For John Clarence Stewart, exploring racism in the NBC musical-comedy drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist took a great amount of intention, precision and specificity.
In Tuesday night’s episode, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning”, Stewart’s character, Simon, wrestles with his future at the tech company SPRQ Point after calling out racial bias at the company. Simon’s act of courage spurs difficult conversations about race and identity in the tech industry.
Speaking with Shadow and Act, Stewart discussed his initial reaction to hearing about the episode, the ancestral power of Black joy and his sober feelings of hope regarding the current state of the world.
In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist showrunner Austin Winsberg reached out to Stewart regarding the episode.
“Honestly, I knew about this back in June and July. The showrunner reached out to me and said that the writer’s room was thinking about doing this and I was concerned obviously,” Stewart said. “I expressed those concerns not long after George Floyd was killed. I was in my own space processing my stuff.”
While Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is lighthearted fare in the midst of melancholy, Stewart was worried the topic of race would be “a fracture in the lightheartedness to see [in] this episode.”
“If this is what you’re planning on doing and this is what the idea is, I don’t wanna do this just any kind of way,” he said regarding the episode. “The showrunner was very open and receptive to my apprehension. This is a very specific tone to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Finding the way in took some time and I think that Zora Bikangaga was very instrumental to finding the way into this story. Simon, Tobin and Mo are moving through this in the workplace, but we are still following Zoey through the episode.”
Stewart was very intentional in having the Black and brown characters be rendered with a brush of authenticity. “My biggest fear was that we would get these hollow archetypes of Black and brown people,” he said. “One thing we were intentional about was that the white characters were flawed, had blindspots, were working through things and failed.”
When asked what drew him to the character of Simon, Stewart revealed he was intrigued by “the idea of a Black man living through the loss of a father.” The actor immediately emphasized this as he lost his own father at the age of 19.
“This is an aspirational story. There are no fixes. There’s no round-robin Kumbaya moment at the end. This is still happening,” he said.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” is punctuated by a moment of Black joy to the tune of Janelle Monae’s song “Tightrope,” which Stewart described as a “spiritual” moment akin to celebrations in the Black church.
“There’s this necessity to celebrate to feel wins and to feel joy. It was so important for us to have this embodiment of Black joy.” Stewart said. “The way all those Black and brown bodies singing that song transformed. As Luther Brown’s giving us the choreography, he’s giving us these Black references to the movements. Praise [and] worship. It immediately felt like dropping into a space that was sacred and spirtual.”
The second half of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist‘s sophomore season will air later this year.