An Interview With Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey of Brown Girls

Sonia Denis & Nabila Hossain | Lead Actors on Brown Girls

Some of the members of our OWTL Leadership team had the pleasure of sitting down on a Google Hangout with Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey, the writer and director of the new web series Brown Girls, respectively.  Right now, the words ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’ are top of mind for many. Fatimah [Fati, below] and Sam are doing just that.  Unsatisfied with representation in media, both in front and behind the camera, they created Brown Girls which premieres February 15, 2017. Find your local release party, here.

OWTL: Are you both from Chicago?

Sam: I’m from Chicago, Fati’s not.

OWTL: Okay, cool, Fati —  We saw that you’re in Grad School at Michigan, is that where you’re from?

Fati: No, actually I’m from the Boston/Cambridge area. And I was born in New York and split some time growing up between Cambridge and New York and then I was living in Chicago for the last like 5 years.  And then I moved here [Michigan] fall of 2016 for grad school.

OWTL: Okay, okay. We have a follow-up to that, I’m just wondering if featuring certain parts of Chicago was something that was important to you guys and/or had some sort of specific significance?

Fati: Yeah! So I think that we definitely wanted to, well — this story in a lot of ways is a love story to these two women and this friendship, but also it’s a love story to Chicago and to, kind of, the different communities that are found in Chicago. So we wanted to really highlight artistic communities of color and queer artistic communities of color in Chicago.  And, I think that we wanted to also show a Chicago that is not just The Bean and downtown, but show, you know, a more neighborhood version of Chicago.

This story in a lot of ways is a love story to these two women and this friendship, but also it’s a love story to Chicago and to, kind of, the different communities that are found in Chicago.

Sam: Also I think it just made sense logistically because so many people, like half our crew and our cast and people who are part of the series, actually live in Pilsen.  It was all of [what Fati mentioned] and everyone lived there so it was just a no-brainer at that point.

OWTL:  We love that you featured music from Jamila Woods.  A couple of our Ladies are big fans, I know Sarah mentioned she went to an album release party for her that was such an awesome experience.  What was the music curation process like for this project and are there any other Chicago based female musicians we can look forward to hearing in future episodes?

Sam: So Jamila is actually Fati’s best friend.  So, the relationship you see is mostly based off of their relationship. Well, obviously she’s an amazing musician, so it was such a natural ask to have her come on as music consultant and just give me ideas about, obviously showcasing her music in the series, but also what other artists she thought would fit the tone of the series. So, pretty early on we got a Google Doc together with suggestions of musicians, what her songs were that fit the vibe of the series, and then some songs and stuff that she would look over and we’d see if she also liked. So it’s been great to have her on board.  We also put in Daryn Alexus who is a Chicago artist, Drea Smith, Ayanna Woods who is Jamila’s little sister, Ashni Dave, well, she’s from New York and she’s the only one who’s not a Chicago artist.

OWTL: Amazing, we’re looking forward to the Spotify Playlist with the whole soundtrack!  Now that we know that the series is based on an autobiographical relationship, we’re wondering if it was hard to cast actors for the part when you had such specific people in mind as the inspiration of those characters?

Fati: Yeah, I mean it is based on Jamila and my friendship, as Sam said.  But think that it Sam and I are pretty plugged-in to the Chicago theater/actor scene, particularly Sam, so casting it out, a lot of people felt like natural fits.  It was like “this person would be a great fit for this, and this person for this,” and that flexibility of casting and but also wanting to get a good representation across different categories and making sure that all looked good to us. I think the real thing that came to was thinking about Leila’s character.  I had this childhood friend that I just thought in the back of my mind like “oh she’s perfect, she’ll be great for this! I don’t know if she still acts like she did when we were in highschool and I don’t know if it’s something she’s interested in,” and I texted Nabila and was like “you know, I actually wrote this thing. Would you be interested in possibly sending an audition tape to Sam,” and eventually we actually chose her, and we thought she was a great fit for the role. I think she’s the only actor in the show who has not lived in Chicago.  

 I haven’t seen characters like this portrayed in media before.

Sam:  Yeah, she’s the only one we had to fly out to come to be here. And I feel like a lot of the ensemble cast was easy to cast.  A lot of them were people who did the reading, a lot of them were just friends that I knew who were also actors in Chicago.  But the lead roles were the hardest time we had casting because we wanted these women who were, you know, relatable but like very — they’re kind of like off-center a little bit? I don’t know, I haven’t seen characters like this portrayed in media before. I don’t think these girls would have considered themselves “actors” before this. Sonia is a stand-up comedian, Nabila was an engineer.  And they met the first day of shooting, they didn’t meet before that. And just watching their chemistry bloom throughout those nine days and having it be that palpable and real, that was how we knew that we made the right choice.

