Much like how she is now, Rita Brent was a resourceful and confident 8-year-old growing up in Jackson and teaching herself how to drum.
Despite having no drum set and never taking professional lessons, she knew that she could beat to a rhythm. So, she piled stacks of books onto her bed, arranged them in the shape of a drum set, and started beating.
“That’s how I was as a kid — I was a beatin’ fool,” said Brent, who is hosting “Jackson: Soul of the City” June 30 at Duling Hall. “I was beating on everything.”
It was with similar pose that Brent, whose stage name is Rita B, taught herself to be a comedian. She needed all those traits to grow into the witty, charming, yet commanding, entertainer who continues to take the world by storm.
“It’s so weird, because in general conversations I’m super shy,” Brent said. “I have social anxiety. I don’t like being in big crowds. I don’t like walking in front of people. But, when I’m on stage, it’s just a different kind of release.
“I get to be somebody else other than myself. Maybe it’s a self-esteem or an insecurity thing where, when I’m offstage, I don’t know if I’m good enough. But, when I’m on stage, I know I’m a good drummer. I know I’m a good comedian. So, there’s comfort there for me.”
Her shyness is difficult to detect onstage. Her jokes have a quick cadence, boosted by a kind of authority that demands her audience’s attention.
Brent, who served with the National Guard for nine years, said, “I’m very straightforward on stage, and often, before even saying anything, I get asked ‘Were you in the military? Are you a police officer or what?’ Because I have this stern demeanor on stage.”
While starting a performance at OffBeat in Jackson one night last summer, Brent spotted a tardy audience member looking for a seat.
“Come on, come on ‘cross, you already late. At least try to make it look sexy while you goin’ across,” she said, staring down the man who scurried to his seat.
In her routine, race and bodily functions are recurring themes.
“I just turned 30. I can feel my body changing y’all,” she said later at OffBeat. “Ever since I turned 30, it feels like my stomach just be torn up all the time. I don’t know what it is. See, white folk, y’all don’t know what ‘torn up’ means, y’all stomachs be ‘upset‘.”
Brent, who drummed every Sunday at church as a kid, still plays with a local group called Heart Society. But, as of a year ago, she has made comedy her full-time gig. And the comedy world, including comedian Kevin Hart, is glad that she did.
Last summer, Brent was chosen as an act for “Hart of the City,” Hart’s Comedy Central series that searches for up-and-coming comedians in different cities. The Jackson-based episode aired last November.
“It was definitely unexpected,” she said. “I thought I would have to move to see some of the success that I’ve seen. It’s just been surprising that so many doors are opening with me still being based in Jackson.”
In 2016, Brent also knotted a gig with radio host Rickey Smiley after hitting it off with him after a show in Alabama. She toured as feature act on his show, “Rickey Smiley and Friends,” along the East coast and the Southeast.
While she describes herself as a relative newcomer to comedy, her reputation has catapulted quickly in a brief period since starting stand-up about 5 years ago as a 26-year-old. She joined the National Guard after finishing at Murrah High School and went on to Jackson State University to study broadcast production. She then spent six years as a radio host and producer with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, working on shows “In Legal Terms,” “Everyday Tech,” and “Next Stop Mississippi.”
State workers undergoing sexual-harassment training might also recognize her voice in a webcast from the state personnel board.
Up until 2013, though, comedy had never been on Brent’s radar.
“Every time I see (high school classmates) now, they’re like, ‘You were always funny,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah?'” she recalled. “But my story’s different from a lot of other comedians I know, who say they knew as children they wanted to be comedians. I knew I wanted to be an entertainer, but I was thinking I would go the musician route.”
She grew up watching shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show, but didn’t know at first that Martin Lawrence or Bill Cosby were stand-up comics. Even though she wasn’t particularly interested in comedy, a young Rita used her wit to keep up with her peers.
“I would say (being funny) was a cool tool, a tool to be cool,” Brent quipped. “I was always in predicaments where I was the minority, being a female drummer. I was always in spaces where there were lots of boys, so I just had to hang with them; boys tease each other all the time, so I had to figure out how to tease back so I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt. I had no idea that I would turn it into a career. It’s still surreal.”
Ezra Wall, a co-worker with Brent at MPB, said he and other colleagues were slightly surprised by her career change from a radio host.
“She was a fun person to be around,” he said, “But wasn’t always the first person to crack a joke, she would let other people do that. She would let them get the laugh from the group. That’s part of why it took me and others a little by surprise when she said, ‘Hey guys, I think I’m going to be a comedian,’ because she wasn’t the first person to push herself into the spotlight. But, boy, once she’s out there she has shined.”
