Susan Kelechi Watson And 'This Is Us' Writer Eboni Freeman Break Down The 'Strong Black Woman' Trope With Beth's Backstory

February 21 2019

The long wait for Beth Pearson's backstory (made even longer by the Orange Tyrant in the White House usurping NBC's This Is Us' usual time slot for with his State of the Union speech) is over! Tuesday night's episode, "Our Little Island Girl," showed us three stages of Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson)--as a child, a teen and an adult--and gave us the incredible Phylicia Rashad as her mother Carol.

Throughout the series, Beth has been the strong, practical partner to her husband Randall, who is more dreamy and carefree. When Beth's mother injures her hip, "Our Little Island Girl" shows us Beth's relationship with her mother, how Beth lost her passion for dancing and breaks down the trope of the "Strong Black Woman" and its impact on Black women and their families. True to the show's default state, the episode is quite well-done--and as heartbreaking as we've come to expect. Read our recap of the episode here.

A few weeks before the episode aired, Shadow And Act toured the This Is Us set and attended a screening of the episode for the Television Critics Association on the Paramount Studios lot in L.A. Kelechi Watson, along with the episode's writer Eboni Freeman, co-producer Kay Oyegun, showrunner and executive producer Elizabeth Berger and Melanie Liburd (who plays Beth's cousin Zoe) stuck around for a Q&A after the screening.

It's remarkable in itself that a network TV show can have an all-women panel to talk about their show, but four of them were Black women, which explains why the realities of Black life and Black women's lives are so multifaceted in the writing and the production of this show.

After the tears had dried, Shadow And Act noted as much during the Q&A, saying:

"There's been so many episodes, specifically when we're focused on Beth and Randall where you can see examples of Blackness which, for Black viewers, is an amazing thing, to know that there are people in the writers' room who are writing our experiences. In this specific episode, there's ‑‑ not necessarily a debunking, but maybe a conceptualizing of the 'strong black woman stereotype,' and where that comes from, and why we carry that with us, sometimes.  And so, I'm just wondering about your thought process as you're coming up with these storylines, as you're putting in these very specifically Black experiences into the lives of your characters and having them come on screen."

"I'll take this one," Berger, the white showrunner, joked.

"That was awesome!" Kelechi Watson laughed before Freeman, a first-time writer on the show, took the mic.

"I think when we were starting to talk about Beth's origin story, what interested us the most is that the Beth that we've been seeing for the last two seasons is very ‑‑ you know, she's the strong woman, she's funny, she's witty, and it was this idea that she had a more ‑‑ in her childhood, she was a bit of a different person, a quieter person, that she came from this world ‑‑ this ballet world ‑‑ which was mostly white," said Freeman. 

"And so, that was, I think, really interesting to delve into, and to, also, when coming up with who her mother would be and who Phylicia would be, it was very interesting that we kept talking about this whole idea of the Strong Black Woman, and where that would have come from, and how she would have gotten that from Carol, and the whole idea of the way in which, you know, Carol with her hip, and how she still presses forward, and everything that happened with the dad's death, I think, was really interesting to all of us when we were exploring her back story and talking about her relationship with her mother," she said.

"Yeah, Beth is actually a bit of all of us," Oyegun chimed in. "Even, like ‑‑ well, not even 'even.'  She's mostly like Dan [Fogelman, the show's creator]," Oyegun laughed.

"But yeah, I think there are elements of all of us pouring through Beth. As far as specificity, we get down in the writers' room, and I'm so grateful for that," Oyegun said. "We've created this space that allows people to have these conversations. So, we went back and forth about deconstructing what this, sort of, myth of the Strong Black Woman idea means. You know, being the person who shields your family; being the person who holds your husband down; being the person who takes the strikes and the beatings, and then, still has that vulnerability. And so, we wanted to kick that through the entire episode.  So, when it comes to specificity, you're going to have that all day," said Oyegun.

"I mean, even if you look in Mel's (Melanie Liburd) character, the way that she's persevered through, being abused as a child, and how she's trying to be there for her cousin," Kelechi Watson said. "There are these various shades of women pressing through and busting into the good part of their life, regardless of whatever their circumstance was. And the scene that touched me so much was, kind of, because it was beyond the Beth‑Carol thing. I just saw myself with Phylicia, and there was this part where Beth says, 'I'm strong because of you.' And I thought of the legacy of Phylicia Rashad and what she has left us all with, and continues to do, obviously, with her work on The Cosby Show as Clair Huxtable, and on and on and on, but she was my example of representation back in the day.  And so, when I sat with her, and I'm like, 'I'm strong because of you,' there was this, sort of, ancestral, kind of, spiritual exchange in that moment of, like, I think Beth is here because of you, because people like you have walked through the door and made a path that now people look on a show like This Is Us on NBC, and it's not a strange thing to see a Black woman roll through with box braids and a suit on, talking about, 'I'm going to work and hold down my husband and my family and my kids, and this is not going to be strange,' you know?" Kelechi Watson said.

"And also, to show their flaws.," Liburd said. "You know, it's real. The scenes between you and your mom were just so beautiful, and I loved just that strength that Beth, I think, passed on to Zoe, that Beth probably got from her mom, and it's just such a wonderful, fun relationship to play."

There's a bit of a silence in the room after the British-born actress, who plays an American on the show, speaks.

"Give them a moment," Kelechi Watson said to laughter. "Because they're, like, 'She's British!'"

As for the roots of the storyline, Freeman is very open about the fact that Beth's backstory that she wrote of a dancer deferred that is rooted in her own experience:

"My parents were very encouraging, but, yes, a lot of the story came out of some of my background in training for ballet," she said. "But the difference is that I think I had my own realization, where I ended up quitting myself when I was a teen. And so, it's a little bit different from what we decided for Beth's backstory. But we really wanted to create this character with her mother and, really, the dynamic of their relationship and the differences between this father that she idolized and this mother who was a great mother, but she was just a lot more stern and strict and had a more ‐‐ a different approach to how she wanted to raise her children.

As for the spot-on casting of Rachel Naomi Hilson (who plays teen Beth), Kelechi Watson shared how Hilson nailed her performance:

"Rachel, who plays teen Beth, said that she actually studied the show, you know, to study Beth. Because I was watching her, and I was like, 'What?

I do that?' And it was things that looked familiar to me, but I didn't realize I do. We all do things that we don't realize, and then, I don't realize I do as the character, you know? And she was very much doing very specific Beth things. And so, casting is just phenomenal. But what Rachel did; I thought she was amazing. I mean, she's beautiful. And they ‐‐ you know, hair and makeup is amazing because they found contacts with, the ‐‐ I have a mole in my eye, which is a very, sort of, specific thing, and they found that, and they put that ‐‐ and stuck that in her eye. Dirty contact," she laughed.

"And then, they had, a little mole on her face. And so, she helped to contextualize Beth for me, you know, aside from the beauty that was written on the page. That was such a help. It informed me to actually step outside of Beth and watch her so that I could be a bit objective because I'm so close to her. So, it gave me clues about who Beth is, as well," Kelechi Watson said.

READ MORE:

Beth Pearson's Heartbreaking Backstory Revealed On 'This Is Us'

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