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June 25, 2018

History, Hamilton-Style

An ambitious episode of black-ish — imparting history through hip-hop — called for creativity from an array of artists.

Paula Chin
  • Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson ( center ) in “Juneteenth: The Musical”

  • Maxine Shepard

    Kelsey McNeal
  • Derek "Fonzworth Bentley" Watkins

    Aaron Poole
  • Michelle R. Cole


ABC's black-ish has never shied away from creative risks or controversial issues, but the hit sitcom outdid itself with its season-four premiere, "Juneteenth: The Musical."

The episode, a hip-hop history lesson that features the Johnson family as newly freed slaves celebrating the end of slavery on June 19, 1865, "might make people uncomfortable," creator–executive producer Kenya Barris has said, "but I think that's what the show is about."

Combining humor with a serious recounting of a dark chapter in America's past, "Juneteenth" is black-ish at its most ambitious. Meet three of the craftspeople who helped make it happen.


"When I saw that the script included musical numbers set in a slave cabin, I wasn't sure how to approach the design, and I talked to Kenya about it. He said just one word: Hamilton. I knew right away the set would be open and theatrical — I could see the actors standing heroically shoulder to shoulder, with the light streaming down on them, just like they were onstage.

"The cabin was elevated on risers, and the walls were blown apart to get light into the space. On black-ish the colors are warm and bright, but a slave cabin is going to be gray and muted. So it was really the texture of the wood – the slats on the walls, the floor and the furniture — that gave the set dimension.

We had to experiment to get an aged and weathered look. Staining raw wood didn't work, so we beat everything with chains and hammers.

"Once the space was taped out and we handed things over to Kenya and the cast and choreographer, it kept evolving and changing. With young children, you have to accommodate their size and height, so when Miles [Brown] danced on top of a bunk bed, one had to be redesigned that was easy for him to jump up on.

We knew that someone would go to a window and close the curtains, so we put a freestanding window toward the front of the set that lets you see the actor's face, rather than their back.

"Almost as an afterthought, people realized that a choir was needed, so I created rolling lofts that could glide into place in front of the cabin. You had to go with the flow and trust that everything would come together. It was crazy, but a lot of fun."


"Kenya called on a Thursday and said he had a real Hail Mary for me. He explained how his kid had introduced him to Juneteenth and that we were doing an episode on it that he wanted to be like Hamilton, but new and different — and then he told me I had one week to do the music and choreography.

"The script called for two songs — one about the suffering that slaves endured, and one about the buildings, railroads and other things in this country that they helped build. We were doing a teachable moment on primetime TV, and we wanted to make sure all the lyrics were documented facts.

"When I came across the line 'We built this,' I knew I wanted the sound of a whip cracking. After that, I just started thinking from the slaves' perspective, which was very emotional for me, and things began to flow.

"When I first got on the set, I picked up a broom, and got the idea that Anthony [Anderson] could use it like a drum brush. Jenifer [Lewis] asked for a rolling pin since she was making biscuits, but I gave her tin cans to cut them out, which could be another percussion sound.

"And Tracee [Ellis Ross], who was washing clothes, could wring them out in time with the music. I realized I was composing in sync with their chores. "I blocked out the choreography and waited for notes from Kenya, the writers and the network, who usually gang up on you, but there were hardly any.

"To me, choreography is a 3-D picture of what the music is saying. Both were a challenge because you're dealing with a horrible part of the past, but black-ish is still a comedy. I think we managed to strike the right balance."


"My starting point was the history books, but after that you have to just follow your instincts, and Kenya is great about letting you exercise your creative juices. I didn't want the Johnson family to look poor, but I did want their clothes to look worn and show what a hard life they had as slaves.

"The backup dancers needed to be dressed differently, so I went with a kind of underwear look: long johns for the men, and bloomers and corsets for the women — not so much to make it sexy, but to give it a girl side.

"The choir singers were very important. They were kind of like a Greek chorus and carried a lot of emotional weight. We ordered robes and aged them by rubbing in dirt and mud until they frayed at the edges.

"As for colors, we did dress rehearsals under the actual lighting before finalizing them and overdyeing the clothes, which is what you do in theater. Other than giving Tracee a splash of red and blue, everything ended up pretty neutral.

"I also had to make sure that the actors could dance in the clothes and shoes. We started out with black granny boots for the women, which didn't work, so we got men's size-seven boots with flatter heels. Jenifer can practically kick as high as her head, so I made her petticoats shorter and did the same with the dancers' bloomers. I also made the pants looser.

"Before that, Fonz said he could dance in them and tried to prove it — and then tore three pairs. After we altered them, there were no more wardrobe malfunctions."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018

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