When you’re a multi-hyphenate talent, who can do it all, being defined is the least of your concerns. A Black Lady Sketch Show’s Gabrielle Dennis is used to taking on every opportunity that she encounters with guts and gusto. With roles in everything from HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s Luke Cage to her portrayal of Whitney Houston in The Bobby Brown Story–Dennis is a chameleon when it comes to sinking into her characters and their stories.
Though she spent the last few years on the Fox dramedy Rosewood opposite Morris Chestnut–her starring role in the groundbreaking A Black Lady Sketch Show just propelled her career to a whole other level.
Conceived, produced and written by Robin Thede and produced by Issa Rae-the series is the very first sketch comedy series written, produced, and starring Black women.
For Dennis, who began her career on the sketch stage, but has done a great deal more drama work since–it was like coming home. Just days before, A Black Lady Sketch Show was renewed for Season 2–STYLECASTER sat down to chat with Dennis about her expansive career–why she’s in no rush to define herself, and why her experience on ABLSS has been a dream.
“The funny thing is I have a comedy background, but the way I was introduced to the masses wasn’t in a comedic space,” Dennis said about her shift from comedy to drama. “When I moved to Los Angeles, I was doing standup comedy, I was doing sketch comedy, and that’s actually how Robin Thede and I met. She’s like, ‘You’re so freaking funny, and I can’t believe people don’t know that.’ She said, ‘You’ve been on my shortlist of people to work with.’ And when the opportunity came up, she literally texted me like, ‘Hey, are you on a job? I know you’re always working, but are you busy right now?’ And I wasn’t. And it was perfect timing. It was pilot season, so it was this super busy time of year. And of course, most casting directors don’t bring me in for comedy, least of which broad comedy. I’ll go in for sitcoms and things like that. But broad comedy … it’s a handful of casting directors that still remember me doing comedy back in the day– years ago. So I’m so grateful to Robin.”
Dennis’ journey to ABLSS has been full of twists and turns. “My first acting job in Los Angeles was for Damon Wayans’ sketch comedy show, she revealed. “And the show didn’t really take off. When that ended I was guest-starring on things like My Name is Earl and Wizards of Waverly Place. So lots of comedy that I did just wasn’t out there like that. It wasn’t as big of a moment as this. Cut to The Game where I was cast as a legit, serious, straight-laced, actress. I will say Rosewood was at least fun in the sense that my character was light and she had a little levity with her. She’d crack a joke here and there. And I always, even playing Whitney Houston, I will find ways to drop an ad-lib and make a little funny. I just feel like as humans, even when things are heavy and dramatic–life still has light moments and fun moments, just funny moments. So playing something like this is amazing, but you will notice that even on the show so far, a lot of the stuff you see me, it’s still in the dramatic comedy.”
Though A Black Lady Sketch Show has helped Dennis return to her comedic roots–because of the expansive nature of the series–Dennis can dive into various sublayers of the genre. “I’m doing more dark comedy,” she explained. “It is so fun to play crazy, psychotic– I’m all over the place. Like Katy Campbell– playing that character was so fun and so different. I’m so grateful to Robin because like I said, no casting director would’ve thought of me and brought me in for that show.”
In addition to the hilarious sketches like “Angela Bassett is the Baddest Bitch” and “Rome and Julissa”–being on the ABLSS set is unlike anything Dennis has experienced before in her career. “I’ve been on great sets,” she reflected. “I’ve definitely had some great experiences, but there’s a sense of comfort. You feel like you’re in this safe space–we just click. Things are organic. They’re natural. There’s none of the awkward moment of feeling like you have to explain yourself or you have to feel like you’re representing for the whole community and the culture. All the weight and pressure is on you. Like, ‘Can we adjust this line because I don’t want to get canceled by the community.’ We love to cancel somebody real fast. We cover a vast variety of comedy, and it’s not just the stereotypical–what the masses think is funny to Black people.”
Comedy isn’t always universal, and though the majority of reviews for ABLSS has been positive, Dennis revealed that she has seen some posts from folks who just didn’t “get it.” “I will say that’s because that specific sketch wasn’t for you,” she explained. “Every sketch may not work for everybody, but there is something in every episode I feel like that you can laugh at. I think the writers do such a great job because when you think of diversity, a lot of times you think of the traditional diversity. But when you think of a writer’s room full of all Black women, you asl, ‘How can that be diverse?’ No, it is diverse as hell.”
Along with Thede–the sisterhood and comradery that Dennis has found with her co-stars Ashley Nicole Black and Quinta Brunson has also been life-changing. “We genuinely find each other funny and encourage each other,” she said. “There’s just something about the spirit and this energy of sisterhood that’s onset that’s just amazing. And I live for that. I’m all pro-women and all sisterhood. That gets me all in the heart. I love that type of stuff. So to be a part of this historical, monumental show means the world to me. This is definitely a career highlight.”
As for what’s next, Dennis is open to it all. “I probably should be more specific because I’ve been a roll with the punches kind of gal my whole career,” she laughed. “There’s the gift and a curse. It’s so funny, fans of Luke Cage will be like, ‘I can’t believe,’ because they were really looking forward to the Tilda Johnson, aka Nightshade character’s taking off and getting her evil master plan on in Season 3, and since that didn’t happen people’s like, ‘Well maybe you could be in Black Panther 2.’ I was like, ‘I mean, from your mouth to God’s ears.’ I’ve been singing in the background for a long time. I’m ready to star on my own show or be in a film, several films. I’m ready to start exploring, and hopefully, things become a little more accessible to me. I’m out here grinding, so it’s great to be on television, but I’ve learned quickly in this business that that doesn’t mean anything. So you can’t lose focus. You’ve got to stay on your grind at all times.”
A Black Lady Sketch Show airs Fridays at 11 PM ET on HBO.