John Clarence Stewart talks tackling systemic racism on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
"You have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations," the actor tells EW.
Simon is taking center stage on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, and he's using his newfound spotlight to confront a real and pervasive issue not just at work but in all aspects of life.
As the spokesperson for SPRQ Point, Simon (John Clarence Stewart) was tasked in last week's episode with publicly covering up the issue with the company's Chirp watch technology that doesn't recognize people of color. As a Black man, Simon struggled with defending the company's PR image in light of such a serious issue, and his decision to instead expose the problem with racial bias and the lack of BIPOC representation in leadership positions at the company will have a major impact in this week's episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Reckoning."
"Simon is reeling," Stewart tells EW of his character's life-changing decision to expose SPRQ Point's lack of representation. "He is put in a position based on his vocation and who he is, and he decided to speak up out of his conscience and his moral compass. And doing so puts him in a certain space, and with that, there's a responsibility to either rise to the occasion and take responsibility, or he can shuck the responsibility and choose something else. The choice of taking responsibility and taking up space as a Black man or a person who's not represented adequately in these predominantly white spaces, that choice is an active choice that has to be made again and again and again. And there's a cost to it."
Stewart says that sometimes "there's a cost of relationships" as well, "because we have relational contracts with people based on who they've shown us of themselves, and then when someone shows up with all of who they are, they have to renegotiate the emotional and relational contract they have, and that can cause a lot of dissonance in many places, let alone a workplace. So you see Simon moving through that."
That will lead Simon to having honest conversations with Zoey (Jane Levy) after she brushed off his concerns about the Chirp issue in last week's episode. "They've shared love, they've shared friendship, they've shared loss, as I have white people in my life that are really close friends that have seen me through some of the darkest and most difficult periods of my life," Stewart says. "And yet still, there have been blind spots that they've had that have caused wounds and hurt. We'll find what it looks like for Simon to show up fully in all spaces, including his most personal friendships."
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg told Stewart that the show would be tackling issues of race in between seasons 1 and 2, and the actor felt a deeply personal connection to what Simon's journey would look like. "I found out about this episode like three to four weeks after George Floyd was killed," Stewart says. "There was this really big responsibility that I felt, and I made sure to communicate that, and it made me feel vulnerable to do so. In a lot of ways, I haven't always taken up space as a Black man in white spaces in my work. I'm very much like Simon: I go to work, I get my job done, and I go home. But when it came to this story line, I felt this great amount of desire to make sure that we told the truth."
The powerful, moving hour about systemic racism and identity was put together by a team of Black creatives including writer Zora Bikangaga, director Anya Adams, and choreographer Luther Brown, who worked in partnership with Mandy Moore. "Zora and I collaborated and talked about our experiences in the world as Black men, and what it's like to be Black men in these predominately white spaces," Stewart says. "The phrase that I said, and it's been with me for a long time, I've always felt like it's this idea of amputating part of who we are to be in space, walking into a workplace and leaving half of my heart outside the door, because it just doesn't fit. And in dealing with the ramifications of amputating part of myself, day in and day out, in workspaces and personal relationships and stuff like that. He resonated with that and a lot of these conversations found their way into the episode."
Bikangaga also worked with Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist stars Alex Newell, who plays Mo, and Kapil Talwalkar, who plays Tobin, to shape their character's arcs in the episode. "The desire was just to seek and excavate and get really specific, get to the truth, and Austin held space and was comfortable or okay being uncomfortable and having a lot of difficult conversations," Stewart says. "And I think that's necessary. If you're going to be talking about systemic racism in the workplace, you have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations. You have to be willing to look at everything that's coming up in you. And I found a lot was coming up in me as we were doing this, and I'm fortunate that we had the team that we had doing this."
Stewart was proud to see Winsberg, who is white, step back and give control of the episode to a team of Black creatives. "The thing that hits me is that we've seen stories told about Black people from white people's points of view without any Black input, right?" Stewart says. "And stories are active; stories enforce narratives that exist already, stories unravel narratives that exist currently, they can codify, they can open up, they can heal, they can wound. There have been stories, in my opinion, created by white people without Black input and for members in the Black community that have caused a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. Because even with the best of intent, there are blind spots."
And it's those blind spots that do more harm than intended, especially when it comes to creating BIPOC characters "that are not flushed out in the way that they should be, and not fully believed in wholly," Stewart adds. "That reinforces stereotypes and narratives and archetypes that aren't helpful." Austin, he says, "was so interested in getting to the truth and realizing that it was outside of his perspective, that he can have the best of intent and he has all of the desire to tell the authentic truth but in order to do that, he has to rely on opinions and voices and experiences that are outside of his own, and you have to be willing to learn and grow."
Another reason Stewart is proud of this episode is it frames these tough conversations through the lens of Zoey, never pulling any punches in what would be a mistaken effort to protect her ego. Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist takes great care not to make Zoey out to be some white savior or hero in the hour. In fact, she's forced to face her own uncomfortable mistakes as she learns and grows from them.
"Though we're talking about systemic racism in the workplace, though we're talking about relationships and racism and blind spots in people's personal lives, the fact of the matter is we're following Zoey through her journey and she has personal relationships with these Black and brown people, so we really get to see Zoey transform and change throughout this episode," Stewart says. "But in order for that to happen, Zoey has to be flawed, Zoey has to make mistakes, Zoey has to have blind spots and be called out on them and and try to do things better."
When it comes to the music, the episode features songs from Black artists that are performed on screen by people of color. "It's very intentional across the board creatively," Stewart says. "It was vitally important that we have songs from all Black artists; there's a musical channel that is specific to the Black experience, so trying to tell the truth about systemic racism in the heart songs, the importance of using Black artists' music is paramount to get to the authentic gut and soul and truth. And Luther Brown came in because Mandy, with the same ethos that Austin had, realized that there's a physical language and story that needs to be told that's very, very specific and that may be outside of her purview. So she held space and opened up room for a voice outside of her own and they collaborated to make sure that at the end of the day, we're all at peace and proud of our names being on it."
Below, get a sneak peek from the episode and watch Stewart perform "Black Man in a White World," one of Simon's heart songs:
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist season 2 airs Tuesdays on NBC.
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