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The cast of Hulu's Woke talks trauma, truth, and, yes, toast that talks back
The term “woke” is often used to define a sort of performative social justice, especially as it pertains to the policing of Black and Brown bodies in America. But in Hulu’s new comedy Woke, the term refers to an awakening for the main character Keef Knight, played by Lamorne Morris (New Girl, Bloodshot), an unassuming syndicated cartoonist living in San Francisco who just happens to be Black. One day, while walking down the street and hanging up posters for an event, Keef becomes a victim of police brutality simply because, as the police tell him, “he fits the description.” Read: He’s a Black man.
Co-written by real-life cartoonist Keith Knight, aka “The Gentleman Cartoonist,” the show is based on Knight’s own experiences as an African American syndicated cartoonist who often writes about police brutality in his strip The K Chronicles. Art imitates life when Keef’s white roommate comes to his rescue and is not only not stopped by the police but physically pushes one of them away. Keef is not physically hurt, but the mental trauma remains, as it does for so many African Americans who are victims of racial profiling.
Knight co-produced and even co-wrote several episodes and was often on set working with showrunner and director Maurice Marable. “Whenever I met somebody who sold something to Hollywood, they would always just be angry and bitter, because it was out of their hands and then somebody just took it and screwed it up,” Knight tells SYFY WIRE. “I wanted to make sure that if it was going to get screwed up, I would be right there and be part of it.”
Knight’s repressed trauma of the incident surfaces in visions of inanimate objects coming to life and talking to him. This includes animated butter, toast, a pair of hilarious 40-ounce malt liquor bottles, a thoughtful garbage can, and one very judgmental Sharpie. His equally entertaining roommates Gunther (played by Blake Anderson of Workaholics and DOPE) and Clovis (played by comedian T. Murph) try to help, as does Keef’s new friend, activist Ayana, played by actress and comedian Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live). SYFY WIRE spoke to the cast about the new show, its timely message, and what it’s like when a comedy’s “one Black friend” finally becomes the main character.
What were your first reactions when you saw the Woke script?
Sasheer Zamata: I was really excited. I don't think I've seen too many things in mainstream media that talk about the lasting effects Black people have after a racially charged incident [with police]. I love that the show doesn’t shy away from that, and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Blake Anderson: I was super excited about the project because you know, it's dealing with societal issues and then there's this whole other element of Keef’s “woke” mind seeing things coming alive.
T. Murph: Oh yeah, it was hilarious. How these inanimate objects were reacting to him. Like the 40-ounce bottles who are literally roasting him in the liquor store. There's nothing like this on TV.
Lamorne Morris: I felt like I was being upstaged yet again in my career. On New Girl, it was this damn cat that I was walking around with all the time. Now I gotta share a screen with an [animated] marker and a piece of toast and butter that aren't even there.
Just kidding, it was great!
When you think of acting, we forget about those, those moments when we were kids where we would just pretend, and that’s what sparked my love of performing. So when I'm performing with inanimate objects, I just feel like I'm right at home.
So much has happened in the world since you first shot this, does the story feel different now?
Morris: What's going through my head now is that it's unfortunate, to be honest with you, it's very sad. I'm proud of the show. I love what we got to do. I love the crew, the cast, everybody on board, but I'm sad that the show has to exist. No matter what year you put this show in, it would be timely.
Anderson: What we're talking about now, is what we should have been talking about quite some time. It's just cool to have Woke be a series that approaches it with a really creative and comedic lens.
You really don't see characters like Keef in comedies. It feels like "The One Black Friend" got his own show.
Morris: Yes. It literally is. And I would be that one Black friend.
How much of yourself do you see in your character?
Morris: It definitely mirrors my life. I was very ambiguous politically. I was just kind of “I just want to watch basketball and act.” Have a drink here and there and live my life. And then I was just bombarded with all this stuff and my body let me know that I had to address it in some way.
Zamata: I feel like Ayana is very determined to use her voice for good. And be very vocal and motivate people to act on the things that she thinks are important. Like her, I want to continue to use my voice and my platform to talk about things that I think are important, because my voice is valid.
T. Murph: Me and Clovis, I'll say we're alike because we will fight hard for our friends. The difference is me and Clovis would go about it differently. Because Clovis is chasing the bag, whereas I'm going to be more concerned about your mental well-being.
What is the one thing that you hope people come away from this season with?
T. Murph: What I want people to understand what to take from this show is no matter what type of Black person you think someone is, we're all susceptible to racism. People think, “Oh not you! You went to school, you got a degree, you live downtown! Not you!” All of that doesn't mean we don't deal with racism.
Anderson: Hopefully this reaches people who don't see the injustice and racial [tension] through the news, but they can see it through a comedic and creative place on this show.
Zamata: We use comedy as a tool to break down people's defenses so that they are more open to learning about other perspectives. And I hope people see that we are able to talk about things that might be scary or uncomfortable and then have fun at the same time. So talk to your friends about these issues. It doesn't have to be weird or awkward.
Morris: At the end of the day, what I want fans to leave with is "Hey, you know, that guy reminds me of me." If they didn't feel motivated to use their voice before, maybe they'll feel more confident to do it [after they see the show], because the walk Keef walks is familiar to most of us.
Season one of Woke is currently streaming on Hulu.