D.C.-Bred Comedian Sampson on Growing Up Gay, Black, and Pentecostal
On his Twitter bio, comedian and D.C. native Sampson describes himself as black, gay, and boss. Culled from his personal life, Sampson’s comedy mixes silly with serious by addressing racism and homophobia head-on. This Friday, Aug. 1, he’ll perform two sets at District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan. We caught up with the 28-year-old performer to talk about his evolving act, his religious upbringing, and the gentrification of U Street.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WCP: Tell me about your comedy.
Sampson: My comedy has evolved drastically over the 12 years I’ve been doing it. When I first started out, I was in comedy clubs telling crackhead-cockroach-welfare jokes. My comedy has really become a reflection of me as a black man and as a gay black man, and not being ashamed to share that with people. For a long time, I was ashamed of all of my identities. I was ashamed of being a man because I was raised primarily by women. And I’m from the South. I’m a brown brother. Down there, you dealt with a lot of issues that related to skin color, so for a long time, I thought that there was something wrong with being a dark-skinned black guy with prominent African-American features.
And then of course, coming out was a big struggle for me. I grew up in the South and D.C., and I grew up in the hood. And in the hood, they don’t play that. One of the institutions of the black community is also the church. And the church doesn’t play that. My comedy is infused with the soul and the triumphs and the stories, and just me being genuine about my life. But I promise it’s not as philosophical as I’m being right now.
Was it more difficult to come out because you were performing at the time?
It was. I was telling a lot of pussy jokes, which meant I had to change up a lot of the material. I was in my email the other day, and I saw some of my old material from 2002 or something like that. Some of that stuff made me sweat. I wasn’t performing in gay clubs, either. I was performing in urban nightclubs. I did have some people who said things—I’ve been approached in parking lots before, and that really changes you. When I was telling the pussy jokes, everybody thought that was great. But then I came out and started talking about what my life was really like.
And I was already, then, struggling because I was dealing with the religion issue, I was going through a breakup, I was dealing with suicidal urges, and very severe depression. This depression was more painful than anything you could imagine. The pain from this depression was so intense that I could almost feel my insides ripping apart. But I got on stage every night, and that’s the only place I had to pull myself out at. You would hear people in the room laugh, and then as soon as you said "I’m gay," [the room would go quiet]. And immediately, I would break out into a ball of sweat.
You were also the first openly gay black comedian to headline the Howard Theatre, right?
Yes, last summer, I believe.
What was that like? That’s a big step.
It was fun. It’s not something I really thought about until it happened. I feel like the Howard has always been really instrumental in pushing equality for a lot of minorities.
You mentioned earlier you faced a lot of hardship growing up gay in your community. Did it ever feel like you had conflicting identities?
I think we can all agree that life can be hard. Just period, for anybody. Being gay, you can spend a lot of time in isolation. When you’re in a black community, our community already doesn’t have a lot of services that other communities have, like mental health services and outreach programs. I spent a lot of time in isolation. My mother—oh my God. Thank God she’s a lot better than she used to be. I come from one of those crazy fundamentalist Pentecostal black families. We’d go to church for 14 hours on Sundays. They swing around on the chandelier and pray over your genitals and throw holy water over you. They’re not the crazy fundamentalists, though.
I will say, swinging on chandeliers and praying at your genitals sounds a little crazy to me.
Well, it is! But, you know, we grew up in that kind of religious environment. I really feel like you kind of develop a by-any-means-necessary view of spirituality. So many people get so wrapped up in religion that they lack common sense. But for some reason, because we were in that kind of church, you learn not to question things because you don’t question God.
Do you talk about all of this in your act?
Oh, absolutely. You have to put it into a certain kind of perspective in order to draw the humor from it. I’ve had to do that. I spent a lot of time sitting down and examining things in my life. I talk about religion, I talk about stigma, I talk about stereotypes, I talk about all those things that people do and say.
I saw your tweet from a week or so ago about the gentrification of U Street. How has it changed since you moved away?
— Sampson (@OfficialSampson) July 20, 2014
When I first moved to D.C., [U Street] had a lot more flavor to it. You had more minorities living there, and you had interaction. You had people who could relate to each other. Carol Schwartz, who I absolutely love, is one example. Even though she’s a Republican, she’s one of the most liberal Republicans that I know, because she was able to relate to everybody’s experiences. But I remember there were a lot of drugs, too.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northeast and Southeast. But mostly Southeast. Yeah, you had crime, but what big city didn’t have those things? It’s a really deep issue. But I still have a problem with people buying up communities without any kind of historical or financial input into these areas. They don’t know the history of a lot of these areas. They paint over the history and the soul and everything that those neighborhoods represent.
I know, personally, too many old folks who have raised generations of families in those houses. They are staples of the community. These were people where, if you have a package, and you weren’t home, they would sign for it. If you didn’t have a babysitter, you would send your child there. If you were hungry, you could knock on their door and they always had a sandwich and some chips and juice for you. These people were staples of their communities. It was almost like a family, a genuine community.
Would you ever move back here?
I'm in California now, but D.C. is still home for me. When I get money, I’m going to buy a house in D.C., or an apartment or something. My heart is still there.
See Sampson perform this Friday, Aug. 1, at DCAC. His 10 p.m. performance is sold out, but there are still tickets available for his 7:30 p.m. show. $10 general, $5 DCAC members.