Median Athena Kugblenu explains how she got her name. “Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, so I think that’s a really good name for a girl to have in the patriarchy. Naming your children is the first gift you give them.” His parents weren’t particularly classical scholars, but his older brother was obsessed with Homer at the time, The Odyssey, not The Simpsons.
And the name seems appropriate. Kugblenu is one of the smartest performers on the circuit, with a growing reputation for smart, relevant humor. She has previously written for the TV shows of Lenny Henry, Frankie Boyle and Russell Howard. Now she herself is center stage. Her solo show, Shaking Her Class, is coming to the Soho Theater this month. And from May 19, she co-hosts a new weekly comedy series on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, DMs Are Open.
In the show, she explores what exactly class means, how we define it and, most importantly and humorously, where it fits. She must be middle class, surely, her partner is a lawyer (she has two children, one and three), she lives in the leafy town of Winchmore Hill, owns a veranda – “he came with the man” – and an aluminum extractor hood.
If only things were that simple. Colleagues have often assumed the 40-year-old London-born comic was from a working-class background. Yet, before moving to the UK, her father was managing director of Ghana’s national shipping company and her Guyanese mother came from a family of doctors and teachers.
In England, her father struggled to find a similar job and her mother worked as a waitress, as it was a hands-on job to fit in with raising three children. Kugblenu, who is candid, quick and funny during our coffee chat, looks back on his childhood with fondness rather than anger. The family was not poor but certainly not rich. “We always had food, we did weekly shopping, but we took the bus, we didn’t have a car.”
After studying at the University of Birmingham and earning a master’s degree, she worked for various councils, TFL and on the 2012 Olympics. What she saw during that time shaped her comedy in general and this show in particular .
For a time, she led a double life. Comedy by night, public project management by day. She has featured in two consecutive series of jokes on the Edinburgh Fringe. “Relationships are like cell phones. You’ll look at your iPhone 5 and think it was a lot faster to turn that thing on.” (2017) and “The patriarchy puts Jane Austen on £10 notes at the same time as the introduction of contactless.” (2018)
His rise in comedy coincided with his office career hitting the pads. “I quit a job as an adviser [she won’t say which] because I encountered an incredibly clear glass ceiling. I didn’t get something I applied for. And when I asked the interviewer what I could do to improve, he said, “When you’re giving a presentation, you press the mouse button a little too hard.” I saw people in their offices and their names on name tags. And I thought, Oh, I could be that person. And then little by little you think, Oh, I can’t be that person.”
She saw that the top performers — invariably white, male — were the least proficient. “There are people who fail at the top. I worked for someone who had a yacht. We hid things from him because we knew he would mess them up.”
The British class system seems particularly ripe for comedy. Upward mobile comedians have already addressed it. Micky Flanagan used to be shocked when he asked for ketchup at a fine dining restaurant and it came in a saucer and not a bottle. Jason Manford summed up his confusion over his newly elevated status, calling his show Muddle Class. For Kugblenu, the issue is not just class, but also race and gender. Everything is connected.
Kugblenu echoes what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the “split habitus”, shuttling between different dispositions. “Everyone has many elements that make up their identity,” she says. “I have a middle-class mentality, but a very working-class economic background. People don’t look at how much money you make but where the money comes from. Class is literally suffocating us.”
“It doesn’t matter how you present yourself,” she continues. “No matter how you explain your upbringing or what kind of life you lead, people make assumptions and they will control your access to spaces based on that. You can’t study to get by. You can’t read your way out of it.It’s not about the money.
The success of someone like footballer Marcus Rashford or actor Idris Elba is not necessarily a sign of positive change either: “It doesn’t matter if I can see someone on the front page or someone shoot If we’re not talking about societal issues changes, then we’re not talking about change, we’re just talking about people who beat the system Beating the system is not the same as changing the system. system.
Hopefully things improve at least in comedy, but progress is slow. In 2020 Kugblenu was awarded the annual Felix Dexter Fellowship run by the BBC and awarded to writers to tackle under-representation. She is grateful, but with reservations: “Giving a scholarship to one person each year will not solve the problem.
Live-action comedy also has a ways to go. Previously, you only saw one woman on a bill. Now women appear more regularly. But black comics — black women in particular — still struggle. “I rarely see other black comedians in clubs. There’s Sophie Duker, Kemah Bob, Thanyia Moore, Dana Alexander, lots of them, but it’s usually one of us on the show.”
Kugblenu can be serious in conversation, but on stage she never forgets that her job is to make people laugh and think. “I find class and how it intersects with race and identity fascinating,” she says. Before adding: “but it’s a comedy show”.
Athena Kugblenu: Shaking Her Class, Soho Theatre, May 16-2. sohotheatre.com