By Hannah Vlaar

The Ottawa artistic community is thirsty for spaces where everyone feels welcomed and valued. People are hungry for something satiating and filled with . . . spices? Enter Zainab A, a local comedian and improv artist. After a couple of years of performing in the city, she realized there was a lack of space for people of colour in the comedy scene. So she created exactly what she was looking for.The Spice Comedy Collective. It’s “a comedy collective that welcomes all kinds of performance art, including but not limited to poetry, improv, and music. Spice centres the voices of marginalized folx such as qtbipoc, womxn, and disabled folx.”

Hannah Vlaar sat down with Zainab to discuss how this comedy show seemingly sprout up out of nowhere. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hi Zainab! Tell me about how Spice came to be.

Do you want me to tell you how Spice specifically came to be, or my mental journey from the conception of the idea?

Give me the mind journey.

I started off doing improv in high school. From there I performed improv at local places in Ottawa and at Carleton. I learned stand-up technique through the Improv Embassy and got a lot of support from them. However, I was one of the only brown women improvisors, or even PoC (people of colour) improvisers in Ottawa. It was just me and my one friend. It felt like obvious tokenization every time we were involved in local Ottawa shows, even if that wasn’t the intention of the producers. It was still fun and I thought, “Whatever, this is the only opportunity I’ll even get to perform. It’s fine.”

But because there were so few of us I never really felt represented. Conversely, it felt like my responsibility to be the face of all [women of colour] in the Ottawa comedy scene, and that was really draining. I thought I was literally the only WoC in stand-up because I didn’t know any others!

But then I did a show in Ottawa with WoC producers and I was like, “this is so much better!” OPIRG does Rad Frosh and last year they hosted Shade at a Carleton/OPIRG show and I opened for it. SHADE is a comedy show in Toronto that represents and celebrates comedians of colour, comedians from the LGBTQ+ community, and comedians who identify as women. I was so taken aback because I’d never seen a crowd like that. A lot of WoC had come out to see it because it was an all WoC show (Shade isn’t specifically for WoC only, but that show was). It was amazing. I’d never seen so much talent; everyone was so hilarious! I don’t know what it is but WoC are so funny. Honestly, I think they might be the funniest people in the world! *laughs*

I was just so taken aback and so excited to be there. I talked to the producer of Shade, Anasimone George, and said, “I wish we had something like this in Ottawa, it’s so amazing” and she just flat-out said “Make one.”

I’d talked to local producers in Ottawa about this before, (they weren’t WoC) and they’d say, “Yeah, that’d be great” but talk about it like it was some far-off, unattainable fantasy to have shows with more WoC or even just shows where WoC weren’t tokenized. And I took that and thought “I guess it’s just not possible because there’s not enough of us.” But what I realized is that there are so many talented WOC in Ottawa but there’s no platform for them, or for PoCs in general. These people are so talented but there is no space where they actually feel comfortable talking about their trauma or sharing their talent shared in a way that isn’t tokenizing.

It’s interesting because you had that experience of isolation too. You thought you were the only POC doing comedy in Ottawa. But it’s so wildly untrue! And you realize that as soon as you have the space, the people come. It’s so amazing that you’re making the space!

Yeah, definitely. And it’s amazing because the people who come to my shows all say the same thing.

On August 13, I messaged my friend, “I’m doing it. I’m going to start a comedy/performer collective for queer/trans/bi POC but mostly WOC” and then, “I need a name.” I thought, “I’ve been wanting to do this for so long, I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna figure it out and do it.” Then my friend and I were back and forth about a name. The first name I came up with for the collective was “Curry, Spice, and Everything Nice” and then ended up on just “Spice”.

Then I started looking for performance venues, and Black Squirrel came to mind because I had done a show there in the past and my friends had done events there. I looked at their calendar and they had an opening September 29. I emailed them and they got back to me pretty quickly.