OWTL: Wow! That’s so shocking to me that they just met on the first day of shooting! You guys only had nine days to shoot the whole thing? That seems so short!

Fati:  Yeah, we had nine days. Well we were in pre-production for a little while, we had nine days to shoot and we’re still in post-production. But yeah, all the shooting was done very fast.

OWTL: Wild, but I guess sometimes you just have to do it that way. We’ve definitely been there for projects before.  Had you guys worked together before working on Brown Girls?

Fati: We had worked together before but not in this kind of capacity.  Like, for example, I had been doing a photo series project and I asked Sam to be a part of it, and Sam had done, well we do a lot of live, lip stuff. Sam is a storyteller and I’m a poet so Sam was putting on a show and she had asked me to be a part of it.  So, um, our kind of work had crossed over on that level but never on a project that was this big.

OWTL: That’s awesome.  So, ok, changing gears a little bit here.  Something that struck me at the very beginning of ep. 1 and Leila was on the phone with her Auntie and she was speaking with a heavy accent, and later she’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth with Miranda she doesn’t have it anymore. I’m just wondering if there’s a specific story behind this choice, this was something totally new to me and I was wondering if this is based on a specific personal experience?  Similarly, I have the same question about Patricia’s Single GIrls Club monologue in the second episode. That just felt, so *This Happened To Somebody Before* when I was watching it.

Fati: The thing about the accent is that it’s totally something that happens to so many South Asian people that I know.  Literally all my friends will do it. I’ve wondered my whole life why that happens, like why when you’re talking to an Auntie you have this different way of speaking and I think in a lot of ways it’s like because of clarity.  Like, when you’re speaking across so many different things, like you’re speaking across a different language, you’re speaking across a phone and layers of different types of communication that distance you, and I think it’s like, in a lot of ways, I think it’s like an issue of respect.  It’s like you’re speaking that way because you’re trying to be respectful and you’re trying to meet someone on their term because you’re trying to connect with them.  It’s also kind of like a really big like immigrant mentality assimilation thing that you do just like absorb the language and and the diction of the person you’re speaking to in order to help them better understand you. I think that’s like the key thing about immigrant mentality, that’s never really talked about, it’s the way that you are kind of a sponge to so many things. And I felt this when I’ve lived abroad and stuff. Like, my English totally changed every time I was abroad and my English changes when I go home and it changes when I’m with my friends from home and my accent is different, it gets stronger or not and I think it’s, i think they’re all things that you do to adjust to the person you’re talking to.  And so it was a really natural thing for Nabila and I think it’s just the way she speaks and she knows how to communicate with her own family.

And in terms of Sonia and the bathroom monologue. Yeah, Sonia is a great comedian, and she was really able just to riff on small lines or do things that felt very her. And it was really great to be a part of the production and it just made it feel more real and really showcase who she was as a comedian and as an actress.

OWTL: Yeah, that’s great. Sarah and I were laughing today about how specifically funny it was that she put her name between Oprah and Gayle! Just so funny. That totally makes sense then, having that personal touch.  And I think in all kinds of media we’re consuming that’s like why people like it. Because it’s personal and that makes it relatable.  

So we imagine a project like this, seeking to uplift a number of different experiences, would require a great deal of mindfulness in making decisions about which aspects of which experiences are important to highlight at any given time. Because the pilot begins in sort of a frenzy, focusing on Leila, a Muslim LGBTQ woman, I’m interested to hear about how we are introduced to your characters and the hopes you had for our interpretations of them?  

Sam:  I don’t know if I have an idea of what I want people to interpret these characters as other than that these people can be like complex, human, messy people as well as being LGBTQ or black or straight, all that stuff and I feel like we just don’t get that, and by “we” I mean like people of color and people from marginalized communities, don’t get those options to be that layered. SO, like, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal that she’s with a woman, or really any of it, like she’s just a person having sex and lying to her auntie. But, because we have so little representations of that, that’s like a big deal, and I guess what I’m hoping is that people are watching and no matter what their background, they’re watching these different layers and they’re like, “Wow, there’s me in that” or “there’s someone I know in that” like “my friend is like that” and that’s just what I’m hoping people get out of it when they see. That they see these people as fully formed humans that get to be a multitude of things.

I guess what I’m hoping is that people are watching and…they see these people as fully formed humans that get to be a multitude of things.

