Editor’s note: the following interview contains discussion and depiction of blackface, both historical and as presented in Amazon’s series Them.
Little Marvin’s new Amazon series Them has provoked a visceral reaction from critics and audiences. Them follows a Black family moving from North Carolina to Los Angeles in 1953, and the series does not blink in its depiction of the racist atrocities committed against the family in both the deep south and American suburbia (several of its episodes required additional content warnings at the top of them). The anti-Black violence the series portrays is extreme and difficult to watch, and the show has sparked much conversation about the continued presentation of Black trauma as entertainment, with many saying it’s time storytellers (and the platforms hiring them) move past this facet of Black history. Others maintain the erasure of this shameful legacy, one with which this country is still grappling, is more dangerous.
Jeremiah Birkett’s depiction of “Da Tap Dance Man” is perhaps just as shocking to modern viewers. As problematic a visual as you're likely to find in 2021 mainstream entertainment, Da Tap Dance Man is a blackface-wearing minstrel stereotype who manifests to the Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) as a kind of cross between malevolent Jiminy Cricket and self-loathing reflection. Birkett’s Da Tap Dance Man is a terrifying, angry, uncomfortable, performance that in many ways personifies Them’s complicated attempt to have a confrontational reckoning with America’s anti-Black history.
FANGORIA spoke with Birkett this week about his performance and the series as a whole, and whether he expected the explosive public reaction to this project.
I'm curious if you have a memory of when you personally saw blackface for the first time.
Wow. It's hard to actually pinpoint any moment when any of these horrific things were experienced for the first time, because it's kind of all there at birth. My first memories, the first year of memory I can remember situations happening. I can remember in elementary school, one of the kids calling me N-word, and the teacher yelling at us because we were arguing. And I said, "Hey, he called me the N-word." And the teacher said, "Well, you're acting like one." So, yeah. I can't remember the first time any of this stuff has happened because it just seems like it's always been there.
Was there any hesitation in taking this role?
I don't know if you remember Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle? There’s an idea presented through that film that Black actors shouldn’t be taking certain parts.
Absolutely. And that's a great point of contrast, because what that film shows, that stereotypical Hollywood note, "make it blacker. Make it make more ghetto. Do it more like this." It wasn't any of that here. The most important thing was that I knew that somebody was going to do this role. Somebody was going to do it. And if I did it, I felt like I was capable of breathing actual life into this character, not making him a Hollywood Shuffle stereotype, but giving him three dimensions.
Horror is in a moment right now where so many people are coming at the genre with the sentiment of "horror is my safe space. It's where I go to be comforted. And it's where I go to feel seen and empowered.” And this show is not that.
No. Not at all. It's not a safe space.
And your character in Them is maybe ground zero of all that. He’s a walking content warning. Every episode that you're in, it says right at the top - “warning: blackface.” It feels like a part where there needs to be conversations in pre-production about boundaries and about responsibility and about goals.
Absolutely. I have always in my career played controversial characters. I've been pimps and prostitutes and murderers. And I've always taken on these roles because I felt like it was important to give them three-dimensionality. I didn't want Tap Dance Man to be a cartoon or stereotype. I wanted him to come from a real place.
And yet he's such an unreal character, so how do you navigate having him be "real" when he’s at the same time a living embodiment of a stereotypical caricature?
I wanted to show his pain, his anger, his frustration, the sorrow behind this blackface, behind this minstrel costume, and wanted to make sure that when people looked at this character, that they saw this as the historic pain and anger and sorrow that African Americans go through historically, and are going through right now.
Those things come to a surprising head in your character; we’re shocked out of the gate from your appearance, and then at the kind of buffoonish, racist mannerisms the character has. But then that unpredictable anger bubbles up and suddenly it gets really grim, and really pissed off. There's such a nuanced specificity to what you're doing in this role. How much of that was on the page, and then how much of that did you build on when you immersed yourself into that role?
