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John Clarence Stewart Breaks Down Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's Racial Reckoning

'The truth should get to the guts of the thing'

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Megan Vick

[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. Read at your own risk!]

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist has been lauded by critics for its willingness to dig into the heart of difficult issues since it premiered last winter on NBC. The musical dramedy proved once again that it's deserving of the accolades in Tuesday's episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Reckoning." 

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In the episode, Simon (John Clarence Stewart), newly minted spokesperson for SPRQ Point, deals with the consequences of telling every major tech outlet in San Francisco during a press conference that the company has a race problem, which has led to its newest facial recognition software being unable to recognize people of color. Actor John Clarence Stewart told TV Guide that the episode came together through a "very collaborative process" that began in the summer of 2020.

"I knew about this episode back in June [or] July," Stewart said. "A few weeks or so after George Floyd was killed, [showrunner] Austin [Winsberg] reached out to a lot of the cast and asked, 'What are your thoughts? What are you feeling about the character that you're playing?' et cetera, et cetera, because he really tries to get to the authentic voice. He is always seeking authenticity. So I let him know what my thoughts were, as far as that was concerned. He let me know they were going to be doing this storyline for Simon, they were considering it. I had a lot of concerns, and I made sure to voice them." 

"Zoey's Extraordinary Reckoning" focuses on SPRQ Point's response to Simon's allegations, showing how even the most well-intentioned white people on the show fail to listen when the Black and Brown people around them attempt to tell their stories. Directed by Anya Adams and brilliantly penned by Zora Bikangaga, "Zoey's Extraordinary Reckoning" reconstructs the conversations that many large companies and brands were pushed to have last June in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. The episode doesn't mention George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or the Black Lives Matter movement; it simply allows Zoey's Black and Brown characters to speak their full truths without apology or censorship -- and explains how difficult it was for each of those characters to get to the point where they could do so.

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After the bombshell press conference, Simon quickly finds himself in the crosshairs of the SPRQ Point overlords, who want him to retract his statement. As Simon struggles to choose between his career and his integrity, Zoey (Jane Levy) makes several missteps in trying to smooth over the situation, including calling an impromptu, ultimately disastrous town hall for everyone on the floor to discuss race. By the end of the episode, Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) and thousands of other minority SPRQ Point employees speak up about how they've been mistreated or tokenized by the company. Through unflinchingly honest dialogue and performances orchestrated by guest choreographer Luther Brown, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist makes bold points about the realities of living and working as a minority in America, without compromising for the comfort of its white leads or the white members of the show's audience. 

Zoey does not get to be the hero of the episode. Despite her ability to hear people's innermost thoughts through "heart songs," she not only fails to hear what Simon is saying when he originally tells her about the problems with the software, but she also calls the town hall meeting, and then, in perhaps her most cringeworthy moment, has the gall to tell Simon, essentially, that she doesn't see color. Zoey's missteps throughout the episode allow the show to have raw, important conversations, via both Simon and Mo (Alex Newell), about what being an ally actually is and what it means to see someone for all of who they are. 

"It was important to me that we do it the right way. It is important for us, for me, that we tell the truth. It was important to me that we not shy away, that we really go for it," Stewart said. "It's also important to me that the white characters are not saviors. It's important to me that Black and Brown characters aren't just tropes and archetypes, but they're fully embodied, flesh-and-blood, and that we earn all of the moments. I said [to Winsberg] that I wanted to be very much involved because it's my face [on screen]. That's the truth. It's my face, and my name is going to be on it, and I want to be able to live in a world where I'm proud of this thing going into the world." 

In a conversation with TV Guide, below, the actor elaborated on the process of creating the episode and explored what the heavy conversations in "Zoey's Extraordinary Reckoning" mean for Simon, and the world of the show, going forward.

Jane Levy and John Clarence Stewart, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

NBC

What were your conversations with Austin Winsberg and Zora Bikangaga like before and during shooting this episode?
John Clarence Stewart: [Austin] is so game to seek the truth and to really create space for the perspectives that are outside of his own, because what he wants at the end of the day is to get to the truth. And Zora Bikangaga is just a phenomenal, brilliant brother. Austin put us in touch with one another and we had beautiful conversations when I was in quarantine before we started shooting. Zora and I talked about our experiences as Black men in predominantly white spaces... I said, "I feel like [I am] amputating parts of myself and going into [these] spaces, and having to continually amputate parts of myself in spaces." And we related on that. Some of the conversations that we had found their way into the show. 

To Zora's credit, he's just a brilliant writer who's also seeking the truth. [He] has his own experience with being a Black man in white space, and also being first-generation, which is part of the perspective and the connection he brought with Tobin and that experience. So it was very collaborative throughout the process -- all the way from building the story, and the narrative and drafts, of the script, to shooting it and how we crafted things on the day. 

