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Last summer, after the killing of George Floyd, I received an email from Austin Winsberg, my showrunner on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Austin loves to draw on the actors’ real lives while creating the show, so, true to form, he asked me what intersections there are between me and my character, Simon — and what would I like to see in this season.
There was a dissonance inside of me when reading the email because I didn’t know how honest to be. After all, Simon is a Black man in a predominantly white space, and so am I. Would they be open to having a series of uncomfortable conversations?
Here I was, in the midst of all these police killings in the Black community. And, because of COVID, I was locked in a room and forced to wrestle with how much of myself I’ve had to amputate to be in white spaces throughout my life. I needed to learn to take up more of that space. I had to. So I sent a thorough response, a two-page document about my experiences and what I saw for Simon this season.
Austin asked my permission to share the note with the other writers, which I gave, and a little while later he told me they wanted my involvement in a storyline for our second season about systemic racism in the workplace — focused on my character. I was skeptical that we had any business going there. We make a musical TV comedy centered on a white woman. And the last thing I ever want to do is be a part of something that does more harm than good for the Black community. But there was some overlap with what I’d written down and the ideas they were generating in the writers room. That let me know that the people of color in the writers room were engaging on that end. And Austin told me that I would be intimately involved with the crafting of the episode, which put me at ease.
After that was established, we began the ongoing conversation about this season’s sixth episode, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” where this storyline would come to a head. If we were going to do this, it had to be all the way. It was intentional to bring in other Black creatives to the episode — including the wonderful Anya Adams, to direct, and the brilliant Luther Brown, to choreograph. Also, all of the music in the episode was by Black artists. Zora Bikangaga penned the episode and had conversations with myself and my castmates Alex Newell and Kapil Talwalkar about how we wanted to see racism stewarded from our specific points of view. You have to be willing to have really uncomfortable conversations, and this process was riddled with them, but you can’t tell the truth without courageously going there.
I don’t know what they talked about in the writers room — but Zora and I talked a lot about our experiences as Black men in America and in Hollywood. We talked about our intentions with the episode and how we really, really didn’t want Black Twitter to destroy us for it. We wanted this season, this episode in particular, to be something we’d be proud of.
For one of the first times in my onscreen career, I felt like a collaborator. When I read the first draft of the script, I saw so much of Zora and my conversations woven into the text. When I or the cast had objections, like if we were veering too close to white saviorhood or making the Black/brown characters appear unjustified in their frustrations, the producers listened.
I thought I would exhale after we wrapped the episode, but that didn’t come until it was out in the world. We were shooting late that night, so I went back to my trailer and FaceTimed my girlfriend while she watched at home in L.A. When it was over, I think I cried for maybe 30 minutes. It was a tightrope, but I think we navigated it well. And if we get to do a third season, I know it’s something I’ll get to keep exploring.
This experience has been so rewarding, and as a result I feel a responsibility to answer those calls for collaboration and take up a lot more space. That’s how I want to create. That’s the kind of storytelling I want to be part of.
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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