11:00am PT by Alyse Whitney
The Story Behind 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's' Controversial Whiteface Episode
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's second season.]
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is pushing the boundaries in season two. In episode three of the Netflix series’ new season, TItus (Tituss Burgess) transforms himself into a Geisha with full white-faced makeup for his one-woman show, Kimono You Didn’t!
But rather than a commentary on race or a parody, Titus truly believes that he was Murasaki in a past life — something “proved” in flashbacks and when he sang a traditional Japanese song that moves a protesting Asian rights group to tears for its authenticity.
The controversial storyline was not one that the writers’ room decided on lightly. Showrunner Robert Carlock tells The Hollywood Reporter that they “definitely had hesitance,” but they also wanted to “play with the ideas of perception and appropriation.” Part of crafting the storyline was making sure it was respectful and serious rather than a punchline, which helped put star Burgess at ease with the arc.
“When I read it I was like, ‘Oh, no,’” Burgess reveals, but that feeling changed quickly. “It comes from such an honest and earnest place. Titus really believes in this. He remembers all these past lives, which legitimized and assisted me in executing it.”
Although no one can confirm whether Titus’ past lives are real, that isn’t the point of the storyline, Carlock explains. “Whether he, over the years, has just absorbed all of that so deeply that he's made it true, or whether he really lived these past lives, that's irrelevant on some level. He genuinely believes it.”
Crafting Titus’ alter ego correctly also took a lot of gathering background information. “We tried to research and make it as accurate as possible,” Carlock says. “There's nothing pigeon or using the stereotypes — the one-woman show he puts on is entirely straight and earnest.” But is it offensive? Carlock is wondering, too.
“We wanted to play with those ideas of perception and appropriation and it seemed like a funny double bind that he really believes he was that person, so is it offensive for him to portray that person? Maybe,” Carlock adds. “In a world of racial identification, it seems like, let's put our oar in and see what happens when our African-American character believes that he was once an Asian woman.”
Ultimately, Burgess knew an earnest performance without sarcasm or humor was the only way to do the storyline justice. “I didn't want it to be funny or like I was mocking. I wanted to make certain that audiences would realize that this is someone to be taken seriously,” he concludes. “I think we did a good job, and I think it comes off very touching.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season two is now streaming on Netflix.