Mixed-ish, the Black-ish prequel series set in the 1980s that follows a young Rainbow Johnson as she adjusts to life in suburbia with her mixed-race family after spending years on a commune, is now in its second season. The series has become a favorite with fans thanks to its nuanced storytelling – about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be biracial – hilarious scenarios, and heartfelt moments.
On Mixed-ish, Christina Anthony – a Chicago comedy scene veteran – plays Aunt Denise, Bow’s maternal aunt who teaches the kids about Black heritage and shows her love in big, bold ways. Anthony enjoys working on a show that shares Black family experiences, told from many different points of view, while capturing the universality of every parent’s desire to raise a happy, healthy family.
“I hope that Mixed-ish can be a model for showing that there is joy and fun in being different and in being new to an experience,” said Anthony by phone in early February. “This family is coming from a commune to suburban life in the 80s, but I think everyone can relate to that feeling of being in a new place, trying to figure out your life, who you are, and how you identify. I specifically hope Aunt Denise does for viewers what she does for the children in how she’s proud to be Black. ‘Who you are is just fine. You are perfect and wonderful the way you are.’ I hope that message resonates for people of any background.”
Anthony also appreciates how the Ish Universe – Black-ish, Mixed-ish, and Grown-ish – presents scenarios in a way that provokes real-life conversations.
“There’s great things that happen in these shows. There’s people getting degrees and going off to college and getting married, but there’s also low moments, and I hope that when people watch this, and there’s difficult conversations, it gives them the courage to say we can have these conversations. It’s OK to talk about race. We need to talk about race.”
Along with Anthony, the Mixed-ish cast is comprised of veterans of the industry – Tika Sumpter (Alicia Johnson), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Paul Jackson), Gary Cole (Harrison Jackson III) – as well as the up-and-coming young talents, Arica Himmel, Mykal-Michelle Harris, and Ethan William Childress who play Rainbow, Santamonica, and Johan Johnson, respectfully.
“Everybody is so wonderful. Our children are pre-teens and a teenager, and they are so professional. I’m in awe of how great they are and how already skilled they are,” said Anthony. “Obviously, it’s great getting a chance to work with Tika Sumpter – such a well-known force and actress – and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be acting alongside the actor formerly known as Zack Morris. I came up in the Chicago comedy scene, so it is nice to work with Gary Cole, who is a Chicago legend. He’s open to improvising and really gives me a run for my money any day.”
Anthony started her comedy career in Chicago and was a regular at The Second City in the 2000s, writing and performing at the theater after a stint with the touring company. She also recently reunited with the organization, all be it virtually, as one of the hosts of The Last Comedy Show on Earth presented by The Second City and Topic at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine in 2020.
She explained that when she was employed at The Second City, she was only the seventh Black woman ever to work there. In recent months, the organization has launched a number of initiatives to promote equity and diversity. Anthony is hopeful that leadership at all comedy institutions will prioritize inclusivity and support rather than simply saying, “We want more Black people here.”
“I loved learning about comedy at The Second City. I loved doing the research and watching the tapes and watching all those people, even though I very rarely saw people like me as I watched some of these cult classic tapes that circulated around the comedy world. I think the main goal I want going forward for comedy institutions is, it’s OK to say, ‘We want more Black people here,’ but what are you going to do to set them up for success and make it so it is a welcoming and inclusive environment? The student who wants to learn about comedy, they are there to learn. It is the other parts that make it difficult, that make people think, ‘I don’t want to do this because my castmate or coworker or teacher aren’t as welcoming.’ I think that’s the key,” Anthony said.
While the pandemic has moved most standup, sketch, and improv to the virtual realm, Anthony remains passionate about performing live comedy and is currently writing a special, and working on other projects.
“I miss standup. I’m definitely looking forward to an opportunity to get back on stage. Doing standup is just not the same,” she said of performing virtual shows. “I’m writing a special that I definitely want to do in front of an audience. I cannot imagine trying to do it without them. I love the feedback you get immediately from the audience.”
Who knows when live comedy will safely return, but in the meantime, fans can follow along with Anthony on Mixed-ish as Denise starts a new chapter in her life.
“We just started airing season two, and we just revealed this week that Aunt Denise, her time at Pan Am airlines is over. I think like a lot of women she’s now mid-life, mid-career and trying to pivot. She gets a new job, and she ends up working at the law firm with her sister Alicia,” said Anthony. “I’m really excited for that to play out. Alicia and Denise have been the only Black women at their jobs, and now they will be the only Black women together at the same job, still dealing with office politics. I’m excited.”