The Political is Personal, and Series ‘MY AMERICA’ Proves It — Via Uber

MY AMERICA is the web series everybody needs right now.

Penned by Yale School of Drama graduates Anna Jones, British Theatre Director, and J.S. Davall, actor and Uber driver, MY AMERICA is a six part web series that was to be released before the election on November 8th. But since the election results came in — the series has come to have a whole new meeting for its viewers.

The series follows Lucian, a black artist and Uber-driver living in Los Angeles, and Carmine, a retired white police officer who is visiting his son in LA. Using Uber as the (literal) vehicle, MY AMERICA brilliantly tackles the problematic political divide in the United States, from the perspective of Lucian’s various passengers, providing an inside look at some of the largest issues facing the United States today — on a deeply personal, vulnerable, and human level. You can watch the first installment of the series here.

We caught up with writers Anna Jones and J.S. Davall, and producer Sophia Jennings, to discuss the series, what it means to them, and how they see their America now that Donald Trump is the president elect. Check out the interview below!

Photo Credit: Lilly Campbell

Canvass: What was the inspiration behind MY AMERICA?

J.S. Davall: The first impulse behind MY AMERICA was connected to all the events going on around us, politically and socially, nationally and globally; and the flood of news – from the radio, internet, smart phones, word of mouth. The sheer weight of all that can make you feel small and not know where to begin to find any kind or resolution or place within it. MY AMERICA gave us a creative framework to use our skill-set as artists to contribute to the dialogue through marrying fact and fiction, and be part of the larger conversation.

Anna Jones: Given all the shootings over the last year and the troubling summer in particular, we found ourselves thinking a lot about the debate around “black” vs. “blue” lives, and felt the need to talk about it; particularly in relation to areas of potential common ground that might move the conversation forward on an individual level, starting from a place of respect and engagement.

Sophia Jennings: To me it was about making sense.

C: How and why did you decide to get involved?

SJ: I met Anna and Jamel and within 24 hours had wiggled my way in to the producer role. I remember I read the script and found myself in a character, which is really important. I don’t believe in producing work that I don’t see myself in – somehow.

C: Tell me a little about the rest of the team behind the series.

AJ: We wrote most of the roles for actors we know and have either worked with before, or whose work we admire. This led to a lovely ownership over the roles for the cast.

JD: Our other director, Asaad Kelada, shared an affinity with finding the humanity in the storytelling no matter the facade. Asaad and I worked together on a reading at The Actors Studio earlier this year, and we met through a shared connection being alumni from the Yale Drama School.

AJ: We bought on a great crew and a fantastic team of editors, all of whom are also directors; each of whom bought a different viewpoint to the series and the shared themes.

SJ: I ended up hiring a good friend from college. He came for a day but ended up staying for what, like two weeks?

AJ: Something like that.

JD: We looked for people who wanted to mine the complexity of being human at this unsettling moment.

AJ: We were lucky to bring such a great and diverse team of people both in front of the camera and behind it. Carmen Argenziano who played Carmine commented on how cathartic it felt to be involved with this kind of storytelling in the run-up to the election at a moment in which we all felt essentially somewhat out of control over the larger picture. We must continue to exercise our individual agency more than ever.

C: What do you hope people take away from watching MY AMERICA?

SJ: I want people to start listening. Really listening.

JD: To get out of their implicit biases, whoever you are. No matter your skin color. To become a little more objective about one’s own point of view and have a social imagination – to walk a mile in another person’s shoes – in order that we can live together while we’re all alive.

AJ: We keep hearing about “a divide” in politics both here in the U.S. and in my home country, the U.K. I genuinely believe we have a lot more in common than we might think; and the recognition of someone else’s humanity is the first essential step in any kind of dialogue. Seeing Carmen and Lucian begin to find common ground in the final episode is a nod to this, and I hope that in the final silence, there is a sense of potential change because of a shared recognition between these two men who almost got into a physical fight in the first episode over perceived differences.

C: What inspired the decision to make a six part video series, as opposed to writing an essay, a photo series, or another medium?

SJ: For me, the webseries was the best way to reach the most amount of people. We didn’t need to think about how someone in Cairo would be able to click the link, or what time it would air in Manila. It was a way of bringing the idea of reactive theater to a far larger audience.

JD: In six parts, you could develop an arc for the characters, and give a sense of a beginning, middle and end to the story.

AJ: There are no gatekeepers to making a web series, time limits or content negotiations, etc. This was particularly appealing in speaking about/of/from current events because the form of a web series is so flexible and immediate, and as Sophia says, has no boundaries.

C: And what inspired the decision to use Uber as the (literal) vehicle to tell these characters’ stories?

AJ: Jamel drives for Uber as a day job, and came home full of stories of the people he met and exchanges he was having around politics; I don’t drive so use Uber quite frequently to get round, and also found myself inevitably engaged in political conversation in the months leading up to the election. When he told me a story about a couple getting into a food fight that turned physical over Donald Trump in the back of the car, it struck us this could be a compelling episode to dramatize, and led us to the political framework for the whole series.

C: How has your/the overall perspective of MY AMERICA changed since Donald Trump was elected? Do you think it has a different meaning now?

JD: For me it doesn’t have a different meaning. There are still not enough outlets for these kinds of conversations to happen. It seems as if people vote in isolation separate from other social groups. Basic humanness is going to continue to need work as long as we’re alive for generations to come.

AJ: For me, it makes me want to find a way to share MY AMERICA with Republicans and Democrats alike. A shared recognition of our common humanity is going to be even more imperative under the new adminstration so that one group’s interests aren’t prioritized above everyone else’s. Unfortunately, it feels as if this will be something to fight for even more now. AJ: The status quo has shifted. Suddenly, a lot more of us have been made outsiders – a host of different ethnicities and backgrounds – and we’ll need to join together to keep looking and moving forwards.

SJ: I found it more powerful post-election. Which I wasn’t expecting.

C: Do you view the United States differently now?

SJ: No. I think I’ve been very privileged to exist within a circle of, for the most part, open minded, progressive, liberal people who believe in things like immigration and a woman”s choice, who oppose men with histories of sexual assault. But I know that isn’t my whole country.

JD: The playing arena is not as fair as one thinks. That’s been made clear by these election results. Now the question is how do you go on living a meaningful life in the face of potential opposition to your doing so?

SJ: Yeah, I was in the UK for Brexit and the US for Trump. I’ve sort of given up on “predicting” what “most people” will do.

AJ: Our generation was brought up with a sense of freedom of movement, with a feeling of optimism about continued solidarity across traditional boundaries. There’s a kickback to those values right now, particularly from the older generations, but I don’t see how it will last. In America in particular diversity is on the increase, and the country’s demographics are continually shifting away from a majority culture. There are such urgent problems to address on a global level that we need to band together to solve in order to remain on our shared planet. The fight over the next few years is going to be reminding people of this.

C: How can other people use art  to incite political change & bring awareness to political issues, like you and the team have with MY AMERICA?

SJ: I want more artists to tell the stories of the quiet majority. The people struggling, out of luck, distrusting the world. Because that’s most people. The way the world is now, if you’re making art, you better make people laugh or you better make them think.

JD: Continue to hold a mirror up to nature.

AJ: Trust your impulses about what you want to speak about; listen to what’s going on around you – locally and on a wider level; and find a form to hold your ideas within that you feel at home in and excited about; then dare to share your ideas/your work with others, and see if they want to join you on the journey, whether as contributors or as audience. That certainly made us stronger! 

For more information and/or watch the rest of the series, see the MY AMERICA site here.