Fati: Yeah, and I think that we really wanted to highlight friendship and what Sam was saying, how these people can really occupy different complicated identities and I think that moving forward with the work we want to build out the world in a way where we can include more things like more about Chicago and more about their world and their communities and things like that. And I think that what we’re trying to do in this iteration is set the basis even being like:  “Yes, This character exists and has these different complicated identities and is like, messy and weird” and then like “this character comes across this way and has these identities. AND they’re best friends AND they’re friends with this person AND they live in this community and whatever else” right? So, I think for us, a lot of this season was about setting that basis terrain and seeing what we can explore in other seasons.

OWTL: This is so great. I love that so much.  Our Board Member Kara sent through a couple questions, and one follows-up to that really well I think. She asked specifically about whether or not there were any specific stories, or scenes, or language moments you were initially wanting to include but perhaps didn’t include because of the comfortability level with the audience?

Fati: I don’t think it was about leaving things out for the wider audience, like I think Sam and I were just like: We are telling this story. And especially when I was writing it, like I wanted to write a story that my friend groups would resonate with.  And then, I also think the more specific the story gets and the characters get and the weirder it is the more exciting it is. And the more it kind of creates this world that’s more understandable and more relatable and not just a big generalization.  And I think there’s so much that we want to explore the second season, like or in future seasons, like for me, I’m really interested in — and we drop it in the first season really subtly — but like thinking about polyamory and trying to navigate these kind of like structures of relationships that are maybe outside the regular definition of what relationships are. We’re really interested in getting to know the neighborhood Pilsen a little bit more and about that specific neighborhood and what it means to have this many intersecting artist groups that live next to each other and up on each other and usually conversations about that are flat-lined and we don’t really explore the nuances of what it means to have different people of color together in the same space. We’ve talked a lot about different things about Chicago that we want to bring out, and stuff like that.  Things about gender are super interesting and things we want to highlight a little bit more, especially gender complication and like negotiating what your gender is in the world. So those are all things that I know have been on my mind in terms of going forward and thinking about future seasons and also just things I’m interested in exploring.

OWTL:  Was there a “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” moment, like a specific moment, that lead you to create this project?  LIke a specific moment of inspiration that had you like “you know what? I’m going to write this thing right now”?

Fati: Yeah, I was super inspired, well Sam has a web-series that’s set in Chicago called You’re So Talented, and I had always wanted to be involved in Film, but it can be such an intimidating art form because you’re like “I don’t know how to do that!” like “I don’t know what that would look like!” and seeing someone I knew, and respected, and was friends with put on such an amazing powerful show and being like “Woah, I could maybe do that. I could write something. I don’t have to go to film school or whatever, maybe I could just try” So I think that’s a thing that really just sparked it.  Honestly, one day, I had known I wanted to write something for a while and I had this really bizarre dream that was like a very similar to the first episode and that’s when I wrote it, haha. Like, oh great, this is the gate that leads me to this and I kind of wrote it from there.

“Woah, I could maybe do that. I could write something. I don’t have to go to film school or whatever, maybe I could just try

OWTL: At Obvi, we believe storytelling is a form of activism that may seem subtle, but can be a really effective tool for connecting people and building solidarity. Our storytelling occurs mostly through personal essays, but there are so many different mediums through which anyone can share their experiences. My question is: what do you think is the most crucial aspect WOC and allies can integrate into their stories to best amplify these important narratives? And just as a follow-up, was a social justice framework an explicit part of the entire process of creating this series, or is it something you wanted to be more fluid or sort of blossom on its own?

Sam: I mean, I think, and I’ve said this before, but I think with women of color specifically women of color creating art, it immediately becomes revolutionary because there’s so little of it and there’s so little opportunities for us to get put on. So like it’s not lost on me.  I remember sending an email to the cast and crew the first day of shooting like “hey, it’s not lost on me that the set you’re about to come on is not the norm.” right? Because it’s not normal for there to be four or five women running a set. It’s not normal for there to only be one white straight man as part of the crew, that’s not like a normal thing. Right? So I did think about that, but it’s not like every day we were like ‘let’s gather and talk about the minority problem.”  That wasn’t at all the vibe, like there was so much love on that set because I think it was, as a shorthand, an experience.  I think that we had so many shared experiences, so many intersectional experiences that I think really just made the project soar.  At the same time, Fati and I thought it was really important for it to be a teaching set. So, like, one day we had Fatimah and Jamila’s students from Young Chicago Authors come in and they got to shadow the crew and they got to see actually who is making these stories. Because, so often, even if we do get a little representation in front of the camera, if we turn that camera around and see who’s actually telling the stories, it’s usually straight white people.  I think so many young people they don’t know that you could actually be like a lighting designer, as a career, and you might like that, and we need lighting designers who know how to light brown people. It was so important to me to have them come on set.  And even still, it was a very professional production set, we’re just more aware of our place in the world and that that doesn’t happen all the time. And as far as advice to people telling their stories? I think the advice is to tell your story, right?  Allow the stories that are being told to people that experience them. I’m not saying that’s the only way to tell stories, but I do think they need to have equal representation.

