All Hail the Dutchess: A conversation with a RI comedian on the rise

Dutchess SS. (Photo: David Thomas Jr.)

Before Dutchess SS (aka Janaya Gonsalves) was gracing the stages of southern New England as a stand-up comedian, she was working a sequence of jobs that she says quickly resolved any nervousness she might have about performing in front of people.


She reflects on working in food service, saying it’s hard to be nervous in front of a crowd “after you mess up somebody’s order for $2 and they cuss you out for filth.” She also attended cooking school, noting “I thought I wanted to be a chef but then I noticed that I’m a better waitress – because I’m good with the people.”

Right before she became a career comedian, she was working in what she refers to as the “death department” of an insurance company. Helping people cope with the news of a death was good practice for creating catharsis during extreme times. She reflects: “I used to talk to people that just lost somebody or knew they were losing somebody. I could always make them laugh.”

In many ways, it seems as though Dutchess’ jobs before comedy were the ultimate training for getting on stage as a comedian. Her background in working with people – perceiving people’s needs quickly and giving them information back – has come in handy as she performs as a freestyle comedian, working her way around New England to showcase her wit and talent. Last year, she performed in an impressive 83 shows. As a freestyle comedian, she often doesn’t prepare pre-written material, instead she adjusts to the crowd in front of her and feeds off their energy. That approach won her a best-in-show for stand-up last year at Motif’s Spoken Awards. When she gets onstage, she goes “up there and read[s] the crowd, see[s] what kind of energy the crowd is, what age bracket, see[s] if anybody said anything dirty or anything like that…and then I just tell my life story. The story of my life is funny, if you really look at it.”

The improvisational nature of her shows means that each promises a unique experience for the audience. Dutchess notes that out of the almost hundred shows she performed last year, “every single last one of them, it was something special about each one.” If you come to one of Dutchess’ shows, prepare to let your inhibitions fly. She says her favorite crowds are the ones that come ready to laugh, saying “I want the obnoxious laugh, I want the snortin’. I want it all.” Come ready to snort in the audience of one of her upcoming shows – the more knee slapping, the better. She’ll be at Barrel House Z in Weymouth, MA on Friday, Feb 16. In PVD, she’ll be at Askew on Sunday, Feb 18.

Beside continuing to perform, what’s next in the reign of the Dutchess? Her main goal this year is to put out a one hour special showcasing the shapeshifting material she presents onstage and share the magic of her talent with a wider audience. She notes it would also be nice to have a special to watch with her four children in the future – I’m sure Jahaze, Ja’char, Jitwale, and Jommy will be thrilled to watch their mom light up the stage.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at stand-up, Dutchess encourages everyone to “Just do it. Do an open mic, even if you don’t want to do it professionally. There’s nothing like telling your own story, your own little way your mind works.”

“I promote everybody to get out there and do it. I feel like there’s not too many Black female comedians out here in Rhode Island and I know too many families that got aunts, sisters, mother, grandmothers that should have been comedians. They all have everybody laughing around them but they never thought to do comedy. That’s my goal.”

Follow Dutchess SS on Instagram @ southside_dutchess.