Women of color call the shots in the Chicago-based webseries Brown Girls | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Women of color call the shots in the Chicago-based webseries Brown Girls

A mostly female cast and crew come together to tell the story of the friendship between writer Fatimah Asghar and musician Jamila Woods.

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Fatimah Asghar and Jamila Woods - MEGAN LEE MILLER
  • Megan Lee Miller
  • Fatimah Asghar and Jamila Woods

When the trailer for Brown Girls, a new Chicago-based webseries, was released this past November, more than 20,000 people watched it over the course of a month. Writers at sites like Autostraddle, Black Nerd Problems, and Vibe were calling it their new favorite webseries of 2017 before the first full episode was even completed. A short preview of the show shared on NowThis's Facebook page in December currently has more than two million views. So what is it about the story, written by Fatimah Asghar, that's causing such a stir?

For one, it's not a common narrative. The series focuses on the friendship between Leila (Nabila Hossain), a queer South Asian writer, and Patricia (Sonia Denis), a black musician—it's partially based on the real-life relationship between Asghar, 27, and her best friend, musician Jamila Woods, also 27. During the past year Woods's career as a singer-songwriter has blown up, thanks to the release of her acclaimed debut album, Heavn, and her collaboration with Chance the Rapper on Coloring Book's "Blessings." Asghar has had her work published in journals like Poetry magazine and Academy of American Poets, and released the chapbook After (Yes Yes Books) in 2015. But before all that, they were just two twentysomething artists in Chicago struggling with relationships, finances, family expectations, and identity issues.

"There's not a lot of stories that put two women of color at the forefront that are of different races," Asghar says. "Usually when women of color of different racial backgrounds are put in media they're at odds with each other like, 'Oh, that person took my man,' or 'Oh, that person took my job.' And I don't like that, because that's just not true to my experience in my communities."

To accurately depict the story, director Sam Bailey assembled a crew of people of color, queer people, and women, some with direct personal connections to Asghar and Woods—for example, Hossain was childhood friends with Asghar and her sisters. With a crowd-funded budget of $20,000, the team shot the series entirely in Pilsen, highlighting the real places where Asghar and Woods spent their time while living in the neighborhood together. The result is an authentic and funny look at a meaningful friendship between two women. The excitement surrounding the seven-episode season's debut has generated release parties in at least a dozen cities around the world, including London, New York, and Asghar's family's hometown of Lahore, Pakistan.

"That's such an important city to my family," Asghar says. "To see them reach out [like that], I was bawling, because that's incredible—these places that kind of mean something to you, in a family lineage of immigration, are responding."

Asghar’s parents moved from Lahore to the United States in the mid-80s, but her mother died from cancer when she was a baby and her father died of a heart attack when she was five. She and her sisters were brought up by a collection of aunts, uncles, and neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then a vibrant community full of immigrants. While growing up Asghar struggled with her Muslim culture, both as it related to how others saw her post-9/11 and how it affected her own thoughts about her ethnicity, sexuality, and burgeoning queerness. It wasn't until college—the same time she met Woods—when she pursued writing and the arts seriously, that she started coming to terms with her identity.

"Poetry helped me understand my race," Asghar says. "It helped me understand things about being an orphan. It helped me understand these things that have been deep wells of pain that I had bottled up and then was like, 'I don't want to tell people that, I don't want people to know this about me because then they're going to pity me or think badly of me.' Being able to say, 'No, there's a lot of strength in these things, this is who I am,' that would not have happened for me without poetry or without art."

Asghar and Woods met as freshmen at Brown University in 2007 after connecting on Facebook through a shared interest in poetry. They instantly hit it off, attending on-campus events together, studying together, and eventually moving in together. While living with two other college friends in Providence, they built a meaningful support system. After graduation, the pair moved to Woods's hometown, Chicago, to explore the city's artistic community. That time in their lives and the bond they formed is at the center of Brown Girls.

"We've both helped each other get through many things," Asghar says, "ranging from small stuff, like picking out outfits for each other when we have shows or an event to go to, to much larger things. She's helped me deal with artistic rejections and low points, moments where I didn't think that my art was important. She's helped me deal with feeling really lonely in this country, as a Muslim and as a South Asian, when I felt like those identities were being attacked by mainstream American rhetoric. She's helped me navigate a lot of stuff around creating healthy, positive relationships—that last thing I feel is represented in the series."

The script began as something Asghar intended to read only for friends—she had no experience in screenwriting and wanted creative feedback. But two of the people present at the private reading, actor and director Bailey and Open TV founder-producer Aymar Jean Christian, immediately approached her about turning it into a series hosted on the site, which focuses on projects created by queer people and people of color.

Bailey and Asghar knew each other from Chicago's live-lit scene, and Asghar shadowed Bailey on the set of her popular Open TV webseries You're So Talented. Bailey wrote, directed, and starred in two seasons of the show, which followed a young black artist growing up in Chicago. Bailey, who studied theater at Columbia College, started the project when she noticed a lack of roles that she could relate to in the theater world. She promised herself she wouldn't do another webseries after that—the amount of work left her exhausted—but when she heard Asghar and Woods's story, she knew she had to direct it.

"I'm really interested in talking about communities of color and queer people and women, but mostly because that's just my life," Bailey says. "Normally when you see those people mixed together in a series in media, it doesn't feel authentic, and I think that's because when that happens people are trying to check boxes, so these people aren't fully complex humans. But for me, these are my friends—it's very obvious to me how they are multilayered, so it's not hard for me to then put their stories in front of the camera and make it feel palpable and real."

