When Christina Anthony walked into her audition to play Aunt Denise on “Mixed-ish” last spring, she was running on fumes.
The comedic actress and improviser had spent eight years in Los Angeles working a customer service job while going to auditions, and she couldn’t see the point in taking yet another long lunch to drive to what was her dozenth audition of pilot season.
“My heart was not in it,” said Anthony, who had moved to L.A. in 2011 for a part on the famous “Key and Peele” sketch “I Said Bitch” but had not been cast in anything since.
That audition would have been her last. She had told her boyfriend at the time that she was ready to throw in the towel and had set a date, June 1, to give notice to her landlord and manager that she was leaving. She was even putting feelers out in Chicago, where she got her start, for teaching and theater gigs.
“I had student loan debt, credit card debt, I had been through a divorce, and I just was like, ‘I’m knocking on doors that not only do I think are shut but are locked to me,’ ” she said.
Anthony was motivated by her parents, who had sent her the best used car they could find, and her boyfriend, who had stayed up all night with her preparing her lines. When she got to the audition, she knew her lines cold, and after getting called back for a chemistry read with her co-star, Tika Sumpter, she got the part. “I always knew it was going to happen,” her mom said when she told her.
At her first table read, Anthony was exhausted: “I went over there and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have gas in my car.’ ... I was on fumes in real life and I was on fumes in my heart, too.”
But what was a long journey resulted in Anthony’s breakout role as Denise on the spinoff of “Black-ish,” a show she had admired since first seeing it. “Mixed-ish,” on its first season, returns Tuesday.
“Watching the first few episodes, there were so many jokes that were culturally relevant to the black experience and there were times that they took the time to explain what that was … but there were other jokes that just sailed by and nobody stopped to say, ‘Just so you know, white people, this means this.’ … I found that to be really refreshing,” she said.
In one of the most touching episodes of the show, “Let Your Hair Down,” Aunt Denise takes her nieces, Rainbow (Arica Himmel) and Santamonica (Mikal-Michelle Harris) to get their hair relaxed for picture day after a teacher tells Rainbow her big, curly hair should be “neat.” This sparks a debate within the family, as mom Alicia (Sumpter) would prefer her girls to feel confident with their natural curls.
Anthony could relate: “I can remember my own picture day experience … the photographer or teacher handing you the little comb and ruining your own bangs because the texture of my bangs [were] different, they did not need to be combed with that little comb and I ruined the picture. … One year, one of my of my aunts straightened my hair, she gave me a relaxer and I was so happy. ... It just seems so backward now but at the time, like so many kids, we were just trying to fit in,” she remembered. “When I look back on the hair episode, for me it was emotional because what Denise was doing, I remember those people in my life.”
The East St. Louis native got her start in Chicago and in the improv scene at Second City. Knowing “Saturday Night Live” scouts occasionally visited the theater, she came up with some characters including Cheryl “Nookie” Jackson, who she would perform in the Second City improv set and at the Paper Machete variety show.
“She’s a JET Beauty of the Week. … She just seemed like someone who was like, really proud of her blackness and not really caring about being assimilated. I really loved her for that,” she said.
Her first apartment in the city was behind the Granville Red Line station, and her plates shook when the train went by. She had a Murphy bed. She also lived in Hyde Park and Ukrainian Village. “I lived all over,” she said.
She said what she misses most about Chicago are the central meeting places for entertainers, like the Old Town Ale House, where you could go after a show.
Sticking to her roots, Anthony still does improv around LA with her group, Black People, which includes “some of the best improvisers from Chicago.”
“At the time that I was in Chicago, I don’t think things like that existed,” she said of the all-black ensemble.
She is also working on a comedy special.