I decided to name each show words with Spice in it. So the first one was Curry, Spice and Everything Nice. The second was Spice: Masala Chai edition. I can have more fun with it in the future, but it will always be a play on Spice.

When you decided to go for it and implement your idea–can you lay out some of the concrete steps you took? Imagine someone who’s reading this has an idea for something they want to do in their community but don’t know how to get started.

Talk to your community. I did so much talking! I talked with fellow WoC, other marginalized folks, international students, so many people. Talk to people you want to make a collective for and who you want to see represented, because they’re the ones who have the most say about it and the most to give to it. And they’re the most excited about it! After that, think about what you want to implement.

For me, Spice is about performance and art, so everything from comedy, and spoken word to visual art. It’s more than just comedy. Every show so far has had live music, spoken word, a comedy portion at the end, and a visual artist displaying their work. I especially want to have visual artists at every performance going forward because a lot of QTBIPOC visual artists are so amazing and talented but don’t have a space where they feel their art is a reflection of the community they want to represent.

For Spice, I created the space I wished already existed.

Yeah! And what has the public response been like?

People love it. Every single show has sold out so far. I’ve genuinely done barely any advertising because the show, the idea, the collective just sells itself. People want to see themselves in performers, they want to feel connected, they want to feel part of a community where they belong, where they are safe, where the voices of WoC and QTBIPOC (Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) are centred instead of being at the margins like they are everywhere else.

Ottawa needs this. There’s a need for safe and welcoming space prioritizing WOC and QTBIPOC performers and artists in Ottawa. Outside of Spice, a space where marginalized folk are centered in a way that is not tokenizing doesn’t exist.

This means that you’re a trailblazer in Ottawa!

*laughs* If that’s how people are seeing it, I’m glad that I can be that person for them.

Imagine if when you moved to Ottawa you had come across this collective in your first month here.

I would have been ecstatic. A lot of the times after the shows, people come to me and thank me. They say, “Thank you so much! I wish we had this sooner.” And I think to myself, “I wish I had made this sooner” because I’d been wanting to create this for about two years. I’m really happy now and I felt so inspired and so believed in by the WoC who encouraged me at the beginning. They made it seem so possible.

My friends who had done events before told me about venues and Black Squirrel was one of them. I emailed them and they got back to me saying it sounded great and they’d love to have this event. The capacity of 70 seemed great to me at the time *laughs*. But that first night I took Black Squirrel over capacity! I’d like to go back to them but it’s way too small. The second show doubled in size!

[And] the only time that I’ve been paid by producers has been at shows run by WOC. And I think it’s so important to pay artists. When I announced that Spice pays their performers, I found out that a lot of shows where I wasn’t paid are now paying their performers.

Not only are you a trailblazer, you’re also making changes for other artists in the community beyond Spice.

Yeah! Spice is not a collective just for WoC. People apply to be on Spice and the most talented folks who apply just happen to be WoC. But the next show will be PoC in general, and I do hope to make Spice-adjacent shows that have other marginalized folks as well. Spice is for everyone to enjoy, but the fundamental concept is For Us, By Us.

Is there anything else you want to say about Spice?

When you come to Spice, expect the best of the best. Expect new faces and new voices who haven’t had experience performing before. Spice has been doing a lot of supporting new performers. For example, someone who performed at the past two shows had never done stand-up comedy before and she is one of the funniest people I know.

I can tell when someone would be good at stand-up, so I’m like, “Hey, you’d be really great at stand-up” and a lot of the time they say, “Really? I’ve always wanted to try it and never thought I could.” And now I can say, “Guess what? Now you can.”

And then those people have their debut show at Spice and go on to perform at other events. A lot of the time I’ve asked other producers in Ottawa if they know any other WoC performers and they say, “Sorry, we just know the four.” I think WoC aren’t performing because they just don’t feel like they’re allowed to perform or that their stories matter. A friend of mine said “I didn’t think people would care about what I have to say.” And I told her, “Well, they do.”