A Black woman walks into a comedy club in Poland…
Sounds like the setup to a cheesy, potentially racist joke, right? But it’s no joke. For educator turned standup comedian Keelah Rose Calloway, it is real life. But how did she end up in Poland, of all places? Through a series of mishaps and unfortunate circumstances. My conversation with Keelah Rose explores her unique journey into an even more unique career.
Keelah Rose was born in New York and raised just outside of San Diego in Chula Vista, California. The daughter of a commercial pilot and hard-working renaissance woman, she enjoyed international travel early on in life. After her parents separated when she was about five or six years old, financial constraints limited Keelah Rose’s childhood travel to the contiguous United States, but her curiosity and love of reading spurred her desire to see the world.
A self-proclaimed nerd, Keelah Rose enjoyed learning about far off places as kid. She recalls her childhood bookishness fondly, saying, “My parents were both the first in my family to go to college and my house […] was filled with books. I was a huge reader. I always got called the school nerd, but I would always read about these amazing places and I wanted to see them [but…] it seemed like a distant dream.” Once Keelah Rose became of age to travel on her own she left the United States and has been on her expatriate journey for nearly ten years.
As a college student, she took a leap of faith when she bought a cheap ticket to Paris for spring break. Initially worried about how her mother would react to her spontaneous impulse purchase, Keelah Rose was pleasantly surprised by her mother’s calm support. Little did she realize at the time that Paris would be the first step into a life lived abroad.
Keelah Rose entered law school as a backup plan to her liberal arts education. She explains, “Because I was a liberal arts/film major […] it may as well be a McDonald’s major. I couldn’t find any work and I was too chicken s— to move to Hollywood, wait tables, and wait for my big break… The fact that I didn’t do that in my twenties […] was something I’ve regretted for a long time.” A law school internship in Hamburg, Germany was the first extended stay abroad for Keelah Rose, which she describes as the “worst summer of my life.” Her stay in the Bavarian country was the first of several challenging locations that would inform her comedy content and eventually lead her to a life lived in Eastern Europe.
After her time in Germany, she soon began exploring more opportunities to move abroad and eventually found herself working in South Korea for two years. Her mother continued to approve of her choices, but also cautioned her not to let her spontaneity get her into trouble. She remembers her mother warning her before she left: “‘Don’t you dare go to North Korea!’ She knew I was the kind of person who would want to go someplace that no one else had ever been before. She made me promise her.” Keelah Rose followed her mother’s wise advice and did not venture beyond the northern borders of the country.
Another sage bit of advice from her mother led Keelah Rose to obtain a teaching certificate. Keelah Rose remembers her mother telling her, “You’ve got a young, fresh brain. You may as well take these exams now when you’re not doing anything else, frankly, because you don’t have a job.” As a certified teacher, Keelah Rose began teaching English at Korean Hagwon schools, “which are these little privately owned companies that teach, usually English. Most expats in Korea teach at Hagwons, either as their primary job or as some sort of part-time job. […] But I didn’t want to just teach ESL […] So I left Korea to work at an international school in Albania.”
Albania was not Keelah Rose’s first choice. It was yet another backup plan after a job in Italy fell through. She remembers being somewhat apprehensive due to lack of information about the country of Albania at the time. She quips, “I tried to find out about Albania and it turns out that no one has ever been to Albania, and therefore no one writes about Albania. At the time I moved there, the Wikipedia page on Albania was like five paragraphs long; there was nothing about modern life there. It was almost like ‘Well, this former communist utopia’. It was terrible… I was so desperate, I looked up Albania in one of my student’s textbooks on European history… Albania is known as a criminal enclave, it’s very dangerous, don’t go there.” After two years, she went to China (her backup after her first offer in Poland encountered visa challenges). This is where Keelah Rose first got the idea to try her hand at standup comedy.
Racism is No Joke
But before Keelah Rose had a chance to hit the stage, she would make one more move, revisiting her original plan to move to Poland. When asked about any apprehensions she had about moving to a country once occupied by the Nazi regime during World War II, Keelah Rose said she did not have apprehensions. Even following the march of about sixty-thousand White Nationalists in Warsaw, Keelah Rose was unsurprised by these types of displays, stating, “Now that I’ve actually been in Poland for a while, it wasn’t that surprising. It definitely wasn’t totally expected either. It was kind of like ‘Oh, okay. You guys too, huh?’ Especially because of what [was] happening in the United States.” Though Keelah Rose describes two confrontational incidents she believes were racially fueled, she notes that her overall experience in Poland has been positive. She even continues to gain popularity as a comedian, making appearances on local television programs and performing regularly around Europe.
Her standup career started in China when a friend took her to a pub in an effort to lift her spirits after a period of feeling down. Though she actively participated in improvisational comedy as a teen, she acknowledges that she never considered taking on one of the most challenging forms of comedy. Of her general approach to the artform Keelah Rose explains, “I usually just wind up saying things that people happen to find funny because of the way I’d said it or because it’s true but nobody else was going to say it. Or they’re laughing because they’re so uncomfortable. Which is fine, too, as a comedian.” When she saw an opportunity to try out an open mic night at a local bar in Poland, she seized the opportunity. In October 2015, she performed so well at her first standup open mic that the bar asked her to perform a professional show. “It just kept going from there,” she mused.
As a Black, English-speaking, female comic in Poland, it is possible that some of her humor could get lost in translation. But Keelah Rose explained that “the audience is almost exclusively expats at this point… The only time that’s not true is when I go to London [where] you find a nice mixed ethnic group in the audience.” Despite the diversity of her audiences, many of her jokes cover topics that transcend language. The entertainer describes her overall comedic style: “You’re always going to hit home reminding everyone that this is not our real home, and because it’s not our real home, there are the things we all find slightly weird about it. So that works for audiences in Poland. I think everyone can relate to the lowbrow sex jokes. Those generally tend to work fine with a crowd, even if they’re not the most intelligent. But I also find that people tend to universally connect to things when they’re funny.”
Keelah Rose continues to examine the content of her comedy sets, saying, “My humor is such a strange mix. I tend to tell jokes that work for everyone, the universal things we were talking about. But I also have a lot of jokes that are very specific to my experiences as an African-American, especially an African-American woman.”
One of the comedian’s favorite jokes analyzes the relationship between her celebrity crush on Captain America actor Chris Evans, and her conflicting feelings about American symbolism. She says, “On one level, I really wanna go for it, but on an intellectual level I’m like ‘ewww.’ So I kind of go through that psychological process on stage, except it’s full of jokes. Inevitably, when I tell [those] jokes, I’ll have one person in the audience who suddenly just starts dying and [it kind of goes over everyone else’s head].”
The multitalented performer is taking the world by storm, one stage, one project at a time. When she is not touring Europe’s comedy spots she’s showing off her vocal chops in song, or working on her debut novel, Pray for the Hunter, “a gothic horror/fantasy novel featuring a Black female protagonist who gives literal meaning to the term ‘Black girl magic’.”