What British comedic actress Michaela Coel witnessed on her first day of secondary school was quite at odds with what one would expect given the exceedingly proper name of the institution. Coel attended Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate Girls School in London’s East End. “On my first day I watched a girl smash another girl’s head through a window. But it was also hilarious, it was just really fun. Everything that you could imagine was crazy. It was a mad school. The direct influences for my work would be people from my school. That would be where I directly got many of the characters for ‘Chewing Gum.’”
Michaela Coel is the stars in the second season Netflix’s ‘Chewing Gum.’ (Courtesy Photo)
“Chewing Gum” is the name of the Netflix show created by and starring the twenty-nine year old Coel. A comedy that is less situational and more satirical and character focused a la Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” it is quirky and laugh out loud funny, a wholly different examination of Black female life. Coel is an accomplished poet, singer and playwright and her new show is based on her play “Chewing Gum Dreams” where she introduced audiences to the main character, Tracey. In addition to being influenced by the students in her secondary school where she was the only Black girl in her year, “Chewing Gum’”s comedy is heavily influenced by her experience as a Christian during her late teens into early twenties.
One of its themes is the ways in which religion can wreak havoc on a young adult trying to carve out an identity. Coel describes it as being about, “A woman who has the mind of a teenager. It’s about going through adolescence ten years too late. It’s about evangelical religion. It’s about friendship and sex, sex, and more sex all underpinned by the lack of sex.” She says all of the characters we met and fell in love with during the first season are back for the second season which started April 4. “Everybody returns which is bloody amazing. Every single person. By the end of last season they all became my friends and the idea of not giving somebody a job was like unfathomable for me. I even called back extras.”
Coel admits to not watching much television at all as a child but was exposed to American comedies such as “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Kenan and Kel” and “Moesha.” She says she also loved, “Cedric the Entertainer’s stand-up. He looks just like my dad.” Still, she didn’t always plan on being a TV actress. She laughs while recalling, “I was on stage doing poetry and a guy named Che Walker, who actually wrote the musical I am doing right now, said I should become an actor. Then he said I should go to drama school. I literally just followed his instructions because I had nothing else to do. Then I went to drama school then I wrote this play. Then I got an agent because I put the play on somewhere. It all just kind of snowballed like that. A TV production company read my play and said do you want to make a TV show. So I guess it was going to drama school that kind of changed everything in a way.”
London born and raised Coel, whose parents are from Ghana, alludes to hard work and confidence for her success. “I think I am deluded in my ambition. I think I can do things that I really shouldn’t think that I can do. I don’t care about what anybody thinks of me. Unless you’re my family or my very close friends I don’t mind. Which means I get to write scripts and I don’t give a sh*t. And I don’t really sleep. I work like round the clock and if I think if there is a point one percent chance that I can do something, I won’t give up.”
Coel, who is dark-skinned, is also very vocal on social media about the issue of colorism. “Basically I am talking and no one is listening to me about the situation. We don’t want to accept that other people are less privileged than we are. So the fact that we’re saying ‘Oh my God amazing, look at “Westworld” what a diverse show’ and I’m saying ‘look at the show no one is darker than a paper bag on that show.’ We’ve been talking about race for so long that we haven’t realized that this is actually colorism. In a sense maybe there is the worry that it will be divide us instead of unite us but we have to talk about it because while we keep saying look at all this Black, dark-skinned women- I’m talking about women like Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, myself are disappearing from the media and what’s gonna happen is that we become invisible and nobody’s gonna talk about it and we’re not gonna get any f****** jobs. We’re gonna have a problem.”