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Storytelling has always been a central part of Black spirituality — from testimonies to warnings and reverent reflections on what was, is and will be.
For artist and filmmaker Terence Nance, the architecture of Black world-building is rooted in ritual. And in order to enter his creative rhythm, his chosen portal is prayer. Those repetitions, that commitment to tradition and faith, have cleared space for the second season of his avant-garde, Peabody Award-winning HBO sketch comedy series Random Acts of Flyness to exist in its fullness — to capture the vast chromatic depth of Blackness. Program II, The Parable of the Pirate and the King, is a manifestation of manifestation; the knowing trust that something will reveal itself, simply because it is destined to.
The six-episode season operates with a more linear narrative than its predecessor, though it still establishes itself as a fluid bending of genre and format that is a continuation of the legacy of late-night television and vignette-driven variety shows that have long used cultural commentary and humor as a force for change.
Nance, who is also a writer, director, actor and editor on the show, hails from Dallas, and those roots are overshadowed only by the particular height of the show’s Brooklyn setting. His storytelling style is southern gothic in its courting of the invisible and surrealist in the way it melts time like a Dali clock. (Interestingly, The Persistence of Memory is a concept that feels like it dovetails with the show’s second season, which is focused on the spiritual practice of Black liberation).
Nance spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the inputs that helped code this latest artistic output and what his cohort of collaborators read and discussed in preparation for this journey.
In terms of your process, what do your days look like? How do you get into a creative flow in order to invent a world and a show like this? What helps you channel your ideas?
The daily process starts with prayer for sure. Waking up, praying, making sure that I’m acknowledging and am in relationship with my ancestors and all the spiritual beings that help me and are with me in this process is the most important first step — and the newest. I’ve been doing it for years, obviously, but I didn’t grow up doing that. In my practice of making films and music and just being an artist, prayer wasn’t a part of my daily routine. [And more] specifically, understanding myself as channeling stories for this show from the spirit world, that’s definitely something that has developed, and I think the show is about that process. It’s a result of that tending to a channel.
That’s beautiful. I also want to touch on the show’s aura. Do you and your collaborators have a mood board for the show that guides not only the visual language but also the soundscape and different tonal elements that help build the world and generate the energy that moves through it, even beyond the dialogue itself?
Yeah, we do. The season starts with me essentially presenting a reading and watching list: some songs, small clips on YouTube, a few movies sometimes. That reading and watching is definitely where it starts, and then I sort of explain everything I’m thinking — the dynamic of the pirate and the king — and the other concepts that ended up in the show.
If I were to cherry-pick some things from the reading list that were really central to what the show became, definitely the bulk of [the late writer, diviner, spiritual workshop leader] Malidoma Patrice Somé’s writings. Specifically, [those works] are talking about bringing ourselves back to ritual, back to our own initiations in the modern world, given that we as Black people — and I think even outside of concepts of Blackness, people in touch with the earth — are born into a modern world in this connection with the spirit world, and how to get back to that.
At a private screening of Program II in Los Angeles, you spoke about some of your early inspirations in TV programming — the shows and networks that impacted some of your thinking surrounding format and narrative style. Can you expand on those influences, from the legacy of Black variety shows to experimental late night channels like Adult Swim? How do you feel Random Acts of Flyness fits into that pantheon?
[This was] back when there were like eight channels and everything was on those eight channels; if you went on the internet, there wasn’t media to be received everywhere.
I think that TV just generally has an extremely profound effect on consciousness. And I mean consciousness in the most direct, scientific way possible — like our conscious thoughts — because it reflects what’s happening so consistently, but through a lens of entertainment, and it’s trying to attract you to it, which means it’s lying to you constantly. And I think that experience only really got interrupted in certain ways with Black TV that was created outside of that feedback of cultural reflection. A lot of times that happened through local-ish variety shows, like Soul! on PBS. But the way it manifested in my own life is my mother was part of the Ossie and Ruby show, and my dad is a TV news cameraman and editor, so I would see those things.
And also, I think Sesame Street generally is kind of interceding on that feedback loop in the same way. And The Chris Rock Show too, like to see D’Angelo doing “Chicken Grease” on TV? That’s disrupting the feedback loop in a lot of ways.
Seeing different vignettes of Black life does feel like a manifestation of how we use our antennae to code switch, whether it’s in and out of dominant culture, or toggling between the earth and spiritual realms … and using different language to do so. Since television programming does have such an established set of rules and agendas, how do you feel you’re challenging that system? Does it ever feel difficult to be a part of an institution that might not understand the full breadth of what you want the work to honor?
We all work at a place, you know what I mean? Where there are, to your point, protocols for the distribution of media, whether it’s The Hollywood Reporter or HBO in my case, and those protocols are in the value system. Those protocols are not in service of the thing I’m in service of. I’m trying to make something that honors my ancestors and really shifts consciousness toward us reinitiating ourselves through ritual and inter-ritual and even progressing that … and that is not in the set of interests of the protocol [in terms of what] needs to be released. I just think that in a very existential way, resistance takes all kinds of forms. And that’s one external form it takes.
I think, particularly with the TV resistance, the fact that I work at a place that has protocols that I could find a way into, the lesson there is just to know that my ability to get Random Acts of Flyness: The Parable of the Pirate and the King on HBO, is a result of the rituals that I do. It’s not because of some strategy I have or a certain amount of power in the earth realm. It’s an ethereal and spiritual challenge that is being strategized upon and acted upon in a spiritual and ethereal place. It’s protected there, and that’s why it’s happening. And to have a level of faith to always turn to that methodology, when I face resistance, is a discipline.
