Lena Waithe is funny — her historic Emmy win for an episode of Master of None the ultimate proof. But "Thanksgiving" wins people over with its touching drama and tenderness more than ha-ha laughs, which is why seeing her in Netflix's satirical comedy Dear White People as closeted, thugged-out rapper P. Ninny in a silly facsimile of Love & Hip Hop named Trap House Tricks is fall-down funny.
"Yo, when I heard my man Trill Stein was hooking up with that ho ass Silk Weavie, I was pissed AF!," she says, as the camera cuts to a grinning producer behind the boards eating Cheet-os, and then Silk Weavie, who looks like she could've been an extra on The Deuce. "This track here is so lit, I might need to have that n***a's baby," P. Ninny says. "Tonight."
It's all so jarring — especially since the look of the show-within-a-show veers so sharply from Dear White People's beautifulbuttery glow — and, as a successor to Season 1's Scandal parody Defamation, it removed any doubt that Dear White People is the best generator of show-within-a-show parodies since 30 Rock.
Seeing new-Hollywood royalty Lena Waithe be so willing to make a complete fool of herself for a part — "I will drink your bathwater and eat strawberries off the small your back!," she tells the woman she's supposedly upset with — and win so hard at it is its own reward but, even better, it reinforces Dear White People's provocative point of view. As the camera pulls back, viewers see who's watching and laughing: the white residents of the newly integrated Winchester Hall dorm. Once the official hub of African-American life and culture on campus — it's now open to all, which is one of the pressure points of the season.
As with its devilishly funny parody of Scandal in Season 1, Dear White People shows how black students gathering to watch black people make a fool of themselves on TV is a kind of ritual — a safe space where they can laugh at themselves, debate about what they're seeing, and just decompress from the exhaustion of experiencing prejudice all the time. P. Ninny is different though, as the expressions on the black kids' faces reveal; this is supremely awkward because P. Ninny's performance of stereotypical blackness leaves them wondering if their new dorm mates are laughing with them or at them. Al (Jemar Michael) says it best. "I feel conflicted as f**k!"
And Dear White People wasn't done. It also lampoons soaps with Prince O' Pal-ities, and has P. Ninny on Dereca: Set Me Straight, the goofy, alternative world version of Iyanla Vanzant's emotional chainsaw of a therapy show Iyanla: Fix My Life. Dereca (Daheli Hall) mimics Iyanla's earthy, tough spirituality but sprinkles a little bit of hood on top. Oblivious to her own nonsense, Dereca asks obvious questions ("Let's get into your single, 'Gimme That Peen Peen (I Love a Ding-a-Ling)': Why the parenthetical?") but really serves to tell the audience how deeply in love the show is with all parts of African-American expression, high and low.
"I'm obsessed with these shows, and shade is my love language," series creator Justin Simien told Vanity Fair. His parodies, he said, give black people permission to relax and just enjoy material that doesn't "advance the culture all that much" but are just fun to watch. Still, in showing how Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), Reggie (Marque Richardson) and their friends wince at how this content is perceived by outsiders, Dear White People zeroes in on its spot: that grey area between racial issues that are super serious, and the reaction to them that's sometimes seriously silly.
Dear White People Season 2 is streaming now on Netlfix.