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Native Baltimorean uses humor to enlighten and empower

This writer has been in the company of many different artists. Each one is unique and captivating in his/her own way. So I had previously seen this gentle giant with the big voice perform, but had the opportunity to interview him by phone on the evening of February 24, 2014.

Photos of Koli Tengella, comedian and agent for political/social change
provided by Koli Tengella

His name is Koli Tengella and he is the product of a dysfunctional family as well as a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. He was born on Friday, hence the name Koli. Tengella is the family name, that of a major African king in West Africa - one of the first African kings to stand up to white oppression.

But it is through theater that Tengella has been able to change his destiny. Between the ages of 12 and 18, he was a fan of Lon Chaney, an actor known for his masterful makeup. As a result, he is now known as a performer and an instructor of social justice and positive social change.

Tengella got started as a comic around the age of 18. He went through the phases that most comics go through - that of mimicking comics who were popular at the time. Those modern comics were Eddie Murphy, The Wayans Brothers, Robin Williams, and Steve Martin, all of whom went on to star in movies. Tengella, however, wanted to say more with his humor than just the standard cliched style of comedy. He wanted to be considered more than the comics of the observational humor style and genre.
Of course, he did what most African American comics are/were forced into because that move began to garner work for him, but he was not happy.

In the late 80's, Tengella was named by 4 comedy club owners as most promising comedian in Baltimore Magazine. As he grew in the business, he became more politically and socially conscious. He realized that humor would be one of the most effective and powerful ways to enlighten and educate people as to the suffering and pain that people were going through, of which we might not be aware.

Tengella has been influenced by some of the best of the best, including: Dick Gregory, (for whom he opened twice in Baltimore), Paul Mooney, George Carlin, and Bill Mohr.

He has performed at all the comedy clubs in Baltimore as well as Caesar's Palace in The Poconos. He even did a national college tour for six months, visiting 82 schools during that time. He collected the Do Not Disturb signs from the hotels to keep track.

A native of Baltimore, Tengella attended Springhill Elementary, Dr. Martin L. King Elementary/Middle, Forest Park High, Baltimore City Community College and Morgan State University. His initial goal was to become an attorney, but he was bitten by the acting bug and took a different path.

He studied in an actor apprentice program at Baltimore's Arena Players and attended master classes at Juilliard. He, ultimately, had starring roles in 'A Raisin in the Sun', 'Othello', 'Macbeth', and 'Hamlet'.

Irvin Turner, one of the founders of Arena Players, mentored Tengella and even encouraged him to go to his first audition. Tengella attended an apprentice actor program at Center Stage, where his teacher, Donald Hickens, went on to become the theater teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts.

The six foot plus Tengella has no agent and works independently. He is looking for an agency so that he can perform comedy and travel the speakers' circuit. He has developed his own following in Maryland, as he discusses liberal and social justice issues through humor.

In March, Tengella is schdeuled to do a weekly 3-5 minute segment on Morgan State University's WEAA radio station's Anthony McCarthy Show. It will be a comedic take on national political and pop culture issues called, 'Tengella's Take'.

Tengella has hopes for his future. He says if things go as planned, he will be a regular political pundit on MSNBC or Altrazeera America talking about political issues of black folk, but using humor.

He will then join the ranks of some of the comics with whom he has met or appeared. The list includes DL Hughley, Tracey Morgan, John Witherspoon, Bill Bellamy, Tommy Davidson, Richard Belzer, and the late Shirley Hemphill.

To the up and coming artists, Tengella advises, "Find your truth and stick to it; don't do what is the norm because if it's funny to you, then it will be funny to others. If you can draw people into your perspective of things, it will be funny, too. To use surprise and twisting of stereotypes can be a beautiful thing".

Tengella's goal is just to use comedy/humor to enlighten and empower us all to become better human beings.

Koli Tengella can be reached on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In March, 2014 his website will launch as

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