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Comic Athena Kugblenu on her new Soho theater show about class

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median Athena Kugblenu is explaining how she got her name. “Athena was the Greek Goddess of wisdom so I think it’s a very good name for a girl to have in the patriarchy. Naming your children is the first gift you give them.” Her parents were not particularly classical scholars, but her older brother was obsessed with Homer at the time: The Odyssey, not The Simpsons.

And the name feels apt. Kugblenu is one of the smartest acts on the circuit, with a growing reputation for intelligent, pertinent humour. She has previously written for Lenny Henry, Frankie Boyle and Russell Howard’s TV shows. Now she is center stage herself. Her solo show, Shaking Her Class, comes to the Soho Theater this month. And since May 19 she co-hosts a new weekly comedy series on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, DMs Are Open.

In the stage show she explores what exactly class means, how we define it and, most importantly and most humorously, where she fits in. She must be middle class, surely, her partner de ella is a lawyer (she has two children, one and three), she lives in leafy Winchmore Hill, has a conservatory – “it came with the man” – and an aluminum hooded extractor fan.

If only things were that simple. Colleagues have often assumed that the 40-year-old London-born comic has a working class background. Yet before moving to the UK her father de ella was managing director of Ghana’s state shipping line and her Guyanan mother de ella came from a family of doctors and teachers.

In England, her father struggled to find a similar post and her mother worked as a dinner lady, because it was a convenient job to fit around bringing up three children. Kugblenu, who is frank, fast-talking and funny during our chat over coffee, looks back on her childhood de ella with fondness rather than anger. The family was not poor but certainly not wealthy. “We always had food, we did a weekly shop, but we took the bus, we didn’t have a car.”

After studying at Birmingham University and gaining a masters she worked for various councils, TFL and on the 2012 Olympics. What she saw in that time has gone on to shape her comedy de ella in general and this show in particular.

For a while she led a double life. Comedy at night, public sector project management by day. She featured in two consecutive Edinburgh Fringe joke round-ups. “Relationships are like mobile phones. You’ll look at your iPhone 5 and think, it used to be a lot quicker to turn this thing on.” (2017) and “Patriarchy is putting Jane Austen on £10 notes the same time as bringing in contactless.” (2018)

Her comedy ascendency coincided with her office career hitting the buffers. “I left one council job [she won’t say which] because I met an incredibly clear glass ceiling. I didn’t get something I applied for. And when I asked the interviewer what can I do to improve, his feedback from him was ‘when you’re giving a presentation, you press the mouse button a bit too hard.’ I’d see people in their offices and their names on badges. And I thought, Oh, I could be that person. And then bit by bit you think, Oh, I can’t be that person.”

She saw that the most successful – invariably white, male – were the least competent. “There are people who fail upwards. I worked for someone who had a yacht. We would hide things from him because we knew he would mess them up.”

The British class system feels particularly ripe for comedy. Upwardly mobile comedians have tackled it before. Micky Flanagan had a routine about being shocked when he asked for ketchup in a fine dining restaurant and it came in a saucer not a bottle. Jason Manford summed up his confusion about his newly elevated status, calling his show Muddle Class. For Kugblenu the issue is not just about class, but also about race and gender. Everything is connected.

Athena Kugblenu

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Athena Kugblenu

/ PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI

Kugblenu echoes what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “split habitus”, shuttling between different dispositions. “Everybody has many elements that make up their identity,” she says. “I have a middle class mentality, but an economically very working class background. People don’t look at how much money you make but where the money comes from. Class literally stifles us.”

“It doesn’t matter how you present yourself,” she continues. “It doesn’t matter how you explain your education, or the kind of life you lead, people make assumptions and they will police your access to spaces based on that. You cannot study your way out of it. You can’t read your way out of it. It’s not a money thing.”

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 that I can see someone on the front page or somebody kicking penalties. If we’re not talking about societal changes, then we’re not talking about change, we are just talking about people who’ve managed to beat the system.

Hopefully things are improving in comedy at least, but progress is slow. In 2020 Kugblenu was the recipient of the annual Felix Dexter Bursary run by the BBC and awarded to writers to address under-representation. She is grateful, but with reservations: “Giving a bursary to one person every year is not going to fix the problem.”

Live comedy has a way to go too. It used to be that you would only see one woman on a stand-up bill. Now women appear more regularly. But black comics – black women in particular – still have a hard time. “I rarely see other black female comics in clubs. There’s Sophie Duker, Kemah Bob, Thanyia Moore, Dana Alexander, lots, but it’s usually just one of us on the bill.”

Kugblenu can be earnest in conversation, but onstage never forgets that her job is to make people laugh as well as think. “I find class and the way it intersects with race and identity fascinating,” she says. Before adding: “but it is a comedy show.”

Athena Kugblenu: Shaking Her Class, Soho Theatre, May 16-2. sohotheatre.com

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