Michaela Coel isn’t afraid of being uncomfortable. And she certainly isn’t afraid to make you feel uncomfortable. “I’m way too honest,” she admits, calling in from the U.K. “It can backfire. I think you could do another kind of comedy like this that’s not awkward.” There’s a momentary silence. “But I don’t know how to do that.”
As the creator, writer and star of the British sitcom Chewing Gum, Coel has channeled her particular strain of cringe-comedy into one young woman’s carnal-knowledge coming-of-age nightmare. The show’s revolves around Tracey Gordon, an evangelical Christian, Beyoncé-crazed virgin who’s stuck in the middle of navigating a world of sexual discovery, interracial dating and identity crises. When she’s not having daily erotic fantasies about licking her (closeted) former fiancé’s eyeballs or getting it on with her white would-be poet boyfriend, the hornier-than-thou heroine is hanging with her BDSM-obsessed best friend and their neighbours in the London housing estate they live in. Every time Tracey gets aroused, which is often, she suffers humiliating nosebleeds. There are facesitting fails and disastrous attempts at threesomes and selling used sex toys. And right in the centre of it all is the show’s 24-year-old heroine, one with Lucille Ball’s physical-comedy chops and a radical candour that feels all-too-relatable.
The sitcom – which premiered stateside on Netflix in late 2016 and just dropped its second season on the streaming service last week – is not autobiographical, Coel is quick to point out. “[Though] there’s something to do with the spirit of the show and the relationships between people that are based on fact,” she says. Rather, Coel notes, it was heavily inspired by certain aspects of experiences: extremism, family relations, practicing abstinence. Born in London, the actress grew up in a working class family and studied at an all-girls Catholic school; unlike Tracey, however, her household wasn’t devout.
“When I was 18, I suddenly became very, very religious,” she explains. “I became an evangelical Christian; I was celibate for five years. I thought that sex and all things revolving around sex before marriage would take me off my path.” During that time, Coel dropped out of college and didn’t know what to do with her life; she eventually started putting all her energy into singing and poetry, practicing her work at open mics. Then, at 22, she left the church because she was “hanging out in the real world too much.” She met playwright-director Ché Walker, who encouraged her to apply at Guildhall School of Music and Drama; Coel became the first black woman to attend in five years. “I wrote a play at drama school, which was a dark comedy – people laughed and cried,” she says. “And then my script of one of the shows was picked up by a comedy sketch company … so then I had to write comedy.”
What would become Chewing Gum was derived from Coel’s 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams – a one-woman show starring a 14-year-old named Tracey (she aged the character a full decade for the TV show) that started as her senior-thesis project and ended up running at London’s prestigious Royal National Theatre. After playing to rapturous crowds, she began to adapt her story of this Ghanian-British young women waxing about life in the housing projects and battling hormonal tsunamis as a six-episode series for England’s Channel 4 broadcasting service; the result earned her a whole new fanbase and a BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy. “If there’s anybody out there that look like me or feels a little bit out of place,” Coel said during her acceptance speech, “you are beautiful. Embrace it. You are intelligent. Embrace it. You are powerful. Embrace it.”
When it came time to start writing Chewing Gum‘s second season, Coel was determined to use her power to push the envelope even more. The new batch of episodes picks up with Tracey still finding her way, this time without a place to live, her old boyfriend and most of her confidantes. (“I’m not sure ‘maturity’ is her thing,” she says with a laugh. “If she suddenly turned into an adult overnight, she wouldn’t be Tracey anymore.”) But she’s also delving deeper into how race plays into the character’s story this time out, as Tracey hooks up with a potential suitor named Ash, who seems fixated on her blackness – and encourages her, in one cringeworthy scene, to dress up in an African tribal outfit. Coel has mentioned in recent interviews that the incident is fictionalized, before adding that “being fetishised because of my skin? I’ve definitely encountered that wall of people.”
It’s all part of her effort, she says, to show the breadth of circumstances a woman of colour can end up in. Tracey may be part of the continuum of openly flawed feminist leads currently dotting America’s airwaves – think Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s hopped-up hipsters on Broad City, Viola Davis’ messed-up law professor on How to Get Away With Murder and the unlucky-in-love heroine of Issa Rae’s Insecure. But she’s also a sui generis creation from that represents the singular experience of a specific type of young, black British woman on the verge. Yes, she can stumble clumsily through a restaurant when a seduction attempt goes south, or break in to a hyperkinetic victory dance when she gets good news. But Tracey is doing all of this in a sitcom that’s juxtaposing class, sex and religion in a manner that bolder and more ambitious than almost anything else out there, comedy or otherwise.
So while Coel is determined to make viewers laugh first and foremost – this is still the same person who filmed a party scene where people playfully fight with giant dildos – she also wants people to think differently about why characters like Tracey aren’t seen in TV and the movies more. If Chewing Gum can make someone view this sexed-up, spiritually confused, public-housing-living woman’s experiences with different eyes, then she’s done her job. Before Coel signs off, she recalls how during the first three years of drama school, she did plays about Shakespeare or working class white people. She always felt her story was missing. “In terms of women of colour, especially in British TV, there’s not often a dark-skinned character,” Coel says, “who is vulnerable, who has a naiveté about her, who is loveable – and is not just a sexual vixen, a crackhead or a criminal. We don’t get that a lot in Britain. I wanted to fill that space.”