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February 08, 2021
Online Originals

Black Man in a White World

Actor John Clarence Stewart and writer Zora Bikangaga draw on personal experience to depict a story arc of racial reckoning on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Brooke Carlock Lobaugh

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist certainly hasn't shied away from singing its way through sensitive subjects.

The NBC show - in which the main character Zoey (Jane Levy) suffers a freakish MRI accident that allows her to hear people's innermost thoughts through songs - tackles topics such as gender fluidity, terminal illness, women's rights and the glass ceiling in its first season alone. However, as the announcement came that the show had been picked up for a second season, the world was erupting in protests following the death of George Floyd.

Zora Birkangaga, a first-generation Ugandan-American and writer on the show, recalls the first meeting of the creative team to discuss content for season two: "It was fresh in all of our minds, and we talked about how it related to a lot of our lives personally, for the people of color in the room, and we just had these real conversations with our white coworkers and our white friends.

"We just felt like it was high time for the show to have these kinds of conversations, given what was happening." The resulting story arc exposes the systemic racism and biases in both SPRQPoint, the tech company where Zoey works, and the world at large.

Across a multi-episode storyline, SPRQPoint discovers that its new AI technology, The Chirp, isn't recognizing black and brown faces. Simon (John Clarence Stewart), Zoey's friend and one-time love interest, has just been promoted to head of public relations and is given the responsibility of glossing over the controversy with the media.

As a black man, Simon instead makes the moral decision to call the company out for their lack of inclusion. He must then deal with the repercussions, which impact his personal and professional life. At the same time, Zoey and other employees at SPRQPoint are forced to face their own contributions to the biased work culture.

For Stewart, who plays Simon, the topic is intensely personal. "I learned we were doing these episodes not long after George Floyd was killed," he remembers. "And I was, as a Black man, and in quarantine, navigating my experiences and processing the trauma of having a Black body in the world, and my body being in a lot of white spaces.

"The cost of microaggressions on my psyche, over the entirety of my life, and as I like to call it – 'the thousand shocks that the flesh is heir to.' A lot of times, I just chalk it up to the cost of living in the world."

"But when I heard the news that the show was going in this direction, I was very specific about what I wanted and what I was not comfortable with. It was important to me that we tell the truth. It was important to me that we not shy away. If I'm going to put my name and my face on an episode, it was important that it be honest and at the end of the day I feel proud of putting my name on it."

Stewart and Bikangaga connected over Zoom calls, "just to talk about the episodes and be able to really delve into our own personal experiences, because as Black people, we all experience racism differently," Bikangaga explains. One particular conversation, and something Stewart said, led him to write what is perhaps the most profound scene in the story arc, in which Simon confronts Zoey and shares his experiences as a Black man at SPRQPoint.

Forced to constantly prove his worth, without a mentor for guidance, and having to constantly think about how he presents himself so that other people are comfortable and feel "safe" around him, even when doing something as simple as walking on to an elevator, Simon ends his speech by asking Zoey, "Do you even have to think about that?"

The answer, of course, is no.

"A lot of what is in that scene came from just sharing viscerally, emotionally what it feels like to be in a workspace like that, and how to navigate those spaces as a Black person, not feeling like you could be your whole self," Bikangaga says.

"It came to a point where John said, 'I feel like I have to amputate parts of who I am to survive,' and that just struck me and rang in my head – that we have to remove part of ourselves to make others feel safe. So that scene is really, really personal for not only me, but for John, since it's our shared experiences together."

Stewart adds, "On the day shooting that scene, I remember doing the rehearsal and going back into the green room and crying a bit, just because it hit so close to home. Some of the words I was saying were some of the words that I've said, you know? It was so on the nerve.

"And I had to remind myself while I was doing it that I choose to do this. That I'm a storyteller. And it's my duty as a storyteller to bring that truth in any way, shape, or form that I can – to mine it and have the courage to tell it."

Simon's truths lead the other characters in the show to examine their own blind spots when it comes to race. "I think ultimately, with Zoey, we wanted to unpack a story about a white woman who is learning to be more empathetic and reflect on the experiences of people of color," Bikangaga says.

Stewart agrees, "I think what's important with Zoey is that we see someone in process. She's trying, and sometimes she's not doing it right, but she's learning, and so often we very rarely want to flip the mirror and inspect how our own actions are affecting, and sometimes hurting the people that are closest to us."

Zoey's self-reflection is helped by her ability to see the inner thoughts of other characters through their songs, and the songs chosen for this story arc are all originally sung by Black artists and are performed during the episodes by people of color, and directed by Anya Adams (Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat).

Stewart himself performs moving covers of Nina Simone's "Don't Let me Be Misunderstood," "Tightrope," by Janelle Monáe, and "Black Man in a White World," by Michael Kiwanuka.

"I think we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the musical numbers," says Stewart, "and I think it's very specific and intentional because one, all of the songs are by Black artists, and two, Luther Brown, a Black choreographer, came in, so there was this authenticity and this truth to the numbers to move the story forward that really give us a glimpse of the inner world that is incredibly entertaining."

Bikangaga adds, "It was so important for us to have a Black choreographer to communicate that Black experience in a physical way through dance. I think the number that is closest to my heart, if I had to pick, is 'Black Man in a White World," because it encapsulates Simon and his journey and how he feels in the moment in the most profound way.

"There's a personal connection to it, too, because the artist is Michael Kiwanuka, and he is Ugandan. There's really something special in that song, and I can't express what it feels like to be a Black man in that kind of space better than what John did through singing and dancing in that number and through the choreography. It was just—I couldn't be more happy with it."

Both men hope the honest conversations and collaboration that inspired Zoey's deep-dive into systemic racism not only reflect reality, but also make people feel hopeful.

"Stories codify perspectives," says Stewart. "They unravel perspectives. They can heal, and they can hurt. And I really wanted to make sure that specifically in the world that we're living in right now, that we were intentional in making sure that this story was one that was of service to the global community, and specifically of service to the Black community, in all of the ways it could be."

Adds Bikangaga, "We wanted to look forward, without being too naïve."

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs on Tuesdays at 8pm on NBC.




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