Ariana DeBose on smashing sexist theatre tropes and playing a ‘messy’ ally in Schmigadoon!
Ariana DeBose was excited to play a progressive force for change in Apple TV’s new musical comedy series Schmigadoon!.
DeBose plays Emma Tate in the series, a school teacher who is unafraid to challenge the conservative forces around her. She lives her life to the beat of her own drum, always refusing to bow down to the group of concerned parents who try to stop her from teaching children the lessons she wants to teach them.
Speaking to PinkNews, DeBose said she jumped at the opportunity to star in Schmigadoon! – which she stars in alongside legends like Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski and Alan Cumming – because it takes “accountability and ownership” over old musical theatre tropes and then tears them to pieces.
“It acknowledges it and it goes further, and then shows you how they’re unnecessary,” she says. “I really loved Emma because she just sort of was. She wasn’t throwing her identity in anyone’s face. She just walks about town sharing her ideas, not in a way that feels pushy, but just for the sake of sharing and for the sake of wanting to grow with her community – which sometimes is received and sometimes is not – but I love that she’s so outspoken.”
PinkNews spoke to the Hamilton and The Prom star about her role in the comedy series that has captured the hearts of musical theatre fans.
PinkNews: What drew you to the role of Emma?
Ariana Debose: I loved Emma – I love that she was like, ‘No, I don’t need to be married. I’m alright, thank you.’ But she’s never the one talking about that, everyone else is always talking about it, which I think is something we see frequently. There were so many reasons, but ultimately I just loved how she owned every part of who she was.
In Schmigadoon!, Emma says the local “Mothers Against the Future” group is trying to stop her from teaching certain topics, which is obviously true to life. Was it important to you to represent those oppressive forces?
I loved having the opportunity to play an educator – my mother is an educator, she teaches eighth grade social studies, actually. And I’ve seen throughout the years how school systems and bureaucracy have infiltrated the system and kind of prevented her from truly teaching. We look at young people and we try to measure them by a test score as opposed to what they actually know. When you teach a student to just study for a test as opposed to learning something, that’s not really education.
It’s got to be so frustrating for educators around the world, because all they really want to do is truly teach, and we’ve forgotten what that actually is, I think. But it was important to me to take that on in a way that was authentic. It’s refreshing to see an educator say that, to see a woman who is also a feminist saying that, and to watch someone who has real care for her students truly seek the right way to deliver information. You watch how she handles Josh Skinner and how she turns something that could be very awkward into a teachable moment. That is real education – taking the moments you’re in and knowing there’s a way to communicate so that you can be heard as opposed to shouting about it.
Cecily Strong’s character jokes that women characters in old-school musicals were “so underwritten”, and the show draws attention to the mistreatment of minorities in the genre. Was that part of the draw for you?
It’s important to me always, not just going into this particular show. I’m always looking for a project that has well-written female characters, but specifically when you look at Schmigadoon!, we have two other male characters who are part of the LGBTQ community as well, and while Emma is straight – we don’t really delve into that side of her here – but for me, as a queer-identifying woman, to have the opportunity to play a straight character, that was absolutely thrilling for me. And to play a character that was massively accepting of all people – I got to portray a woman that was a real ally.
Not only is this character derived from the Golden Age, but she is well-written, she is dynamic, and she is not perfect. She’s not an image of perfection, she’s actually a little bit messy. But she gets to be an ally, she gets to be a conduit for change. It’s a rarity, in my opinion, and a rarity specifically in the musical theatre genre. So it’s been a real pleasure to work with writers who embrace these facts and try to write from a place that’s more inclusive.
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If you could take an old-school, Golden Age musical and make it queer, what one would you pick and why?
Oh, now that is intriguing! I’ve never really thought about that, but now it’s going to be what I think about for quite a while. One of my favourite musicals is White Christmas – it’s not quite Golden Age, but it is of a time – I would love to see what would happen if Vera-Ellen’s character was queer, I think that would be really interesting. But then I guess you lose the whole construct of it being ‘boy, girl, boy, girl’, but who cares? That would have been fascinating, or at least make her bisexual or pansexual.
You set up the Unruly Hearts initiative with Jo Ellen Pellman after starring in The Prom. Do you have a message for LGBT+ youth out there?
When we launched the Unruly Hearts Initiative, we wanted to build a bridge, so that no matter where you are on your journey with sexual identity, your gender expression, that you had a place to go and find resources, and the Unruly Hearts Initiative will remain that. And that is really exciting. You’re never alone. Honestly, sometimes if you just look up, you will find exactly what you need. So never give up on finding those people who are ready and willing to support you. Never be afraid to ask for help. I can tell you what, for myself, the second I actually opened my eyes and just started asking, I began to receive. So never doubt that – never doubt yourself.
The first three episodes of Schmigadoon! Are available on Apple TV now. The remaining three episodes will be released weekly.