Tanveer Arora, left and KeLanna Spiller

The Kufiya Comedy Festival adds a touch of queerness to its cultural celebration

RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer

For three days beginning Friday, May 10, the Kufiya Comedy Festival will celebrate the diverse cultures of South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and East and Southeast Asia through comedy, film and music — but mostly comedy. With this festival, organizers Alex Hanson and Marena Riyad are giving visibility to communities that may be overlooked — and that includes LGBTQ creatives. This year, three comedians will bring a bit of rainbow to Kufiya.

“The festival uses art as a weapon of resistance against censorship and stigmatization, particularly for LGBTQ artists and performers who face discrimination both from within and outside their communities,” Riyad said. “We [the festival organizers] believe that the lack of rights, representation, and self-determination for any group affects us all. Our freedoms are intertwined.”

And what better way to fight that than through laughter.

The three days of the festival celebrate cultural diversity specifically. Friday will be dedicated to South Asia; Saturday (World Kufiya Day) showcases the MENA Region, and Sunday highlights East/Southeast Asia.

Dallas comic KeLanna Spiller performs Friday night. She had performed a Kufiya Comedy show earlier this year and with that performance found an audience she wanted to return to.

“The crowd was so diverse, and the venue was very intimate. I enjoyed how appreciative and attentive the audience was during everyone’s set,” she said. “I thought it would be a place I’d like to perform at again, so when Marena mentioned she was producing a comedy festival, I knew I had to be a part of it.”

Tanveer Arora is embarking on a new frontier as a comedian. He had collaborated with Riyad before, so when she expressed interest in him performing, saying yes was easy.

“The theme of the festival feels so fresh, and I’m happy about such a thing happening,” Arora said. “I love how inclusive this is, and we need more representation, not just Asian communities, but LGBTQ as well. This is a great thing.”

Arora said he’s looking forward not only to his performance but also to networking with other comedians, particularly Sureni Weerasekera. Arora may actually fanboy over the comedian. As it turns out, he’s not just a fan; he sees her as inspiration.

“She has a strong set that delivers on our culture, but she also plays the LGBTQ stuff in her comedy so well,” he said. “I’m trying to do that now with my set and material.”

Arora came out as bisexual more than a year ago. He hasn’t touched on it in his comedy much if at all, but he’s working on changing that. For a “brown man in a turban,” he says, it’s scary.

“My comedy has been fairly clean, with mom and dad jokes. I play on those IT or terrorist stereotypes, which work on audiences,” he said. “It’s easy to sell stereotypes. It’s harder to come out as bi person to audiences waiting for 7-11 and 9/11 jokes.

“I don’t think anyone has thought about someone in a turban messing around with cocks.”

Arora can lace in humor while talking about his orientation in a conversation. But onstage, it’s a different story. He’s straddling his old material with his new, more personal jokes as well as battling audiences, profiling and his own comfort.

“I do want to bridge that gap of South Asian folks and my bisexuality while I craft my comedy in a way that’s easily palatable,” he said. “Mostly, I want people to have a good time, but I also need to be my authentic self.”

With his background, there is a distinct fear of pushback from his religious communities, and he quite literally can’t say anything blatantly anti-religious without putting his life in danger.

But he abides by the one rule of comedy and has to trust in that: “If it’s funny, it’s funny. I can talk about Walmart or dicks, but it’s gotta be funny,” he said. “Why should I hide and be unreal to fans?”

All Arora wants is to be funny. When he relays jokes about organizing an orgy or his jealous wife when getting massaged by a man, they get solid laughs. Once he gets past the coming out hurdle, he wants his comedy to be at the forefront of who he is.

“It goes back to being authentic, but I don’t want to have to create these characters who are in tech or who are Uber drivers. I just want to be a guy who has a job, going through a divorce and who is bisexual,” he said.

And he wants to be funny too.

Follow Arora on Instagram at @tanveerarora and Spiller at @kelanna_spiller. For tickets and information, visit KufiyaComedyTx.com.