Each month, local comedian and actor Joe Marshall sits down with a local artist to pick their brain about all things creative and their role in the D.C. performing arts scene.
One of comedy’s most transformative traits is its ability to make the “monsters” — whether anxiety, childhood trauma or abuse — seem less frightening. Comedy allows you to poke fun at those incidents and thoughts, temporarily stripping them of their ability to victimize. Well-crafted jokes give storytellers a sense of ownership over their experiences, and comedian/producer Rola Z is using her art to reframe negativity and present alternate perspectives.
As a child growing up in the midst of a violent civil war, Rola was forced to flee her home country Lebanon and seek refuge in Greece.
“It’s been 40 years since I left and 40 years later, nothing has changed,” she says in reference to the political and economic state of Lebanon, a country still recovering from last year’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut which killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000 and displaced roughly 300,000.
“My parents are still there, so it’s always on my mind,” Rola says. “I have all these feelings I just don’t know what to do with because I can’t change anything. I figured if I can’t change it, I should find a way to laugh about it because laughter leads to healing.”
After living in Egypt and maintaining a successful career in corporate communications producing events for Intel and Visa, Rola’s comedy journey began after a series of life-changing events. She lost her job, ended her marriage of 12 years and moved to D.C. But, like the survivor she is, Rola built her foundation of humor from rock bottom.
A little over two years ago, she began taking comedy classes at the DC Improv, where she was impacted by the work of fellow immigrant comedians who shared stories of discrimination and displacement, filtering their traumatic life experiences through the art of comedy — or as Rola likes to call it, “traumedy.”
“I like material that means something,” Rola says. “We all laugh at sex jokes and blue material, but can you make me laugh at your pain? That’s a skill only acquired through healing. My hope is as I heal in life and grow in comedy, I can communicate that healing through my jokes and help others along the way.”
Rola now produces and hosts comedy shows across the city, turning busy bars and crowded restaurants into humor hospitals. She’s carved out a niche lane for herself, producing shows with experiences difficult to find at larger comedy clubs in the area.
Some standouts include a private, members-only comedy show with burlesque dancers titled Comedy & Curves. She also produces Lingerie & Laughter, a show for women only, where comedians are encouraged to share their amusing stories on dating, romance and sex in a male-free environment. On Cinco de Mayo, Rola is producing her first dark humor comedy show where comedians explore taboo topics to provoke both laughter and thought.
“I’m looking to create true diversity in the shows I produce, but America has a narrower view of what that is,” Rola says. “Diversity isn’t just Black and white — it’s age, religion, gender, class, trauma — it’s everything. I find gaps in the market are actually opportunities to create, because if I want something chances are other people want it, too.”
Of all the shows Rola produces, her favorite is the Funny Arabs Comedy Show, which she hosted in March at Busboys and Poets on 14th and V Northwest in D.C. After performing at the Arab American Comedy Show at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York, Rola was inspired to create a platform for Arab comics in D.C., with the goal of expanding into a series that also includes non-Arab comics. She hopes to build bridges of understanding and empathy amongst truly diverse communities.
“I have delusional confidence syndrome,” Rola jokes. “When you’re an immigrant and you flee a warzone, you’re forced to become confident. I choose to use my confidence as a defender of the underdog and the voiceless.”
Rola recalls an intimate moment with her 5-year-old during the height of the pandemic, when in-person schools became virtual.
In frustration, her child belted out, “I’m bored of online classes, Mom!”
Rola simply replied, “When I was your age, you know what I was bored of? War.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is traumedy.
You can keep up with all of the shows Zaarour produces by following her on Instagram @somearabwoman.
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