Aside from plausibly depicting the relationship between the two main characters, Asghar felt it was important to portray the journey of a South Asian woman figuring out her queerness and sexuality. When she was growing up, there was no one who looked like her in movies or TV shows having sex or exploring those issues. She says she can imagine a completely different life for herself if there had been, and wants to provide an example in the media for others.

"If I can I want to help someone young like me who felt so alienated and felt all of this is taboo, and I can't talk about desire and can't talk about whatever, just feel like they can," Asghar says. "I think that comes in a lot of ways. It comes in silly conversations about pink eye to direct, explicit poems that are about sex and desire. All of those things are important."

While some aspects of each character and their scenarios are fictionalized, others, like Leila and Patricia's constant run-ins with pink eye, are not—Asghar used to get the infection all the time. In the series, when a character contracts pink eye, a conversation arises about best hygiene practices during sex ("Stop eating dirty butt," Patricia says to their infected friend). And Leila and Patricia's struggle to pay bills and rent while trying to pursue their artistic careers was pulled directly from real life.

"Fati's sister would come visit us and be like, why don't you guys have a plunger or food in your fridge? Why are you living like this?" Woods says. "I think that's definitely represented—how we all knew that we wanted to be artists and do all these things, but had these restrictions on it."

When assembling a crew, Bailey thought it was important that the people behind the camera had an understanding of what was happening onscreen. And in the male-dominated field of television production, safe spaces for everyone else to freely provide their input are few and far between.

"It just ended up that the people who were most interested and most qualified to do it were these women, people of color, and queer people," Bailey says. "Our production designer is thinking as a young queer woman, 'What is she interested in?' It's not something that she gets to do often, put her point of view in that."

Assistant director Sarah Coakley, director/producer Sam Bailey, wardrobe stylist Vincent Martell, and location sound Alistair Slaughter
  • Assistant director Sarah Coakley, director/producer Sam Bailey, wardrobe stylist Vincent Martell, and location sound Alistair Slaughter
Cinematographer Hannah Welever, script supervisor Judy Febles, wardrobe stylist Vincent Martell, and production designer Suzannah Linnekin
  • Cinematographer Hannah Welever, script supervisor Judy Febles, wardrobe stylist Vincent Martell, and production designer Suzannah Linnekin
Key grip Mawie Talion, cinematographer Hannah Welever, assistant director Sarah Coakley, and director/producer Sam Bailey - GREG STEPHEN REIGH
  • Greg Stephen Reigh
  • Key grip Mawie Talion, cinematographer Hannah Welever, assistant director Sarah Coakley, and director/producer Sam Bailey

The actors were also able to bring their own experiences to the production. Because of their history, Hossain was able to translate the subtle nuances of Asghar's personal life to the character of Leila.

"When it comes to acting I think that the closest thing you can do to being yourself is being the kind of friends you grew up with," Hossain says. "You know the mannerisms and the accents and the quirky movements. It was nice to see the script and be like, of course that's your family."

Woods says that despite the obvious similarities between herself and Patricia, she sees Denis's portrayal more as the alter ego she wishes she could be. Denis, a local stand-up comic who recently moved to New York, balances her larger-than-life onstage charisma with implicit sympathy.

But Woods doesn't just serve as inspiration for the project—in full best-friend fashion she worked through the script with Asghar during its early stages, making suggestions to further develop the character of Leila. She's also the series' music consultant: the soundtrack is filled with contributions from local hip-hop artists like Drea Smith the Vibe Dealer, Ayanna Woods, and Daryn Alexus, and the theme song was created by Woods in collaboration with Indian musician Lisa Mishra. The duo will perform "Brown Girls Theme" live at the Chicago premiere party at Chicago Art Department on February 15.

"I thought it would be really cool to mix something with her voice and her writing, especially with what she wrote in Hindi, with something that I would write," Woods says, "kind of mimicking what Fati was doing by portraying an interracial friendship."

Pilsen has been featured in film and television before, but Asghar and Woods wanted to highlight lesser-known locations. The characters end up at places like La Catrina Cafe, DIY space the Dojo, and, in an especially beautiful shot from the first episode, the bus stop at 18th and Peoria.

Thanks to the combination of experienced artists working behind the cameras and quality talent in front of them, Brown Girls escapes the homemade camera-phone feel that cheapens many webseries. And everyone involved got paid for their work.

During production Asghar and Woods were both poetry teachers at Young Chicago Authors and would bring their kids from the program to the set. Asghar learned the ins and outs of creating a series while on the job—she wanted to share that experience with others, who wouldn't normally get to see the process.

"I think having someone in your community make something, it's like, 'Oh, I can do that,'" Asghar says. "I don't know if I would have written Brown Girls if I had not seen You're So Talented, had I not seen someone I knew and loved make something like that."

Asghar is already writing season two of the series, and she and Bailey hope to work together on larger television projects in the future. But for now they want to keep Brown Girls independent to maintain their creative control. It's the best way for Asghar to continue telling the story of her strong, funny, and supportive relationship with Woods, so that others like them can see themselves onscreen.

"I wrote [Brown Girls] because I think that it's really hard here to be a brown or black person, and a person of color and queer and a woman," Asghar says. "To kind of navigate this space that I think so often tells you that you're not worth anything. And I wanted to create something that would make my friends laugh. That was the goal. But to see it take off is really inspiring."   v

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