Can you talk a bit about what your process was following season one and moving into creating season two? Were there things you and your collaborators wanted to introduce or improve upon this time around?
Obviously, I had gone away to do Space Jam 2 [note: Nance later stepped away from the project, reportedly due to “creative differences”], and that was a hugely transformative experience. And then right as that ended the pandemic happened, so there was just so much distance from the circumstances that created season one that it was difficult to even connect to that reality. And I think in approaching season two, not from scratch but just from where we were at, it was about organizing all of the experiences that we all had had in between. That process of organizing experiences just got fractaled through the lens of the readings we were doing, so we were processing the experiences through sets of knowledge that we were digesting. I think that’s what yielded this thing that is an expansion of the first season — the same characters, the same cosmology — but it has a different set of experiences and a different level of rigor in terms of the sets of knowledge that we’re trying to look for.
Speaking of Space Jam 2, I am curious how you toggle between film and TV, and if your approach to these projects is different, or if it feels like a similar experience for you.
It’s 100 percent not the same thing, particularly that [$200 million] movie and this show have different processes … [in terms of] scale, and the amount of people, companies and interests that need to be satisfied. But also it’s the same in that, what I was attempting to do with that movie was make something that was an exploration of what was really important to me at that time — about my childhood, about cartoons, about growing up an athlete and things like that. And I think, similarly,. with Random Acts I was processing a lot of things about ritual and my initiation. We were all doing that. And I was inviting those questions because they were central to me, so I think that’s the same in both processes.
I do think that there is a feeling with movies now that comes from TV, which is like, “Let’s make this a thing that feels like it can continue.” And I think that has not been my approach to movies, but now that I’m understanding it, maybe I’m not opposed to leaning into it. But I do like the idea of a thing that stands alone as an experience.
I’m really interested in the specificity of place and how our environments inform who we become. How do you think being from Texas has influenced your storytelling decisions? The way you understand language, sharing space and stories?
I think that where I’m from, Dallas, has been very influential on me as a storyteller. The most potent influence is the way that music moves through my experience growing up in the South — just being in a place where people play music and sing in their households and in church or wherever they are. I grew up in a family of musicians so maybe it’s more amplified for me … but that way of relating to storytelling is [through] song.
You operate in so many different roles for this show you’ve created, as a writer, director, actor, editor, musician. What’s it like having to hold all of these considerations in mind, and how do you reshuffle what you’re working on based on what’s required in a given moment?
I think that’s the hardest part. So much energy, just hours and consideration, goes into the hat of being an editor. I’m [just] one of the editors on the show, but the editor in charge of finishing each episode. The creative and technical task of editing is sort of the one that, when you add it to being an actor, a musician, director or producer, is the one that fits the least. Because of that, there isn’t any rhyme or reason about what to prioritize and when. I’m attempting to find a way to see it all as one job, to see it all as creating.
I do find it difficult to create a lot of separation between those things … it’s difficult to want to be in two places at once and to create an efficient framework around one person who does this sort of mix of things. But I think that the aura of the show, the tone and the feel of it, is just so specific because I’m just physically doing a lot of creative tasks in certain key moments. So it has my residue on everything.
This second offering is about understanding the spiritual practice of Black liberation, which is a truly timeless thing to consider. In what ways, in terms of your own career and artistry, has this been part of your journey in practicing Black liberation?
This experience has been, and continues to be, a testament to the necessity of making a spiritual practice out of my art practice and making sure that my art practices are flowing out of a practice of life that is in relationship to the spirit world — and how that’s a matter of life and death. Having a level of creativity in that spiritual practice — trial and error, development and expansion — is the most important thing in life. At the end of the day, the spiritual practice just brings guidance, it tells me what to do and when. Ultimately, that’s what the show is: a series of me doing certain things at certain times. So, I think that those decisions accumulate and equal more knowledge of self and, most specifically, [get me] even a millimeter or an inch or a meter outside of captivity, especially the labor captivity or time captivity I find myself in occasionally. As long as I’m getting out a little bit more every time … I think that that comes from following that guidance.
There are so many moments to laugh with the show, even in the midst of so much weight and depth. What is your favorite type of humor? How do you find departures for that levity?
I think God, the universe, whatever you want to call it … they find everything funny. All kinds of destructive energies are funny, all kinds of beautiful, blissful energies are funny, everything is funny somehow. It feels like the concept of the serious sacred doesn’t really exist. So I think the humor that most resonates with me is the kind that undercuts the seriousness of the quote-unquote sacred and finds a way into it to just simply shake people up when they try to be like, “I got it under control.” I think, in some ways, Najja’s character is based on all the people I know that think they got it under control.
How are you feeling about this work being viewed by the masses?
As an artist, generally, the first thing you’ve got to get over when putting any artwork out is giving any energy to [what people think]. You’ve got to receive [criticism] with grace and praise with grace too.
I think that maybe less so than season one, [this season] is not an exploration of culture, and it’s not hyper-moralized in any kind of way. It’s a story, and it’s a story well-told, and a story well-told hopefully has reflective capabilities and capacity. That’s the highest calling of a story, is that it can provoke reflection and self-reflection, and it can have some sort of divinatory or healing utility. I’m thinking about the story’s ability to have that utility, which means I’m thinking about how people will receive it as I offer it. But the risk of judgment does not go into that too much. Because it will be judged by the people whose job is to judge it, and it will be praised by the people who want to praise it, and that’s as it should be.
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