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How did the choreography process change considering the storyline and what Simon was trying to express?
Stewart: I'll start with the end of [the previous episode], Episode 5, because at least for me, that's the beginning of the choreography that starts telling this different kind of story...The way that we built it was, we were all in the room and communicating what my experience is as a Black man in the world with [the choreographers]. We had a beautiful conversation, very vulnerable and honest about what it is like to be in that space, and the idea of amputating myself, and the idea of this suit or this kind of straitjacket I feel like I have to put on to survive in the space. And then we went from there to me kind of improvising dance to some music that I had been listening to... So I did these three different improvisations, and went through this process of: What is it like to go from completely constricted to completely relaxed and in my body? What is it like to go from completely relaxed in my body to completely constricted, and finding the physical language that intuitively lies in my frame? From that space, they took those different things and they crafted together a number that, I think, that I am proud of. 

Then Luther Brown was also in the space as he was prepping Episode 6, and they're trying to figure out how to end it. And Luther had this idea to incorporate this krump movement at the end -- this kind of physical, different movement at the end that was not in the space before he came. And it fit. It was perfect for exactly what we wanted to tell, the anguish that Simon was going through. And I think that in a microcosm, the experience that I had there with Luther in the space is the same experience I had with Black men in the white world. As we worked together, there was a familiarity and a way of communicating movement and body that was familiar, and he left me feeling free and open to [exploring] my body in a myriad of different ways. I'm really grateful that he was there.

John Clarence Stewart, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

NBC

How did having Luther working on Episode 6 shape the dance moves that you did?
Stewart: He brought with him all of his experiences moving in the world as a dancer and a choreographer. And it's just a given that he's a Black man. And with that intersection, it opens up the space in a lot of different ways. I saw that with "No More Drama." I saw that even with "Tracks of My Tears," and specifically when we got to "Tightrope," which is the embodiment of Black joy. These movements are the echo to the church, callbacks to large groups of people in praise and worship, and stuff like that... [Luther] brought these ideas into the space as he was sharing the choreography with us. And all of these Black bodies in the space understood what that was. This physical language, [which] is a shared physical language, deepens and gets to the truth of what we're trying to communicate.

Within the episode, there were several moments that I think people of color especially are going to relate to on an intrinsic level, but maybe the most widely relatable is Zoey's attempt at a town hall that gets taken over by white employees virtue signaling. I think so many of us have had to attend those meetings, especially last summer. What was it like bringing truth to that moment?
Stewart: It was really intentional to have this space where you have two things that are happening there. You have the white organizer, Zoey, who -- this is what she believes in her heart of hearts is the best thing to do. The logical progression is, "Okay, well, let's have a conversation as a group." And the blind spot is that those spaces are not safe spaces. They're just not safe spaces for Black and Brown bodies. You also have all of these white people in the spaces that are moving through their guilt. They're moving through their white guilt in real time. They're kind of advocating for the goodness and the benevolence and their intentions in the world... The thing that's so beautiful about [the scene] is that all of that is not even the conversation. It is a bunch of people having a conversation about a thing that's not even a conversation. This underlying experience of having Black and Brown bodies in that space be totally quiet, and the realization that it's a space that is well-intentioned, but it is also a space that is incredibly violent. It's a violent space.

I think that scene is just brilliant. I read it and it made me cringe. When we shot, it made me want to vomit in the best way. That's what the truth should do. The truth should get to the guts of the thing. That's what we want it to do. We wanted to make sure that the white people in the show did things that well-intentioned, blindspotted white people do, and that the Black people and Brown people are experiencing in real time what that is. It was very important that we show that in our authentic way.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

NBC

Simon and Zoey have multiple, painfully honest conversations in this episode. How does this episode change their relationship going forward now that she has better insight into who he is?
Stewart: I think it's really important that in this episode, it's the beginning of a process of her learning and accepting all of who Simon is, and realizing that the Simon that she accepted, the Simon that she saw, was void of Blackness. Now she has the opportunity, and I want to make sure to frame it that way, she has the opportunity to know the entire person that is Simon, which has the potential in a game-changing conversation to deepen a friendship and relationship.

How does SPRQ Point change after the revelations in this episode?
Stewart: As we go forward, when we are in SPRQ Point, we'll get to see how things are actually shifting in a progressive way, I think in a gradual way. 

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What are you most looking forward to in the rest of Season 2?
Stewart: Some dope ass numbers!... One thing that I'm really proud of this season, and our writers' room is just incredible in this respect, is that you're doing deep dives into these characters, deep dives into their differences and their humanity. You get to deep-dive into Simon and Mo. You're also going to see more of a deep dive into Mo. You're going to see more of a deep dive into Max. You're going to see a really beautiful excavation of David and Emily. It thrills me to know that we are at this trend of using the structure of Zoey's to come at topics and the problems of humanity and to come at it with this lens that has pathos and joy. We really excavate and seek the truth in it, you're going to see that all throughout the season, along with just devastating numbers, that hurt in the best way -- and numbers that are just filled with light, and love, and levity, and joy! Everything that you tune in to Zoey's for, you're gonna get a whole lot of it.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist returns on Sunday, March 28 at 9/8c on NBC.