Atlanta native John Clarence Stewart on race, the tech world and ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’

ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning" Episode 206 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Thomas Grant as Leif, John Clarence Stewart as Simon -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate)
ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning" Episode 206 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Thomas Grant as Leif, John Clarence Stewart as Simon -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate)

Credit: Sergei Bachlakovr/NBC/Lionsgate

Credit: Sergei Bachlakovr/NBC/Lionsgate

His character Simon faces a reckoning at work

Zoey on NBC’s music-oriented “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is the epitome of well-meaning. Even if she’s firing someone, she is more apologetic than mean about it.

But her efforts to mollify Simon, played by Atlanta native John Clarence Stewart, fail to impress him. As the public relations voice of the tech company SPRQ Point, he has to quell a problem in their tech software which makes it more difficult for their artificial intelligence face reader to recognize people of color. (This is a real problem in the real world.)

During last week’s episode, he went off-script to the press and pointed out that a lack of Black representation on the board and at upper levels of management may be the bigger problem, not simply a “technical glitch.”

Simon faces a moment of reckoning in the episode that aired Tuesday night, led by a Black director with dance moves guided by a Black choreographer.

“There’s language and vocabulary and experiences we wanted to capture, to make sure it all felt authentic and real,” said Stewart in an interview before the episode aired. “Specificity is universality.”

Zoey, in a well-meaning move, holds a town hall to ask folks about their thoughts on race at the company, and it veers off track. Simon feels shut down and Zoey, who alone can see characters’ feelings through song, watches Simon emote Michael Kiwanuka’s 2016 song “Black Man in a White World” as all the non-Black characters freeze in place.

“I had never heard the song,” Stewart said. “It encapsulated the moment in a profound way. It shook me. It has haunted me and tapped into a space that’s cellular, spiritual. And it was that way when we recrafted it and performed the choreography by Luther Brown.

The dance through the frozen white bodies was a bit of a metaphor of a Black man making his way through a white world. “Luther and I felt as if I was in this space and my ancestors were pushing me through, guiding me out. I had to navigate these white arms and limbs and faces. I break free from the steps where everyone was located. Then I went back into the space with this whole different vitality. It was an intentional spiritual journey Simon is on.”

The all-white board of SPRQ Point wants him to retract what he said as a spokesman for the company. Zoey, as his boss, has to give him the bad news, while trying to empathize with his plight by noting she is a woman in a male-centric industry. (And yes, that is a legitimate problem, too.)

“That has nothing to do with who I am as a Black man in the world and what my experiences as a Black man in the office,” Simon said in Tuesday’s episode. “I never had any mentors to look out for me. There isn’t room for messing up for me. I have to constantly prove why I deserve to be here. ‘A nice office. How do you swing that?’ They don’t ask that of any of the other execs... I have to constantly amputate parts of who I am so others feel safe.”

Zoey claims she doesn’t see color when she sees Simon, but he said that “denies a fundamental part of who I am.”

She tries to convince an Indian-American programmer Tobin to tell the higher-ups about his own feelings of alienation in the workplace, but he said he doesn’t want to rock the boat. Fortunately, Tobin changes his mind and writes a piece online that goes viral. Minority SPRQ Point employees worldwide share their stories. Simon considers quitting on principle but now that he no longer feels alone, he is empowered to confront quirky SPRQ Point owner Danny Michael Davis (Noah Weisberg), who accepts responsibility for his non-action on this front.

Simon, with Tobin, Zoey and the CEO, enter the SPRQ Point board room, and Simon gets to speak his peace. “It’s his responsibility to speak for everybody,” Stewart said. “ I’m in this space not apologizing for my presence. It’s aspirational. He admonishes them to actually make change on a systemic level.”

Will they? That will be addressed in future episodes.

Stewart began talking with the show producers about a potential storyline like this over the summer after the George Floyd protests had begun. He spent hours on the phone with Zora Bikangaga, the Black writer assigned to this particular episode. “We had a lively discussion about living the world as a Black man in a predominately white space,” Stewart said. “A lot of language we used in the conversation found its way into the script.”

This NBC show, which is in its second season, ultimately revolves around the title character Zoey, who is shown in this episode trying to “solve” the problem and failing time and time again. Besides the town hall, she seeks advice from her closest Black friend, Mo, who tells her to deal with this on her own. The episode, he said, shows her and the white CEO growing and learning. At the same time, he said the writers did not turn this into a “white savior” situation and even makes a joke about it when the CEO tries to dub himself a “hero.”

In the previous episode, Stewart got to sing Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” before he gave his controversial press statement calling out his company for systemic racism.

He said he learned about Simone from Dr. Oral Moses at Kennesaw State University. At the time, Moses was the only Black professor in the arts department. He became a mentor to Stewart and introduced him to Simone’s music. “When he played ‘Don’t Let Me Be Understood,’ it moved me in a profound way,” Stewart said. “It was a massive part of my life. When I got news I would be singing it, it felt like a full-circle moment.”

Season one featured Zoey and Simon in a love triangle with Max. But that has been set aside this season. In the interim, Simon befriends Tatiana (Alvina August), a Black tech journalist. They are currently in the friend zone but that could change. For now, Stewart said, “Simon is just happy to have someone who gets him outside the workplace.”

WHERE TO WATCH

“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC and on-demand for Hulu and Peacock subscribers

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