In an interview with the Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob, Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on NBC’s Community explains what she and her fellow black female actor friends do when someone asks them to play “sassy”:
As a black actor, it’s refreshing that I’m not playing the “sassy black woman.” It’s something that Dan Harmon was cognizant of from the beginning. It is something that I’m always cognizant of. Every woman on the planet has sass and smart-ass qualities in them, but it seems sometimes only black women are defined by it. Shirley is a fully formed woman that had a sassy moment. Her natural set point, if anything, is rage. That’s her natural set point, suppressed rage, which comes out as kindness and trying to keep everything tight…Female friends that are in my tribe, black girls, we all have stories about that. We find interesting ways to make [directors] tell us to be sassy because they know that it’s racist. I say, “Can you show me how to do that?” They don’t want to do a black version of sassy, so then they move on.
I can’t even imagine how much pressure there must be to go along to get along when you’re trying to get a job or keep one, so the folks who are pushing back at all get kudos. And I think, just rhetorically, there’s something smart about playing uninformed in this sort of situation. It lets the person giving awful instructions know that what they want isn’t just an accepted default for everyone. And it forces them to acknowledge they’re asking folks to do something they’d find embarrassing and artificial to carry out themselves—if they’ve got a whit of shame or smarts.
I also think Brown’s discussion of Shirley’s anger is really important—and it’s what’s the key to what made Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning performance as Minnie Jackson so good in The Help. Minny is full of justifiable rage, whether it’s at the husband who abuses her and their children, the employer who treats her dreadfully, or even sometimes at the white lady who thinks she has the presumption to tell Minny’s story honestly. The pursed lips and sarcastic remarks that make the character funny aren’t really for anyone else’s gratification. They’re an escape valve for the anger it would be so dangerous for Minny to express directly.