#663: Brown Girls and the Act of Existing

July 22nd, 2016

There’s an air conditioner window unit chuffing luke-cold air into the tiny studio space at the Flat Iron Building.

It ruffles a few sheets of construction paper taped to the walls, souvenirs from the cast party for Sam Bailey’s web series You’re So Talented. “You’re so…” was printed, leaving party attendees to fill out the rest.

Bailey only kept the snarky ones, the ones where her friends jokingly called her trifling, bougie, thirsty, mediocre.

All the walls in the small studio are covered in taped images, whiteboards and Post-Its. Outlines for a someday future season of You’re So Talented, photos of actors and artists for inspiration, dry erase diagrams of odd film-ese.

Past the note-strewn desk and table, past the mismatched chairs, the coffee maker, array of snacks and not-well-hidden bottle of Scotch, one section of the wall is devoted to Bailey’s upcoming web series, set to start filming in August and debut in early 2017.

There are taped-up stills of Bollywood films to nail the South Asian movie color scheme, pics from indy arthouse fare like “Pariah” and “Obvious Child” to inspire on lighting, framing or other technical details. And there’s a line of headshots of the new series’ cast.

There’s not a white face among them.

What the World Looks Like

Bailey’s new project, Brown Girls, will solely feature actors of color. No white people will appear in the show, even as extras.

The show, which is funded by local arts grants and an ongoing GoFundMe campaign, focuses on a Pakistani-American queer writer in Pilsen and her best friend, who is black, getting through their mid-20s, with all the talk of sex, love, art and job troubles that implies.

“They don’t shy away from talking about their race when it’s necessary to the conversation, but I think any art that’s done by a marginalized people becomes a political statement,” Bailey said.

Race will be there, of course, even when not discussed. The music the characters listen to, the clothes they wear, the art they see, the food they eat, the color schemes of the Bollywood stills taped to the wall. It will show women of color living the lives they live.

The revolution of Brown Girls, Bailey said, is simply “the act of existing.”

The series is the brainchild of 26-year-old writer Fatimah Asghar, a Pakistani-American poet from the East Coast who is of Kashmiri descent. The decision to cast entirely people of color was in part a reaction to the over-representation of white people in media, from sitcoms to film.

“That’s just so not what my world looks like at all,” Asghar said. “It’s really not what the world of a lot of my friends looks like. I wanted to kind of drastically change that by just being like, ‘Well what would happen if we did a show where this was the rule, where all these roles were played by people of color?’”

Inspired by Asghar’s real-life relationship with her best friend, only the two main characters were written with pre-determined races. All the other characters were written with the knowledge the eventual casting would be a person of color, but not designating which race that character must be.

The point, Asghar said, wasn’t to check off a list of every race and make sure everyone got in. The point was to create real, believable, human characters.

“People of color are multifaceted and complicated and aren’t just reduced down to what their race is,” she said.

Bailey said another underrepresented aspect of life the series will show is how different communities of color interact with each other.

“It’s not like all black people, it’s not all Pakistani-Americans, it’s not all Latinos, but it’s all of them sharing a space together,” Bailey said. “That’s my group of friends, that’s Fati’s group of friends, but we don’t get to see it a lot, often, in media.”

Staggered

Bailey’s previous web series, You’re So Talented, detailed the lives of a young black woman, whom she played, and her two best friends, another black woman and a white man. This will be the 27-year-old Logan Square native’s first series where her role is entirely behind the camera.

Bailey extended the philosophy behind the cast to the crew. The entire production team is either people of color or queer. She said she was “staggered” by the response. She had to start turning people away from the project, even though the pay was less than what they could get on other shows. They just wanted to work in that environment.

Similarly, Bailey and Asghar haven’t been able to accommodate all the actors who have approached them. They pledge future roles in future seasons or include them in party or other group scenes.

A 10-minute-an-episode web series simply doesn’t have enough space for all the actors they want to highlight.

“I felt guilty that I couldn’t give them more roles to work on,” Bailey said.

There has been pushback on the concept, like when a line producer who went to a script readthrough in March asked to talk to Asghar after.

“She said, ‘I really think you should include white people in the series’ — and she was a woman of color — but she was like ‘I think you should include white people in the series because it won’t get picked up by major news channels or a network series. If there’s no white people, there’s just zero percent chance this is going to happen,’” Asghar said, chuckling. “I was like, ‘I don’t care.’”

Most of the comments have been positive, but calling for more diversity in everything from sexuality to gender to race and body type.

“I had people go like ‘Could you make sure there’s brown plus-sized girls? Can you make sure there’s Asians who look like that?’ I was like oh my God, I want to, I so want to, but how do we get that in 10 minutes?” she said. “It shows how much people are dying and thirsty for that representation.”

The main concern Bailey and Asghar have as the air conditioner chuffs its best effort into the photo and Post-It laden studio space, is that they can’t do enough.

The story of a friendship between African-American and South Asian women coupled with the Latina queer love interest told by an entirely minority or queer cast and crew can’t check all the boxes, can’t include all the actors they want to work with, the races and cultures they want to highlight, the worlds they want to show.

They have to content themselves with making art.

“The story is very intimate,” Bailey said. “It’s very personal. It’s very beautiful, very multi-layered. It’s very feminine. It’s very brown. It’s very all these things, and that’s enough for me. But if anything, it shows me there’s that much more to do.”

Learn more about Brown Girls

Watch You’re So Talented

See Fatimah Asghar’s work

Read about another working artist

And about a lost friend’s last canoe

Support 1,001 Chicago Afternoons on Patreon

What's this?

You are currently reading #663: Brown Girls and the Act of Existing by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.