There's a lot on the page. Little Marvin is an incredible writer, but I think it's a mashup of his writing, a lot of the research that I did, I looked into minstrel shows and blackface performances. And strangely enough, I came across one performance; it's a movie called Everybody Sing, and it's Judy Garland doing blackface. And that was when the character started to really come alive to me, as far as the creepiness is concerned, because I don't know if you've ever seen this, but she does “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in blackface. And Judy Garland has these very specific, interesting body movements. And then when you layer the blackface and the costume on top of that, it both creeped me out and angered me. And as soon as I saw that, I was like, "Yeah, that's it. This is the feeling that I want to have.” I wanted to be able to creep people out, but I also wanted to get a sense of the anger and pain behind this character.
And then when I got together with Ashley Thomas; that brother, the work that he was doing, it basically completed me, and the collaborative effort between the two of us, it really allowed me to bring Da Tap Dance Man home.
The two performances are tethered, in that Da Tap Dance Man is like this shameful, twisted image of how Henry thinks the world sees him.
Exactly. There's a mask that we, as Black people, are historically forced to wear. There's a dance that we have to do. And Da Tap Dance Man is the embodiment of that. Henry's character is trying to keep it together. He's trying to make this work for his family. He's got the new job, he's got the new house, and he wants to have his family experience this American dream, but it keeps turning into a nightmare. And that's a constant storyline for African Americans that, to make this work, to integrate ourselves into this so-called American dream, there's this mask that we have to constantly wear, this dance that we have to constantly do. We can't be too angry, but internally, we don't want to let people walk over us. And so just that frustration and that struggle that we constantly have to go through - that manifests for Henry.
And Da Tap Dance Man manifests itself basically to get Henry to stand up for himself in a way that we often don’t. We don't go there. We don't cross that line. But Da Tap Dance Man shows up as a little devil on his shoulder to make him cross that line. To stand up for himself in the most direct and, unfortunately, in a most violent way.
I'm curious to hear a bit about the physicality of your performance.
When I first started rehearsing the character, before I even got into the makeup and the wardrobe, there was a specific affectation that I wanted to take on. I wanted him to be theatrical. And the dialogue itself spoke to that. Theatrical movements, filtered through a very, very angry, very, very frustrated and pained place. One of the biggest inspirations for that was watching The Great White Hope, in which James Earl Jones plays a boxer, Jack Jefferson. And there's a scene where Jack has been stripped of his title, they're not letting him box anymore. And so he's been forced to do minstrel shows. And he's on stage, and he doesn't really want to do it. And his wife is prodding him, "This is the only way we're going to eat. We have to do this. We have no choice."
And he sees his manager in the audience. And the anger starts to boil over in him, but then this big smile comes over his face, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then he starts dancing and then the dance becomes a stomp. And then you see that smile and that dance, and he's doing the performance, but you can tell that this is not a happy minstrel here. This was not a happy blackface show. This is pure anger. This is him fighting back through this smile. It's just a brilliant moment. And that is, again, historic. Finding ways to stand up for yourself, finding ways to fight back, but still having to do that dance, having to put on that happy face. And I saw that when I was a kid.
So these are things that I've been preparing for as an artist and as a human being all my life, because life imitating art, the consistency of me as a person having to go through these things, and me as an artist having to interpret them. There’s a moment in Them where Betty Wendell (Alison Pill) calls Lucky Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) the N-word. And Lucky goes across the street and slaps her in the face. I actually lived that moment. I experienced it with my mother as a child in a restaurant. A waitress called my mother the N-word, and she politely told me to relax, and got up and took care of business. So that was a real moment for me. There's so many moments in this show that just come from real-life experiences.
Do you have a memory of seeing yourself in costume for the first time and what your feelings were?
The first time I put the costume on was at the fitting, and I have to give it up to (costume designer) Mari-An Ceo and (makeup FX artist) Howard Berger, because they put Da Tap Dance Man on my body, and this was a complete collaborative effort. I talked about how working with Ashley made it come alive, but the makeup and the wardrobe were also a huge part of that.
