Zoey's Playlist: John Clarence Stewart Talks Systemic Racism Episode's 'Responsibility to Tell the Truth'
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is cueing up a special track. Tuesday’s episode (NBC, 8/7c) explores the aftermath of Simon very publicly calling out his employer SPRQPoint for systemic racism within the workplace and a lack of diversity.
The internal struggles of Simon and the musical dramedy’s other BIPOC characters are represented by carefully selected song numbers, all of which are comprised of tracks from Black artists and are performed by the show’s BIPOC ensemble. The installment was also crafted by Black creatives: story editor Zora Bikangaga, director Anya Adams and guest choreographer Luther Brown (So You Think Can Dance).
John Clarence Stewart, who plays marketing exec Simon, was first presented with the storyline last summer, when the writers’ room for Season 2 was getting started. After an early conversation with creator Austin Winsberg, during which Stewart was able to contribute his thoughts and advice, the actor later had a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom chat with Bikangaga, who pitched the episode. The two discussed “what the specific arc with Simon was, what my experience was in the world as a Black man, his experience in the world as a Black man, and what we were weaving into the narrative,” Stewart tells TVLine. “When I talked to Austin back then, I just said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we have to do it. I don’t want to be attached to a version of this that is not as honest and vulnerable as we can get,’ and he was absolutely on board and didn’t want to shy away from it and, throughout the process, kept fighting for that level of authenticity.”
Stewart says he felt a “responsibility to tell the truth” and “not shy away” from the topic the episode was mining. And in order to truly portray an honest storyline about racial bias, “I wanted everything to feel earned,” the actor adds. “The truth is, it’s Zoey’s story, right? So we have a white woman moving through all of these moments, and there are these Black and brown bodies that she’s in contact with and has relationships with and has had relationships with throughout the history of the show, and each of these Black and brown bodies are confronting her about allyship and the blindspot she has. My desire was for everything to be earned, for her to be flawed and to mess up, and to be called on things.”
One such blindspot on Zoey’s part will be addressed during a difficult discussion between Simon and his boss/friend, who last week blew him off when he tried to communicate his feelings. “They need to have conversations about listening to the entire person, seeing the entire person,” Stewart says. “These are very specific conversations that have to do with how Zoey sees Simon and how she takes him in. Her POV is, in a benevolent fashion, like, ‘I see you as human being. I see you as Simon,’ and Simon has to articulate to her in very intentional terms that Simon is a Black man and to take him in without his Blackness is not to take him in.”
After being “stunted and ignored” by Zoey in last week’s episode, “it was very important, for me, for Simon to communicate what it is like for him in the world and in that space as a Black man,” Stewart shares, adding that a comment he made to Bikangaga about “amputating parts of myself to be in spaces” was incorporated into a scene.
“Then as time went on, it was important for me that all of the people of color — Kapil [Talwalkar], Alex [Newell] — that we had the nuance of our voices in this storytelling,” Stewart continues. Even going back to the conversation between Simon, Tatiana and Mo in Episode 5, the Black trio are “not a monolith. Not everyone agrees, not everybody’s on the same page. Mo’s experience in the world, being Black and queer, is different than Simon’s experience in the world, being Black and [cisgender]. It’s different than Tatiana’s experience in the world.”
In giving voice to various BIPOC characters, Talwalkar’s Tobin “also has to deal with racism at SPRQPoint as an Indian-American man and has developed his own unique coping mechanisms in order to ‘fit in’ and assimilate,” Winsberg previews. “In talking to Kapil about it — and another writer on our show, Karan Sunil — we realized that there is an entire ‘first gen’ point of view that we could also bring into the story that might help explain some of why Tobin is the way that he is. This not only added depth, resonance and context for the character but also became the key piece of the entire story.”
Meanwhile, Simon is dealing with the potential consequences of speaking out against the company for which he works. “You find him scared. You find him worried about what his life is going to look like,” Stewart describes. “You’re not looking at someone who has a history of doing this in his workplace. If he has a history of doing this in his workplace, the workplace would probably look a little different, and his experience would be a little different. He’d probably be having a different conversation. He has a history of surviving. … You see Simon wrestling with himself, wrestling with the choice that he made, and the cost of standing up in the wholeness of who he is.”
That struggle manifests itself in a performance of “Black Man in a White World” by Michael Kiwanuka, one of four songs meaningfully chosen for the episode. “We talked a lot about songs born out of struggle and protest and revolution,” Winsberg says. After going through his process and eventually landing on the Kiwanuka track, Winsberg told Bikangaga about it. The writer “got chills. Both Zora and Michael are Ugandan and their families know each other. At that point, it kind of felt like fate.”
When combined with Brown’s choreography — “Mandy Moore, our choreographer, and I felt that it was important to have a BIPOC choreographer contribute to the creation of dance as storytelling in an episode about race,” Winsberg notes — the impact of “Black Man in a White World” was palpable. “I never imagined it would turn out as beautiful or as powerful as the number that Luther and Mandy and John created together,” Winsberg raves. “It easily goes down as one of my all-time favorite things we’ve ever done on the show. John is truly extraordinary in it. When we shot that number, Mandy and I were both speechless, [which is] something that is very rare for us.”
Adds Stewart: “Working with [Brown], it was a gift, honestly, and I’m grateful to Mandy and Austin for that, because there was the emphasis on there being all Black artists, musically, and there’s this specific tone and feel and access point that Black artists bring to the story.”
Watch a preview of the performance below:
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