This Week’s Most Noteworthy Performance: John Clarence Stewart

February 7-13
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” | Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
John Clarence Stewart

John Clarence Stewart's performance of Michael Kiwanuka's “Black Man In A White World” in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Source: NBC

How exactly do you write about a performance that’s derived from experience? How do you pick it apart and do it justice even when you want to shout praises and use all the great adjectives that you know? Quite frankly, I’m not sure. It feels wrong to even call it a performance–even if the concept is completely meta to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and when we know that “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” addressed the cataclysmic darkness of racism.

So much of last week’s episode and the start of this was John Clarence Stewart’s time to shine, and he did so with such nuanced vulnerability, it floored me. Now while perhaps Stewart is not a tech wiz working in the industry, he is still an actor, and we know that Hollywood is still tragically racist. Yes, we are finally getting stories about Black men and women told through their perspectives, their voices, and their experiences, but there are still ways to go—both in the real world and the fictional.

Simon’s rendition of Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man In A White World” was utterly captivating and inarguably harrowing. The choreography, the moments of obvious discomfort, seclusion, and downright openness made for one of the strongest heart songs to date. Again, heart songs on this show are such a riveting concept because they’re only seen by one person—Zoey, and yet they are such a powerful showcase of what’s really happening on the inside and if it weren’t already painfully obvious how much frustration Simon was feeling in this moment, this would tell us.

“It’s impossible for you to be on my side in this situation, and you cannot rewrite an experience you know nothing about. […] That has nothing to do with who I am as a Black man in the world and what my experience as a Black man is in this office. I never had any mentors look out for me like Joan. There’s no room for messing up for me, and I have to constantly prove why I deserve to be here. […] and I have to constantly amputate parts of who I am to make other people feel comfortable in my presence, so they feel safe. So that when I walk on the elevator, they—they aren’t startled when they see me. Do you even have to think about that?” 

Again, how do you discuss this as though it’s a performance when these are real experiences that are had by Black men and women? You don’t really, there is probably no way to, or if there is, I haven’t learned it yet, but what I can say is that as a white women whose jobs it is to listen, I am. I hope we all are. The framework of this scene, Stewart’s expressiveness and physicality, in a myriad of ways, told more than one story. It was evocative, powerfully nuanced, and quiet because even when there were no words, he was still speaking in every way one could.

So we could discuss heart songs, we could discuss layers, and we could get into the idea that as meta as this show can be with performances, this episode shines light on real experiences with stunning authenticity.

And that’s why the differences from the first heart song to the last one (Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope”) are so palpably evocative, because Stewart was bringing in so much more than meets the eye—there was tremendous heart, rage, frustrations, sternness and confidence concluding with a moment of joy that was transcendent through the choreography and music. Also, we can’t talk about “Tightrope” without bringing Alex Newell and Alvina August into the conversation in order to commend the number entirely with the passion and vocal ranges brought in to the scene.

It’s also in that final moment and the way Stewart utters the word “relief” with the type of vulnerability in his eyes that we can’t even begin to understand or analyze. It made us think. It made us question ourselves. I finished the episode thinking now that’s what you call a full range of emotions on-screen and that’s always something we’ll appreciate here. Along with the understanding that we (as white people, even as women) need to keep checking our privilege. We need to shut up and listen.

Again, this isn’t really a performance review, not in the traditional sense at least because as much as Stewart is embodying a character, he’s also bringing to life experiences he fully understands as a Black man. Still it’s the best one we watched all week—it’s the one we wanted to talk through. John Clarence Stewart isn’t new to excellent performances on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, but this episode, these musical numbers, and these moments for Simon are ones we needed to commend.

We don’t have a full episode review of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” but it’s covered with beautiful honesty over at Fangirlish, and we highly suggest checking it out.

Who was the most noteworthy performer you watched this week?

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