Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist exclusive interview: John Clarence Stewart on Simon’s big professional gamble paying off

John Clarence Stewart
Simon and Zoey have a complicated relationship of work and personal feelings. Pic credit: NBC

Warning: Spoilers for episode six of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

NBC’s genre-busting hit, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, is neither sitcom or musical, but a fresh hybrid from showrunner Austin Winsberg, that has been telling some overdue Black and brown workplace stories on network TV.

This high concept series is deft in handling really big awkward topics—the sudden death of a parent and all the “isms”—with Broadway show pizazz, emotional punch and perfectly carved outlines. 

Along with staff writer, Zora Bikangaga, who penned the knockout episode of Season 2, titled, Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning, the storytellers artfully exposed the internal conversations of Black people in a seemingly progressive workplace unsure of what to say, and when to say it.

As star John Clarence Stewart (Simon) told Monsters & Critics in an exclusive interview below, it was time for his character to make a move instead of defaulting to the “safe space” of saying nothing to preserve his career.

Anya Adams directed this powerful episode as Luther Brown was enlisted to choreograph the musical numbers (alongside series choreographer Mandy Moore) which featured Simon’s scene-stealing solo of Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in a White World.” 

The message resonates and is received by the irrepressible titular Zoey, eyes opened and wizened to the broadened sense of what’s actually happening to her fellow coworkers of color. The series’ writers cleverly infuse the lyrics of a specific scene underscore, bringing home the meaning of the moment.

Done without schmaltz or hand wringing, the series is surgical with comedy and gives their diverse cast a voice, with Simon (Stewart) delivering a standout performance not only in Zoey’s workplace but perhaps as a love interest down the road.

The series is coming back March 28, and fans have time to think about the moves that Simon made with the Sprq Point CEO Danny Michael Davis (Noah Weisberg) not only NOT quitting his job but also refusing to retract his public statement about the company’s racist and toxic work culture.

Georgia native John Clarence Stewart was educated in performance theater, theater and performance studies and dance. It’s all on full display here in Zoey, as he has the chops to sing, dance and act his way into any role that crosses his path.

Monsters & Critics spoke with him today about his character Simon, his profound episode that has everyone buzzing about his range and talent and if there will be a season 3 of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

Monsters & Critics:  When you first read for Simon, what was your impression of this particular sitcom?

John Clarence Stewart: When I initially read the audition sides, I thought that it was completely singular.

Specifically, Simon connected with me, having lost my father when I was 19. It was such an opportunity to share the inner worlds of all of these people. But specifically, for me, the inner world of a Black man moving through grief, that’s something that, well that’s the reason that I auditioned for the show initially.

The premise itself seemed to hold this delicate duality of like joy and pathos. And it’s such a unique tone that you have to strike every episode. And [showrunner] Austin Winsberg is meticulous with that.

It’s a very specific tone that he strikes with every episode, making sure that there’s light and there’s emotion and that the light gives way to the emotion and vice versa.

It is a dance I haven’t seen done on network TV in this way before. And this is a dance that I haven’t seen done with music on a television show ever like this, in my opinion.

M&C: It’s emotional, the whole Peter Gallagher storyline, but also your particular frustrations. Race is a touchy subject to bring it into a network show, yet the way you guys pull it off with the right song at the right moment. You have such a strong theater background. Do you get to interject, ‘maybe we should think about this song’…how much influence do you have with the writers?

John Clarence Stewart:  Well, I think it depends episode to episode and arc to arc because our writers and Austin, they are, they craft the narrative and they find the right song to fit the moment.

And they do that in a very strategic way. Every once in a while, Austin will reach out and tell us about a song that’s coming up or tell us about a narrative that’s coming up in a future episode and he’ll tell us what he’s thinking.

Usually, the first thing we’ll do is read lyrics of the song because if the song is something that is on the docket, then the lyrics always match up in some kind of way.

You could take the lyrics of the song and do them as a monologue inside of the scene and they would make sense. That’s how well they fit. It’s very strategic.

And every once in a while, we get a chance to listen to it. This is the lyrics. And what I like to ask is a follow up question is like, what do you like it off this song? What are you looking for? What is it about this song specifically? And then every once in a while, I’ll throw some other songs into the hat.

Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they don’t, sometimes they take the conversation and they propel it further.

Usually more often than not, they come to us with the script and the songs and intact, and then we capitalize on it and make it everything it can be.

Now for this episode specifically, it was a more collaborative episode than I’ve ever experienced on the show.

I learned about this episode back in June, July, and I had a lot of reservations about doing this this. I communicated with Austin that I felt like if we were going to do it, I want to do it right. I’d like to be a part of the process as much as possible.

He obliged and so we had a lot of conversations and he looped me in with Zora [Bikangaga] on the episode. And he and I had beautiful conversations about the textures and layers and what we were trying to accomplish.

Specifically with Simon…what it was for him in the world of the Black man, but for me a lot of those conversations found their way into the text [of the script].

I’ll also say that he had conversations with Kapil Talwalkar and with Alex Newell. The specificity that we were able to capture was born of a lot labor and a lot of conversations and a lot of work.

I think that shows in the episode itself. Also, this desire to specifically have Black artists whose songs we used in the episode.

