Growing up, Manish Vaidya used comedy for survival.
“I was this scrawny Hindu, queer, closeted, disabled kid in Catholic school in a really white town where one of the main extracurricular activities was the KKK,” the artist and community organizer says. “I do not know how I would’ve made it through without cracking jokes,” they add. (Vaidya is non-binary and prefers the gender neutral pronoun “they”).
As the cocreator of Peacock Rebellion, a Bay Area group of artist-activist-healers, Vaidya brings together queer trans people of color (QTPOC) for creative workshops, events — and a very unusual comedy training program.
An unusual comedy school
Vaidya founded the Peacock Institute for Social Transformation — known as Brouhaha — in 2014. Classes, which are purposefully intimate with only 8-10 students, have focused on stand-up comedy with a social justice angle, storytelling and other areas. Brouhaha is one of very few training programs geared towards the QTPOC community. And the program is taking off. The first class garnered three times the number of applications Vaidya expected. There were 60 people on the waiting list for the current class. The most recent Brouhaha show at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center sold out. Vaidya is now planning a comedy festival.
Brouhaha comedian Sista Nau-T got a lot out of attending class. “I loved to be able to learn this craft with folks who are funny, informed, talented,” Nau-T says. “And theyʼre using their powers for good.”
Who needs an MFA?
Prior to starting Peacock Rebellion in 2012, Vaidya dropped out of an MFA program. “I was spending more time organizing students and faculty of color to deal with institutional racism than I was working on my art,” they say. Vaidya started Peacock Rebellion instead of getting that graduate degree.
Inspired by their involvement in the Mangos with Chili cabaret show — the oldest queer and trans cabaret show in North America — Vaidya spent time asking other like-minded organizations such as Critical Resistance, Dignidad Rebelde, POOR Magazine, Queer Rebels, QWOCMAP and Sins Invalid about the needs of the queer artistic community. It was from these conversations that the idea for Brouhaha evolved. “We just wanna make the art, get paid for the art and get our stuff out there,” they say. “We deserve to have access to high quality training without the bullsh*t.”
Vaidya’s vision was also informed by comedians such as W. Kamau Bell, Karinda Dobbins and Hari Kondabolu. The artist sees these comedians’ style of social justice comedy as a form of activism. “People are open to so much when they are coming to be entertained,” Vaidya says. “There’s so much radical potential there.”
Not just a pretty bird
Speaking of radical, the name Peacock Rebellion has political roots for Vaidya. It draws inspiration from the writings of the evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin. Darwin once criticized peacocks for being unessential to evolution and for their flamboyant communication patterns. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail makes me sick,” the scientist wrote in 1860.
But years later, Darwin penned a retraction, saying that peacocks were communicating in a language he didn’t initially understand. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that Darwin proposed his “theory of sexual selection,” which provided an evolutionary explanation for peacock feathers and other “seemingly useless” male ornaments. “Peacocks are so resilient,” Vaidya says. “There are plenty of people who would love for us to fail, but we’re still here.”