“Must be nice, not having to be a bread-maker and a breadwinner all at the same time,” Reem Assil muses, her hands kneading dough for mana’eesh in the fourth episode of “Normal Ain’t Normal”, a four-part anthology series that reflects on the pandemic. In the episode, Assil speaks directly to viewers about the power dynamics embedded in the restaurant industry, the economic precarity of so many of its workers, and the backhanded appreciation of food made by people of color.
“Normal Ain’t Normal,” executive produced by and co-starring Rosario Dawson, takes to task systems of power and abuse that have been revealed or exacerbated by the pandemic. We watch as a woman with tens of thousands of dollars in COVID–related medical debt struggles to regain her footing, as born-and-raised Oaklanders contend with rising rent prices, and as a low-wage worker experiences job automation and the dehumanization of his colleagues and friends. The show rebukes what is considered normal in U.S. culture and invites viewers to ask whether things can be different.
Episodes are released weekly on Buzzfeed starting Sept. 27. Prism spoke with Dawson by Zoom. The interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Prism: What was the creative process like for developing the vision and scripts for the series? How did you decide what stories you wanted to tell?
Rosario Dawson: We were talking two years ago about what was going on, and the issues that we wanted to portray, especially issues that affect all of us, are health care, housing, and workers’ rights. We wanted to highlight what we are all seeing around restaurant closures or the disregard for essential workers—and to balance that with humor. We also wanted to show what actual solutions were being implemented.
For each of the episodes, we kept going through different drafts and came up with this idea to connect them all by having them be mostly monologue, inner monologue, or narrative that leads up to a big rant. That inner monologue offered an opportunity to shoot in a different way, which was important because we were filming during COVID. [Assil’s] rant at the end is inspired by what Spike Lee has done for his projects, and he’s a huge inspiration for me and Yvan [Iturriaga, a co-creator/director/writer].
In one instance, Assil approached Josh [Healey, a co-creator and writer] around the same time because of what she was going through, feeling like she was drowning in the pressure of trying to take care of her workers and keep her restaurants fluid during the middle of the pandemic and a shutdown. Yet simultaneously, the restaurant industry was highlighting her in a tokenizing kind of way. She felt like she was spinning and wanted to find a solution that was going to be worker centered. She came on board, and that was how episode four, “Share the Pie,” came about.
For “Not Machine Enough,” Iturriaga was very particular about using his [own] working-class story and drawing inspiration from and honoring his family, the men, and the people he grew up around.
Prior to the release, we did have questions of, “Will this still be relevant?” Or even, “Will we have gone past this point of reflection in a year and a half?” But then we were in Oakland, California, during our double screenings, which went fantastically at the Oakland Museum, and everyone was wearing masks. You could see in the room that for some folks, this was a nerve-racking in-person event, and it hit close to home to see someone panicking in a crowd and worried about their health even with vaccines because people are still so vulnerable.
Prism: Oakland plays such an important role in the series, not just as a background setting for the episodes, but it almost seems like it’s a character itself. Why did you choose to situate the stories in Oakland?
Dawson: Oakland is where Iturriaga and Healey live. Oakland is the home of Offsides Productions. I first started collaborating with them on their original show, “The North Pole Show,” an Oakland-based show that gets its name from how people refer to themselves—as polar bears. In the first season, they’re being pushed out due to gentrification. Healey and Iturriaga work in collaboration with organizations and highlight actions at the end of the episodes that can be taken so you can engage.
I ended up doing a cameo in their second season of “The North Pole Show,” which had to do a lot more with immigration. Slowly, we started pitching and developing other shows together, and then the pandemic hit, and we pivoted to this. Healey and Iturriaga are Oakland-based, they’re Oakland organizers, you know, that’s the crew, that’s the team. Oakland has a rich history, from Black Panthers, [to] everything that’s going on now. It’s a special place to continue remembering our history of organizing, our history of community centeredness, and ability to move forward. Oakland is also one of the hardest hit places for a lot of issues around housing, gentrification, and access to health care, so it makes sense to tell those stories where they’re happening.
Prism: With this intentional disappearing of the history of Oakland, through gentrification and other forms of commercial and state violence, how do you think storytelling can act as a way to keep the memory of a place alive? Can storytelling push back against that disappearing?
Dawson: I immediately think of Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” and Spike Lee’s “25th Hour.” When you have an artist that has an incredibly well-rounded perspective on storytelling and the possibilities of it, it’s an opportunity—if you do it right—to connect people to ideas and perspectives that they might not have otherwise been presented; they might not meet certain people, they might not have certain experiences, they might not be connected to certain issues.
You can have them go through a journey, an empathetic journey, in which they connect with and relate to a character and their perspective because of their job, what they look [like], the words they say, and the emotions they bring out that remind you that regardless of color, age, or culture, we’re all human beings who have quite similar experiences. We can be reminded of how interdependent we are and how what we do over here affects people elsewhere, what our responsibility is to each other, and what accountability looks like. If you do it right, it’s memorable.
If you know how to set that tone, you can really put it into someone’s being like it’s their own personal experience. Art and film can be so rich and inspiring and provocative that it forces them into action. It keeps it on their mind and has the power to change them.
Favianna Rodriguez is an Oakland-based artist who talks about how culture precedes policy. If you want to affect policy or if you want to effect real change, you have to do something that culturally shifts the narrative. Right now, the gatekeepers of culture and commerce have been withholding access to keep the narrative a certain way and to sustain a certain power dynamic. We can interrupt that by changing the narrative.
The stories we tell and these narratives affect history. They affect how, or if, we decide to show up for each other. In reclaiming, telling, and pushing our stories, we shift the narrative that has long since been out of our control. This also gives us an opportunity to just share and connect with each other and try something else because what has been happening can’t be normalized anymore because it wasn’t normal. It was dangerous. It was scary. It hurt a lot of people, and it’s what got us into this problem in the first place. So we need to shift gears, and the best way to do that is to open up the gates and allow more people to speak for themselves.
“Normal Ain’t Normal” can be streamed here starting Sept. 27