Tina Zaman is a storyteller. She’s also a tutor, casting director and curator of Sydney’s (and Australia’s) only anti-racist comedy club, Tight 5. Zaman is vivacious, passionate, on a mission to spark uncomfortable conversations and, of course, to make people laugh. Her comedy club’s live shows foster a truly multi-racial community in Sydney and helped three local restaurants stay afloat during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zaman, previously a university writing instructor, started Tight 5 in 2019. The aim is to desegregate comedy, which Zaman says is typically white-centric. The emphasis is on giving people from all backgrounds – particularly people of colour – the opportunity to share stories in a supportive, community-driven setting.

Zaman, who has a Bengali-Afghan background, was raised in the Muslim faith in Los Angeles, California. She says, “Growing up in LA shaped me more than anything else; I had never felt silenced. [Racism] never became a problem until I was a grown woman.

“I feel really at home in environments that are dominated by people of colour and I want to curate comedy this way so I can give other artists of colour a chance to feel like they’re not pandering to particular audiences.”

The name Tight 5 comes from an industry term that challenges comedians to settle on a five-minute set they love to get the audience’s attention. “It took me about eight months of comedy to know what I really wanted to do, to say, ‘This is how I’ll introduce myself to the world’,” says Zaman, who started doing comedy three years ago, at age 37. She runs frequent training and educational workshops and offers budding comedians a platform for trialling their jokes in front of a live audience.

Currently, shows are hosted on Wednesday evenings at Newtown’s Pastizzi Cafe, where up to five comedians are given a five-minute time slot to tell their stories. Acoustic musicians often close out the evening. On Fridays, Tight 5 takes over not-for-profit cafe, community space and refugee-run caterer, Parliament on King for 7pm and 9pm sittings. Tickets are less than $17. The cafe is more like a tiny living room, creating an intimate, buzzing atmosphere as you dine on vegan or chicken pies and cakes from Miss Lilly’s Pies nearby. Conviviality reigns as Zaman playfully introduces her guests, and the audience is encouraging.

The give-and-take relationships Zaman has created with restaurant owners ensures Tight 5 has welcoming, safe spaces for their performers while driving revenue for businesses through food and drink sales – a lifeline in recent months.

In early 2020, Tight 5 also launched a regular open-mic gig at Blacktown Ethiopian restaurant, Gursha. After seven months without work due to Covid-19, it was Tight 5’s four sell-out shows hosted at Gursha during Ethiopian New Year in September 2020 that helped bring the comedy club and the restaurant back into business. “We were able to pay them $2200 in food sold [at the event],” says Zaman, “which assisted them with getting their rent paid.” Shows have returned to Gursha (the next is on May 24), with dishes available a la carte and BYO alcohol.

Supporting family-owned, culturally diverse restaurants is key. All the business operators are people of colour, and most of the comedians are as well. They also come from all around Sydney. Finding comedy for Zaman was about taking ownership of always being asked the age-old question,“Where are you from?” and starting a dialogue.

“Everyone wants to be perfect at talking about race but unfortunately we can’t [be]. By creating a dialogue, people can figure out where they sit on the spectrum and decide between, ‘I like things as they are now and we want to keep it that way,’ and ‘Oh, I wonder what things would be like if we changed how society is hierarchised unnecessarily’.

“It is confronting … And unfortunately, you can’t be neutral.”