Currently, Brent is trying to expand her reach through different platforms. She, along with her manager and radio personality Maranda Joiner and Roderick Richardson, known as “The Relationship Mentor,” launched a live comedy podcast series on May 11. Called “Comeback Chicks,” Brent and guests discuss current events while playing the card game Uno.
Brent is also well-known for her prayer videos. Often sitting in her car, she looks to her phone camera and asks God for strength to deal with current events or something she’s passionate about, whether it’s student loans, Kanye West or the McDonald’s dysfunctional ice cream machine, all with holy church organs ringing in the background.
“Dear Heavenly Father and Student Loan Jesus,” she starts one video praying, “Lord we come to you too stressed to be blessed … You said in your word, forgive us in our debts as we forgive our debtors. But Sallie Mae must don’t read her Bible, Lord, because she ain’t forgave yet.”
“Dear Heavenly Father and Soft Serve Jesus,” she starts in another one. “Lord, we come to you McSick and McTired of these McDonald’s ice cream machines being broke all over the world.
“Send down your McFlurry angels to lay hands on these machines, Lord.”
The prayer videos are expanding her reach. Along with her Facebook audience, the videos helped her book gigs in Ohio, Illinois and the Virgin Islands.
In Jackson, Brent recognizes the comedy scene is still developing and knows some are looking to her as a leader of that growth.
“You’ve got to take it seriously. It’s not the same as being a class clown. I’ve seen people who do two shows and are then like, ‘Alright, I quit,'” she said. “You have to respect the craft. That may be something that’s lacking, not just in Jackson but in general, a respect for the craft.
“You know, (comedian) Tig Notaro doesn’t live here anymore, she’s gone. The famous (Mississippi) comics I know — Karlous Miller, J.J. Williamson, Marvin Hunter — they aren’t here anymore, so there aren’t any veteran leaders in the city that people can look up to and strive to be like. I’m that person for some people, but I’m still growing and developing myself, so I don’t want to be that person. I think we still have a lot of growing to do in the city as far as developing a stable, respectable comedy scene. It’s just in the developing stages right now, so it’s not that impressive to outsiders.”
In her own development, Brent is getting more comfortable doing hour-long sets and “getting all of the juice out of (her) jokes.” Part of that transition is including deeper and more personal material than she was not used to sharing at first.
“Now I’m talking about being divorced in my set,” she said. “I didn’t do that for a long time. Now I’m like, ‘Eh, why not?’ It’s not a secret. At first it was a sensitive subject. I was kind of ashamed. But now I don’t care. There are plenty of divorced people out here in the world and, as a comedian, I can make fun of my (own) stuff.”
Wall, who knew Brent as an introverted, deep-thinker at MPB, thinks her intelligence and hard work will take her to the next level.
“When I look at the decision (for Brent to do comedy) in hindsight, it makes perfect sense,” he said, “because she isn’t just a funny person to be around, she wants to do the hard work of learning what makes something funny.”
Brent’s deeper outlook was evident in a TEDx Talk called “Funny Women,” in which she discussed the limited view people have of women comedians.
“Comedy is less about being feminine and ladylike and more about being authentic and being human,” she said, speaking at the Old Capitol Museum in 2016. “I feel, as humans, we have shared experiences, whether we’re male or female. And as a female comedian, I should have the right to talk about those experiences the same as a male comedian.”
She then maneuvered the thoughtful insight into a relatable joke, one of her regular bits.
“At some point all of us have to do the number two at work,” she said. “As a comedian, this is a very funny experience to me; it has nothing to do with being ladylike, it has everything to do with being authentic.
“I hate doing the number two at work, you have to get in and get out before somebody sees your shoes…(Your coworker) will see you later on, look up and look down and say, ‘Oh my God, that was you blowing up the bathroom earlier,’ and you don’t want that kind of reputation at work.”
Local promoter Elton Pope says he sees star potential in Brent.
“Her material is so universal. It’s everyday life material,” he said. “I’m witnessing a butterfly growing from a cocoon. She’s been working hard for the position she’s in. I think she’s a right turn from stardom. She has all the talent to be where Kevin Hart is.”
As she navigates her place in not only the Mississippi comedy scene, but the national one as well, Brent said she isn’t sure how her younger self would view her career move, but knows that she would be glad.
“Very surprised,” she said. “Almost unbelievable. I don’t know maybe not, because the entertainment bug has always been with me. I just never knew it would go to this part of entertainment. So probably proud more than surprised. Proud that you had the guts to go out there and do it — doing something you were afraid to do. You’re pursuing excellence. A lot of pride.”