Sonia Denis, Rashaad Hall, Nabila Hossain
Sonia Denis, Rashaad Hall, Nabila Hossain

OWTL: What’s the main thing that you hope that your audience takes away from watching Brown Girls, and who are you most hoping to reach with this series?

Fati: I think that one of the things that I hope, and Sam has said this, but like people of color exist with very complicated lives and identities and intersections and that like there is a lot of cross-friendship and cross-solidarity work that happens throughout communities and across many racial lines. And I think that that’s what I want as a big thing. And then a smaller thing, and actually the reason I wrote the show, is I want to create something that is a joyous celebration of identities for my different communities and I really hope that my friends and the communities that Sam and I come from will sit and be able to watch this and enjoy it and laugh and in this politically turbulent time which is strange because America is always politically turbulent for people of color and queer people is just like feel a sense of happiness and a sense of like “we’re going to be okay, we’re fine, even though we’re struggling, the shit we’re up against. We have each other and we’re good.”  I think that’s what I hope happens, what about you Sam?

Sam: I’m just interested in adding to the narrative of the different representations of women of color. I’m not interested in being The Voice of that, but I am interested in making it so that we have like multiple amounts of representation and I think that if you’re a young brown person, coming up in the world, it’s not fair to only have one. It’s not fair to have none, for sure, but it’s also not fair to only have one.  And I just want to add to that and to do Fati’s story justice and to do justice to these characters and allow them to be fully grown human beings that we all fall in love with or hate! That’s okay.  I just want people to be invested in them.

I want to create something that is a joyous celebration of identities for my different communities and I really hope that my friends and the communities that Sam and I come from will sit and be able to watch this and enjoy it and laugh and in this politically turbulent time

OWTL:  Fati I’d love to build off your answer quickly.  Right now, there are so many people (many of them controversial) at the forefront not only of feminism but of the social justice movement in general and we’re just wondering who each of you wish would be “the face” of these movements as far as celebrities and stuff like that? Another way of wording that — Who is you’re, like, number one role model or someone you would say is “doing it right”?

Fati: That’s such a hard question! Honestly, I don’t think I necessarily look at celebrities for that. I think there’s a lot of really great celebrities who do a lot of really great work. But I think that, for example, Page May, who does work on Assata’s Daughters is from Chicago and is incredible! And I think Page’s organizing is incredible. And I think Mariame Kaba who is an organizer is incredible. And they do this work that is unbelievable and I think is a really great model for what it means to be an organizer and an active part of a community and actively making different communities better.  Yeah, Page May, Mariame Kaba, Eve Ewing, so many people who I look at on a personal level. And like, they have large platforms, but like I trust Paige, Miriam and Eve a lot in terms of like what they say and what their critical analysis and how they choose to talk about social justice and stuff and I’m always learning from them.  Even if it’s just on Twitter or from articles that they write.  Just like hearing them speak at arches and organizing and I really appreciate them.

Sam:  Yes to all of Fati’s answers.  Also I think Melissa Duprey who is actually in our cast is doing some awesome work in chicago with Free Street Theater.  I follow Roxane Gay a lot. Her shit is dope, and everytime she makes a move I’m like YES.   And she’s just so aware of how she’s able to make it. And like she just pulled her book from a publisher because they offered this alt-right guy [Milo Yiannopolous] a contract, and she was just like “I understand why I’m in a place to actually make this decision, and I understand not everyone is in a place to be able to make a decision like this, but I cannot sleep at night if my book comes out like this.” And I just thought that was a dope ass move.

OWTL: Yeah, She’s a badass.  I just read that this morning too and she was like Ii don’t know who, if anyone, will publish this book but I hope it doesn’t just sit on a shelf forever” and I was just like “Holy shit, me too though. I really want to read it.”  This is just a fun one, but if you could have any actor or actress or film-maker/tv person join the team for Brown Girls next season, who would it be?

Sam: EFFIE BROWN.  She’s that producer who was on project Greenlight who [basically] told Matt Damon to ‘go fuck himself.’  I feel like she’d be the dopest.

Fati: I would love to have Donald Glover as our producer. I mean, I would die. How amazing.

Sam: Oh my god, yes!

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For the record, because we always love to ask, Fati and Sam’s favorite Disney Channel Original Movies are Brink and Smart House, respectively.