Martha Chaves and Steph Tisdell are two Indigenous standup comedians with very different backgrounds. Chaves, originally from Nicaragua, started her career in 1993; Tisdell, from Brisbane, Australia, is a relative newcomer, having “started properly” in 2014.
But it gets more complicated. “I have Indigenous blood but I don’t identify as Indigenous,” says Chaves on the phone from her home in Toronto. “In our country we are, let’s say, Métis. We are a mixed people.”
She started doing standup in English and it’s still more foreign for her to perform in her native Spanish. “I consider myself very Canadian. I’ve been in more places in Canada than I was ever in Nicaragua,” she says. “I have lived most of my life in Canada. Nicaragua is alien. It’s like another planet.”
Tisdell is making a name for herself down under as one of the funniest Aboriginal performers in the country. Which raises the question: how many are there?
“There are not many at all,” she says from Brisbane. “I think it’s slowly widening. People are really interested in hearing different perspectives now. I think it’s going to continue to grow.”
Her profile is growing, too, with appearances at galas and as a roving reporter on The Project, a current-affairs talk show, so it’s only a matter of time before other Indigenous acts are accepted into the mainstream. Her old manager told her, “Don’t stress, because it’s only tokenism until it just isn’t anymore.” She agrees. “That’s the honest truth,” she says. “Once there’s some representation, it opens the door for more representation and more visibility.”
Sometimes it takes that prime mover to open things up for others. Chaves, who speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, doesn’t feel the need to address that much anymore, thanks to Sofia Vergara.
“Since Modern Family came along with a woman that has a huge accent, I don’t have to address the accent,” she says. “People have heard the Spanish accent. Before, I thought it was necessary to talk about that. Sometimes I still do, but now I speak up about everything. I still am the ethnic gay person, but now it’s embedded in other things; it’s not the subject of my jokes.”
Regardless of any given accent, Chaves feels that semantics is always at the forefront of a comedian’s mind.
“Comedy is communication,” she says. “Every act of communication is an act of translation. You always have to translate yourself to whoever you’re speaking to. The love of my life is communication. It’s been a challenge at times because English isn’t my native language, but in reality it’s harder for me to do it in my native language.”
Tisdell feels more racism out in the real world than inside comedy circles. She takes those experiences on-stage, where her aim is to educate gently.
“There’s a lot of ignorance in Australia and I don’t think people even realize when they’re being inappropriate or are saying things that are racist or ignorant,” she says. “It’s funny just to point it out to people and then they kind of laugh and go, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t even think about that.’ If you can turn it into a joke and just show a mirror to them to show how ridiculous that way of thinking is, then they’re laughing but learning. So comedy’s a really great way to just break down those barriers, I think, and share a story and experiences without it being quite so confronting.”
Despite bringing racism to the fore in her act, she has a unique outlook on “white privilege”, a phrase she’s not a fan of.
“I just think there’s a lot of privilege, full stop,” she says. “I also feel like if you’ve got the time to be ranking privilege, you’re probably pretty fucking privileged. I just feel you can’t decide what privilege you have....Just recognize that everybody exists with some privilege.”
Despite starting as an ethnic woman in what was mostly a white man’s profession 26 years ago, Chaves has also found the comedy community largely welcoming.
“I’ve met a lot of good people in comedy,” she says. “I know a lot of people like to bitch about being discriminated against, but if it happens I didn’t notice because I was so focused on getting better.”
And if a fellow comic were to talk trash, she’d say, “Bring it on.”
“You can say anything about me, but let’s dance, motherfucker!” she says. “Let’s see who does better on-stage. That’s the proof.”
Martha Chaves and Steph Tisdell, along with Erica Sigurdson and Nour Hadidi, perform in The Women of Comedy at Transform: A Cabaret Festival at the York Theatre on Friday and Saturday (October 4 and 5). Tisdell gives a comedy workshop there on Thursday (October 3), and performs her one-person show Identity Steft at the Cultch Historic Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (October 5 and 6).