Interview: Ayanna Dookie
DADS! THE WACKY MEN WHO HELPED CREATE US
Co-host of the podcast “My American Nightmare” and winner of the 2014 She Devil Comedy Festival, Ayanna Dookie is currently balancing her engineering day job with her passion for comedy. BanterGirl was lucky to sit down with multitalented Ayanna and learn about her immigrant upbringing, her work ethic, and her tips to make it in the New York comedy scene.
You were born in Brooklyn to parents who were born and raised in Trinidad. What are the major differences between your experience growing up in an American culture compared to your parents’ experience growing up?
Neither of my parents came from money. Neither do I. However, third world poor is different than American lower middle class. My paternal grandmother still lives in the house in which she birthed and raised her ten kids, including my dad. My maternal grandfather didn't have a telephone or indoor plumbing for as long as I can remember. Also, Trinidad, being previously owned by the British, follows the British school system. Kids were tested and placed into classes based on their intelligence. For the most part, where I went to grade school was based on my geographical location. My parents also didn't have to worry about cultural difference growing up in Trinidad the same way I did growing up in America. I was constantly asked, "What are you?" through my elementary, middle, and high school years. Whenever I'm in Trinidad or around other islanders, that question rarely comes up.
Are there cultural differences between you and your parents today?
I don't think there are many cultural differences. My parents raised me as a Trinidadian woman; what that means to me is hardworking, strong, direct, and appreciative. I find that most first generation American kids have a hard time with perfectionism, meaning our parents left little room for error. I used to get in trouble if I didn't get straight A’s in school. Anything less than perfect was unacceptable. While I see the benefit in this, there are also some issues I've developed because of this upbringing that I'm now working through in therapy. If I were to have kids, I'd want them to embody the work ethic my parents instilled in me, but I would tone down the expectation of perfection.
What inspired you to choose a career in comedy?
In college, I always made my classmates laugh in the Black Engineer Society lounge. I always knew I wanted to do something in entertainment, but, having two immigrant parents, that wasn't on the list of acceptable professions. My classmates began to congregate in the lounge during times they knew I would be there just to hear me talk about whatever. Someone suggested I try comedy, I signed up for an open mic, and here we are.
Aside from being an outstanding comedian, you also happen to be a smarty-pants engineer. How do you balance both of these very different worlds?
Luckily, comedy happens at night and engineering happens during the day. Literally, I go to work, come home, change clothes, and begin the night of shows. It's exhausting, but I know one day I won't have to be an engineer to support myself. It is a great job, as I can afford to invest in myself comically, and I have health insurance and other benefits. The health insurance is super important since I have Lupus (SLE) and require regular doctor's exams and prescription medicine.
Does your day job affect your comedic material in any way?
Being around "normal" people and having a "normal" life helps because that's who I'm writing and performing for. I don't necessarily get material from work, but I'm also not living in a bubble. I get to see and hear and experience what non-entertainers are doing and it helps me relate to audiences more easily.
What is your favorite thing about doing comedy in New York?
It's New York! It's the Mecca of comedy. Comics come from around the world to perform here, and I get to do it every night. Also, there's so much talent here that it forces you to grow. I've been on shows with people I've seen on TV or mc'ed at clubs for and I don't want to suck (there goes that immigrant upbringing). Being here has forced me to grow as a performer and a writer.
If you could give one piece of advice to a comedian who is just starting out, what would it be?
Be kind, honest, and patient with yourself. Kind because this industry will beat you up and you need to be your own best friend. Honest because that's the only way you'll get better. Patient because it takes time to get good.
Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
Five years from now, I will not be working as an engineer (I like to speak things into existence). In addition to touring as a headliner and recording a special, I will be acting in sitcoms and movies. I really want to strengthen my comedic muscle and see how it translates to other forms of entertainment.