I remember the first time I actually started doing moves, the tap dance moves, which is not in my repertoire at all, I'm not a tap dancer, but the production had hired me a choreographer to teach me some moves. And so the first time I actually used those moves was in the wardrobe fitting. It was the first time I put the costume on and I just started to move around like Da Tap Dance Man. And I started to go into the hallway and I had some space to start doing some moves.
And what happens with me is I end up going into my own world, so I didn't even realize that I was in a hallway with other offices. And then people started to come out of their offices -- all part of the production -- and then I looked up and saw people from every department with stunned faces.
There’s a visceral reaction to seeing your character. It's a heavy visual. I'm curious if that carries over into the set. This is a heavy, heavy visual to see just chilling out on set or at craft services.
No, that was a big struggle for me, because I've been on a thousand sets in my career, and my normal demeanor is to enjoy everyone's company, from craft services all the way to executive producers. People wanting to laugh and enjoy my company and take selfies. And I had to constantly remind myself that I was in this costume, because I would sometimes forget. And we wanted to keep focus on the gravity of what we were doing.
And were there any protocols on set in terms of making sure that people aren't taking selfies with this very loaded, problematic image, or how was that approached?
They did a very good job. I wasn't constantly on set; as you can see from the show, I pop up once here and then once there, and it starts to grow and get bigger and bigger and bigger. I think that they had already been dealing with the heavy material long before I got there, so by the time I got to set everyone was extremely sensitive and cognizant of what we were doing. So that was never an issue.
It was more of an issue for me than others. It was me coming to set and having to remind myself, “remember you're in this costume, remember you're in the makeup.” And to remember that this was not cute, and it's not fun. But at the same time, I'm an actor doing a performance, which is fun for me. So, you can't do a good job... If you don't really get into this costume, and the makeup, you can't do a good job if you don't do all of that and enjoy the pain, enjoy the anger, really embody it. I use the word “enjoy” loosely, but I think you get my meaning that you have to put on this performance.
This feels like a bittersweet achievement. You've created, for better or worse, an iconic screen monster that is, in terms of performance, up there with Freddy Krueger; it's up there with Candyman or Pennywise. But in a way, it's always going to be in a box, because people will never be able to celebrate it the way that they've come to celebrate those monsters.
Let’s hope not. That would be missing the point. This isn't Candyman. This isn't Freddy Krueger. This is coming from a real, historic, horrific situation, that real people had to deal with, and real people had to struggle through. And so, yeah, I understood when I took the role that this was going to be something that I was going to be able to remember well for myself, but wasn’t going to garner me that kind of pop culture exposure, because you have to treat it with kid gloves. You have to be very careful with how you take it out to the real world.
Having seen the show now, did you know it was going to be so confrontational and so angry? It feels like it’s hearkening back to an angrier era of horror, an angrier era of Black filmmaking that I think people hadn't had on their radar for a while.
When I was entering into the project, I was hoping that we would tell the story that way. That's the perspective that I came from. And so when I saw it, it was that x 1000. It blew me away. I wasn't prepared. And even though I knew that that's what we were doing on set, and that's the perspective that I was coming from, I was blown away in a positive sense with how aggressive we were with telling the story and not holding back.
There's not a small amount of anger on the part of folks who are asking, "Why are we still telling these stories? Why do we have to keep showing this Black pain?" Where are you on that question?
Honestly, I don't have a problem with the backlash. I think everybody's perspective is valid. My perspective is that I don't think that these stories should ever be put away. It's very painful telling these stories, but if we put them away, we don't have anything to draw from. We don't have any reference. And we are dealing with history today. There's the George Floyd murder trial going on right now in the same city that another police killing of an unarmed Black man has just happened. This stuff isn't going away, so we shouldn't stop telling these stories, because it is our history. It is who we are. It's our past. It's our present. And we're fighting really hard by continuing to tell these stories to hopefully not let it be our future.