Choreographer Jamila Glass On Reviving Black Leads In Musicals For New Season of 'Dear White People'

Nearly five years ago, Dear White People found its way onto our Netflix queue and into our hearts as we became invested in the growth of the students of the fictitious Winchester University. At the predominately white Ivy League institution, we witness the evolution of Samantha White (Logan Browning), Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine-Featherson), Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), and more as they navigate college and tackle issues experienced by students of color. From coming out stories of the LGBTQ+ community to biracial and multiracial identity acceptance, the comedy-drama satirical series has become one of the most highly anticipated shows on the streaming platform.

Now back for a fourth and final musical season, our favorite characters are in their senior year, once again addressing issues of racial discrimination and romance. And Jamila Glass, who is the first Black Artistic Director of LA Contemporary Dance Company, has been tapped as the principal director of Dear White People by Justin Simien himself.

“I think that this is the beginning of what Justin [Simien] wants to do,” Glass told ESSENCE about the final season. The musical and movement elements serve as a metaphor for key themes in the show, further exploring conversations about race and racism in modern-day America, Glass explained. “I’m just really happy that I was able to play an important role in that.”

What started as praise dancing in church at the age of six for Glass evolved into a two-decade career as a well-respected dancer and choreographer who has worked with brands and shows from American Apparel, Samsung, TEDx, and American Horror Story. In 2005, Glass joined LA Contemporary Dance Company as a founding member. “My career blossomed beyond concert dance into commercial dance and choreography,” she told ESSENCE. “I think that’s the testament of holding onto a dream, even though you don’t know what it’ll look like because I, even now, I feel like I’m still playing catch up in a way, juxtaposed to people who were dancing their whole lives. I just feel really grateful for how my life has unfolded on the dance side.”

Following the final season’s premiere, Glass spoke with ESSENCE about working with Simien on the fourth volume of Dear White People, the major surprises in store for this season of the Netflix original series, and the significance of transforming this season into a musical number to remember.

ESSENCE: How did the opportunity to work with Justin Simien on the Dear White People series come about?

Jamila Glass: I had worked with Justin two or three times prior. Most recently, I choreographed his second feature, Bad Hair, and Justin and I also went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston together. That was where I learned that Justin loves musicals. In terms of Dear White People, I knew that Justin wanted to do something musical related, after working with him with Bad Hair. I assumed it would be a musical episode because that’s what most shows who delve into this world do. When I found out that it was a musical season, I was shocked because that’s really bold. Then I said, “Well, of course, because Justin’s bold.” With it being his last season and him really wanting to do a musical, I think it made sense to just go for it.

What I love about how he and Jaclyn [Moore] crafted it is the 90s Tupac musical element. That allows the viewer, at least viewers in my age group, to have this nostalgia for this time, when we loved this music and even the shows that were on television. It’s like this kind of golden era that we miss. It was really exciting to be a part of crafting what that would look like movement-wise for the series. It was also very new for me because, while I had choreographed or done movement direction for television before, this is the heftiest job that I’ve done and the longest job that I’ve had. And then, there was a thing called the pandemic at the same time. It was really a saving grace during that time to be around such creative people on a show that I’m a fan of because I’ve been a fan of the show [and] I was a fan of the movie.

To have people of color, particularly Black people, at the center is special because as a person who has been doing commercial work as a dancer, we’re often the token in a cast, a musical cast, or just commercial jobs in general. Definitely with narrative storytelling, if there’s any kind of musical number, Black folks are not going to be the highest number of people in the scene. It was important for me to be able to have a say in who was cast and bring in incredible dancers who could elevate the stories. Knowing that this is not something that we have, we don’t have a lot of options to be ourselves in musicals. I tried to think, “What was the last Black musical?,” and I think it’s from maybe decades ago, which is really sad because when we’re in that genre, it’s always exciting.

ESSENCE: What were some of your favorite scenes to shoot in Dear White People: Volume 4?

Glass: My all-time favorite is definitely the varsity show because we got to get pretty wild in those scenes. That was also one of the scenes that had the largest number of dancers which, thankfully, Lionsgate and Netflix okayed. We got to have a lot of fun, and to a point where I wish I was in the scene with them. It was a whole lot of fun to figure out how to craft that scene in a way that made sense for the story, for the narrative, and also figure out how to choreograph 30 dancers and interweave the actors into that scene as well.

Any time that I got a chance to be with actors, like Deron Horton for “Pretty Brown Eyes,” that was a really fun time because I knew that was an important scene for Justin. That’s also an iconic song so how do I craft this in a way that is the right amount of dance and movement direction that feels natural for these characters and what’s happening for them at this moment in the story? That was one of the most challenging ones for me to create. It was the most satisfying to be in rehearsal with Deron and Wade [F. Wilson] and to see how Justin crafted the final edit with the sprinklers, the lighting, and everything was just really cool to see how all of these elements work together to create these moments.

ESSENCE: While shooting Dear White People, how did you overcome the difficulties and safety protocols as a result of the pandemic? How did you practice mindfulness while being so close to the dancers and actors?

Glass: I have a database of dancers who I like to call upon depending on what the role calls for. I quickly ran out of my database because the best dancers in the industry were working. I had to go outside of my database and kind of trust people, who are also in my network, to bring people on that I had never seen in person before. That was one of the challenges – to kind of trust that things would work out.

In terms of working in masks for 12 hours, dancing and sweating in masks for 12 hours, that’s not fun. The dancers were pretty much understanding of the situation that we were in and the fact that they were blessed enough to be working during the pandemic when a lot of dancers were out of work. It was something that we just had to get used to. It was challenging with the bigger group numbers because on camera, those scenes are very close knit and everyone’s in close proximity to each other. Being very mindful of how I could craft that in a way that serves the story, but still allows people to be safe when we’re in the rehearsal process. That kind of management was a lot and sometimes we were not able to get as much rehearsal time as we wanted. I would have to negotiate more based on the scene and that was a challenge for sure.

ESSENCE: For those who haven’t yet seen the new season of Dear White People, what can we expect to see?

Glass: In terms of what to expect, you can expect a 90s jukebox musical with some of your favorite hits. You can expect the same type of hard issues that Dear White People addresses, pulled straight from the headlines with some song and dance in between. The core of the show is still the same. You’re going to see the characters that you’ve grown to love over the past years. You’re going to see how they grow and where they go. That’s pretty satisfying for people who are fans of the show.

I think you’re going to be surprised by the talent that exists in the cast. There are so many people that have powerhouse voices. There are so many people who know how to dance. You can tell that everyone is committed to the musical endeavor as a season. I think that they will be surprised to see the level of talent and the skill. Honestly, the favorites will probably be the same as my favorites – the varsity show and the hallway scene. There’s also a top number that might surprise people. The music is interwoven in a way that I think fits the series as well, in terms of how hard-hitting the series is on important issues. The music supports that. The music and the dance support that, and it’s fun. Musicals are fun.

Haven’t had a moment to watch the new season of Dear White People? Check out the official fourth-season trailer for the Netflix original series choreographed by Glass herself!

https://youtube.com/watch?v=oQ1XS3W4plU%3Ffeature%3Doembed
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