I think that across the board and I got to get props to Austin and Mandy as well to create room, not only hold space for conversations that are uncomfortable, but to hold space for perspective of thought of themselves and to listen and to take those things all in to prioritize the Black voice.

Because he also has a very clear idea about the tone of the show and what it looks like and who we’re following, because in the episode, we know it’s Simon is a character that is moving through a dynamic thing, but the beautiful thing about the show is that we don’t lose our protagonists.

We are following Zoey move through all of this and encounter these specific kinds of a catalytic moment and all of her relationships with brown and Black people.

And it was a fine line and balance to make sure that we didn’t soften her, that we made sure that she made mistakes and that we made sure that the Black and brown characters held her accountable in the ways that makes sense.

M&C: Are you seeing more and more opportunities for yourself and things that interest you as an actor?

John Clarence Stewart: Absolutely. People would always ask me ‘What’s your dream role? What is the thing that you want to play? What is the thing that would really light you up?’

And something that would be lingering in the back of my mind would be that they haven’t been written yet.

To even think that sounded presumptuous …’Stay in your place and just be grateful and be happy to do anything or be anything or anyone anywhere.’

But there was this thing that I’ve been feeling. I think that a lot of Black and brown creatives have a feeling this for a long time. I think with seeing it in the landscape of story, that a lot of the stories that we’ve seen haven’t centered us.

And our stories… they’ve been used, but even in the stories that are told from our perspectives, we’re still not centered. It’s not our perspective or point of view.

I’ve had the opportunity of having been in the theater space to have seen a lot of the brilliant black playwrights that I’ve seen in some places that I’ve worked on. I’ve seen them transition into the movie space, transition into the TV space, and I’ve seen them start telling stories centering Black perspective, centering Black perspective…me… in a way that makes the character fully human and the hero.

Someone that’s not an idea, but who is flawed, funny and that doesn’t have to do everything.

Who can just go about the process of being human in the world?

And that’s what I feel like I’m excited about. I’m excited being a Black actor in this moment in time because I see more and more of those stories coming forth. I see more and more of those opportunities, more of those creatives not settling for a diluted version of our story.

Because of the world that we live in and the kind of reckoning that’s been happening, the idea of telling these stories responsibly is really in the zeitgeist right now.

I hope it stays and it remains this idea that if you are a person outside of a point of view, and you’re seeking to tell a story about that point of view, you better have people on the team in positions of influence to flesh it out and make whole the story that you want to tell.

If you’re going to tell the story, then you need to bring the people into the space and be open to having conversation that gets to the guts of the thing you’re trying to tell.

I see that more. I am fortunate on our show, I’m on a network TV show and we are having the conversations that we’re having on set as we’re working on this before the show before we started shooting as different drafts of the script came out, it’s a very singular scenario.

I have friends who’ve worked on other networks shows who are working actively and other network shows. I’ve told them about my process with our show. They look at me like I have five heads and will cast them into stone. So, it’s not lost on me, the how singular this is.

I was talking to another peer of mine the other day. And I said, I’m grateful that we are all exactly the human beings that we are, because if any of us is a different person, there’s a world where this may not have been what it’s become.

Because across the board, every creative has to be onboard in a specific way because to tell a story about systemic racism or, specifically a Black and brown perspective in a space that’s very white, when it overlaps in the world the way it does when it’s really an aspirational story, it’s going to bring up all of this stuff that triggers and all of these different ways.

If you can’t hold space for all of that dissonance, what you’re going to find, in my opinion is, that Black and brown voices don’t feel safe. We will get quiet and we’ll hold our tongues because the space is unsafe for us to engage.

And a willingness to not only engage with this fear of someone ‘doing us a favor,’ which is perhaps one of the most insulting things one can do. But to engage with the desire to listen and apply.

And… to find what Zoey looks like with all of the new information that we’re putting forth on the table.

M&C: Are we going to have a season three?

John Clarence Stewart: I want there to be a season three. I think we all want to see a season three. I don’t know. I haven’t received any news of the pickup yet. But all the news that I’ve been receiving has been really, really positive.

And I’m hoping that moving forward. because I would just say we have a richness of talent on our show, talent and story. I’m hoping that as we move forward, everything that we’ve excavated in and this past episode… Layers and textures of that will continue.

Later in this season, you’re going to see a lot of different shades of the other characters in this show. We’re doing deep dives in quite a few places.

The structure of Zoey is like a submarine, a deep dive in a very specific area that most shows can’t go to because of the conceit. And so, you’re going to see these deep dives into these relationships, um, that are going to be just as a layer in complex, hilarious, which is going to be wonderful and fingers crossed for season three.

M&C: Lightening round: what TV are you watching? What’s your guilty pleasure right now? What are you watching?

John Clarence Stewart: I watch and dig Lupin, and Pretend It’s A City, and Alice in Borderland, a Korean drama with life and death consequences, brilliantly written. I was blown away. RuPaul’s Drag Race I watch as well. I run the gamut for TV. Most recently I just finished Your Honor with Bryan Cranston.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on NBC Tuesday nights at 8pm, and will return for the second half of season 2 on March 28.

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