,” said Valeisha Butterfield Jones, the global head of women and black community engagement at Google who has known Seales since the two were coming up in New York’s hip-hop scene.
Less than 10 minutes into Seales’s “Smart Funny and Black” show at the Kennedy Center, the comedian has already put the white people in the theater on notice. “Know your place,” she tells them. The show, a celebration of black culture and black people, doesn’t exist to “soothe your guilt,” Seales added.
Then she took the crowd on a nearly two-hour road trip through African American popular culture and history. There were singalongs, shout-outs and sidesplitting laughter. Seales is headmaster, preacher, choir director, storyteller, ringleader. In her house, everyone knows the words to the “A Different World” theme song and everyone can hit that high note at the end.