As the Australasian ambassador for South African tourism, Urzila Carlson has noticed some interesting details in how Kiwis perceive her identity. After spending time in her homeland producing a series of social media videos of her travels, Carlson returned home to New Zealand and had a telling interaction with a good friend.
"She said to me, 'I didn't realise you identify as African'," says Carlson. "And I went, 'I don't identify as African - I am African'.
"She goes, 'No you're not'. I go, 'Yeah I am'. And she goes, 'No, you're ...' and I go, 'What, too white?' And she goes, 'Yeah. You're too white'."
That's how Carlson came to the title of her new show: Token African. "I am the token African; I'm African but I'm not seen as African, even outside of Africa," she says. "So I did a DNA test to see what my actual make-up is and where I'm from – which I will reveal in the show.
"Up until that point I never questioned it; it's only now that I decided to do the DNA thing. And then it's sort of confounding because my mum was adopted, so you're sort of not sure – Where are we from? What is my make up?" she says. "Let me just say – a little bit disappointed by the amount of Scandinavian."
Carlson says Kiwis have surprising gaps in their knowledge of South African history – "plenty of New Zealanders have no idea what apartheid was" – but we at least know more than Americans.
"I lived in the States first, and in America, they did not give a shit, because they believe they know everything," she says. "When I lived there, a guy asked, 'Where you from?' I go, 'South Africa', and he goes, 'Where in Europe is that?' I'm like, dude, it's self-explanatory. It's in the name."
Through Token African, Carlson uses her own navigation of identity to tell a story of stereotypes and misconceptions – but she warns people not to expect any earth-shaking revelations from her show.
"My stand-up's just comedy; you're not going to walk away in tears and go, 'Oh my god that has changed my life forever'. You're just going to laugh for an hour, have a wine and go home," she says.
"On the flip side, I do sort of just crowbar a bit of a message in there," she says. "Because I also think, I talk to thousands of people every year – if I can't at least get a bit of a message, a bit of my own agenda in there, what's the point?"
Carlson's audience has only continued to grow; she's become one of New Zealand's most recognisable comedians here and in Australia, and over summer, she took on her largest international gig ever with Netflix's Comedians of the World, an international special that collated 47 sets from comedians from 13 different regions around the world.
Carlson says the experience was difficult – the set was recorded in Montreal, where she was performing to a challenging crowd of French-speaking Canadians – but also an "amazing experience".
"I sat on stage during Dave Chappelle's show, and John Mayer was playing guitar, and I was sitting next to Wanda Sykes, and I'm like, someone's going to come in here and go, 'hey, what are you doing here, get out of here!' That's what it felt like the whole time I was there."
Since the special debuted on Netflix, Carlson says she's started getting emails from people all over the world. "I've got these girls in Sweden going, 'When are you coming to Sweden?'… So watch out, I'm going to potentially move to Sweden."
But before that, she wants Kiwis to see the show first if just for one joke she can't wait to share.
"I texted my manager and said, 'I think I just wrote the best joke of my entire career'," she says. "I've never tried it in front of an audience, but I believe in this joke… I've since told it to my manager and my brother, and they both laughed their asses off."
Who: Urzila Carlson
What: Token African, New Zealand International Comedy Festival
When: May 3 & May 4, Q Theatre; May 25, Bruce Mason Centre