WLRN interns spent some time this summer looking at how the idea of gender is changing in South Florida. This story is part of their project.
Comedian Jannelys Santos has been performing improv sketches with The Villain Theater since the collective started in 2015. She describes herself as feminine and aggressive, wanting to express her sexuality onstage.
Through a series of personas and alter-egos, Santos can become anyone from a sugar-daddy-obsessed fortune teller to a flexible masseuse onstage. She interacts with the audience in a way that makes the scene ridiculous. By the end, audience members are spilling happy hour wine specials on the floor, clutching their sides.
“When I do well in a scene, there’s a special laughter for me from my ladies in the crowd,” Santos said. “And it feels way better than anything.”
Santos wants the theater to make women in the audience feel good about multiple visions of femininity. She says other comedy teams she’s seen often ostracize women, telling jokes at their expense.
“The women who do go up are self-degrading, self-deprecating, in order to survive. Because it’s a horrible game out there for female stand-ups,” she said.
She's trying to change culture and gender stereotypes off stage, too. As Villain's chief operating officer, she has gone to lengths to make it a place where queer, non-binary and feminist comedians can blossom.
"She has been the biggest factor to developing [Villain] into a feminist theater," said theater director Peter Mir, adding that sometimes comedy theater can be a "boys club."
"Jannelys has been the person who has made sure we develop beyond that," he said.
Nestled on a corner amongst murals of iconic Little Haiti artists, the theater has developed a reputation for its accepting environment and for teaching walk-in students to get onstage, face a crowd and perform on-the-spot comedy sketches.
Santos grew up in Little Havana and Coral Gables in a Cuban-immigrant family. Her father came to Miami in 1980 on the Mariel boatlift and pursued his American dream, ultimately becoming a successful businessman and opening a mattress company in Hialeah. Her mom was the first person in her family to be born in the United States and eventually worked in a law firm as a paralegal, then transitioned to a director of Human Resources in Sandler, Travis and Rosenberg P.A.
Her upbringing clashed with how she wanted to express herself through theater.
“That was certainly a struggle - they’re Cuban, they’re conservative, they’re religious, you know. It was a giant problem,” Santos said. “I wanted to do theater, and my parents hated it. They thought it was something I would eventually get over.”
"Along with exposing yourself to the arts, you kind of shy away from religion, because they contradict too much," she added.
Now that she has a place to thrive, she wants her act to resonate with women.
“When I go onstage, I just think it’s funny. I purely thing that being raunchy, being sexy and using my body in a sexual way, not for sex, but for comedy, is powerful,” she said. "Definitely the undercurrent of aggression I add to my performances is unique to me - not saying every girl in this theater does that. They have their own styles and that's great."
She said Villain's openness is certainly not the norm.
"The battle isn't so much onstage. The battle is creating a community where you feel like you are genuinely respected," she said.
Santos' efforts to create this community seem to be working.
Another female comedian at Villain, Maor Ouzana, said her immigrant family does not know about her raunchy comedy, her queer identity and how she’s using Villain to explore all of this. Her dad is orthodox Jewish, a Moroccan immigrant who grew up in Israel and then moved to Miami. Her mom is from Honduras and converted to Judaism.
She feels like her identity and expression of femininity goes against the values she was raised with.
“Everything I do goes against what I was raised to do, but it’s what I was meant to do, so that’s the difference,” Ouzana said.
She performs frequently in Villain ensembles, including YAS - South Florida’s only LGBTQ improv group. But it wasn’t until she found Villain -- what she calls her “oasis -- that she felt comfortable expressing her vulgarity, sexuality and femininity together onstage.
“There’s something about the way that society brings up women, that they’re not just physically or verbally confident in their vulgarity,” Ouzana said. “I’ve always been sort of a rebel tomboy - my mom had to tell me, close your legs, don’t sit like that, stop hanging out with all the boys.”
Neither Santos nor Ouzanas’ parents have come to see them perform. But the comedians say they have no problem with that.
“I have my own individual voice, and I’m glad that it gets to be heard,” Ouzana said. “I can make it my experience, and I think the amazing thing is that other people see that and connect to it and involuntarily laugh at it.”