Comedian Janelle James

In her Emmy-nominated breakout role on ABC’s Abbott Elementary, comedian Janelle James plays Ava Coleman, the new school principal who obtained her position by blackmailing the superintendent after catching him in an illicit affair. In real life, James doesn’t need extortion to get ahead, and will be headlining multiple shows at DC Improv from Dec. 1 through 3. Treading the boards since 2009, after performing at an open mic night at a biker bar in Champaign, Illinois, James has slowly but surely worked her way up the comedic ladder, appearing on various Netflix comedy specials and writing for The Rundown with Robin Thede and Showtime’s Black Monday. Her biggest break came in 2017 when Chris Rock personally asked her to be his opening act. When she was cast as the brash but occasionally vulnerable Ava, James was able to draw on her personal experience to develop the character. In a previous interview, she explained the character was a combination of “my aunt who talks too much at the wrong time and says whatever she wants, a previous bad boss, and me.” If this all seems like James had some grand plan, it turns out to be anything but. “I didn’t plan to do any of this,” James recently told Jimmy Kimmel during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “I don’t plan. I’m floating through the universe, letting things happen to me, and it’s working out.” Janelle James performs at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 1; 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on Dec. 2; and 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 3 at DC Improv. $25–$35.

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