Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Angel Bismark Curiel as Lil Papi in "Pose" (Michael Parmelee/FX)

On Toni Morrison, motherhood and "Pose": A conversation with Steven Canals

Salon talks to Canals about the series' ongoing exploration of motherhood and what Toni Morrison meant to him


Melanie McFarland
August 8, 2019 7:00PM (UTC)

"This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn't matter to me what your position is. You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got.”  ― Toni Morrison

On the Tuesday that I sat down with “Pose” creator Steven Canals, the world hummed with sorrow. News of Toni Morrison’s death at 88 was top of mind for many— certainly for both interviewer and subject.

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Every writer of color working today carries a piece of Morrison’s legacy within them, whether they acknowledge this or not. Many black women received her work through their mothers and mother figures, which made watching the episode Canals chose to write and direct, “Revelations,” while freshly processing Morrison's death a one-two gut punch.

Entirely by happenstance, “Revelations” traverses some of the same territory Morrison maps out in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved”: the all-encompassing rapture and pain of motherhood, the oppositional strain between keeping a child close and letting them go, a definitive break from the past and whispers of a new beginning.

The relevance of this hours emotional arc is coincidental. In terms of the show’s larger plot, "Revelations" marks a definitive split between “Pose” as we know it, and the direction in which the series is headed. As for the drama quotient in the hour, describing it as "off the charts" would be mild.

The title refers to a specific discovery about Angel's (Indya Moore) heretofore hidden slip-ups in prior episodes, and an unexpected transformation of a mentoring relationship between Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) into what may be a lasting relationship. But this description is a lot tamer than the means by which it all comes to a head when a newly-graduated Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) throws it all at the feet of doting House of Evangelista mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez).

The resulting explosion sends all of Blanca’s children flying off in different directions, toward opportunity and uncertainty. But Canals honeys the sting of it all by summing up the job of motherhood in a beautiful scene between Blanca and the house mother she had abandoned at the series’ start, Elektra (Dominique Jackson).

“The pain I’m feeling towards my children leaving, I don’t know how I’m supposed to embrace something like that,” Blanca tells Elektra.

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“If they don’t grow strong enough to rebel, to reject you, to move away, then you’re not raising men and women. You’re creating parasites,” responds Elektra, later adding, ”If you choose to be a mother, you choose to shape the world.”

In our conversation about "Revelations" and "Pose," I spoke with Canals about the central importance of motherhood in the show, his relationship to Morrison’s work and the parallels between one of her greatest novels and the narrative portrayed in the series, currently airing its second season Tuesdays at 10 on FX.

Did you read Toni Morrison, or did you have any kind of relationship with her writing as an artist?

I did. I posted about it on my social media. When I was a freshman in college, I read “Beloved,” and I remember being in this, I was in an advanced literature course as a freshman. I don't know how I wound up in it. And initially I debated dropping it because I was like, it's all juniors and seniors and I'm a freshman.

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And my advisor was like, I think you should keep it. I think you'll love it. I just remembered during that semester and specifically while we were reading Morrison or reading “Beloved,” that there were so many days where I'd come in and I was clearly the only person really engaged with the material.

And so this thing happened where my professor and I seemed to be the only two people who would ever be talking to one another about this book. But I was so just taken by the elegance of her writing and her bold choices, especially when it comes to Sethe’s journey. And Denver is one of those characters that — I mean, this is over 20 years ago — but I still think about her. In many ways, Toni Morrison's been just such an inspiration to me as someone whose writing I've always aspired to be as good as. She was just incredible.

She was an amazing author and advocate and ally and just a phenomenal woman. It’s such a great loss.

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I ask that question because it occurred to me as I was watching that episode that “Pose is so much not just about community, but there's a lot of themes related to motherhood woven through the story that are reminiscent of Morrison’s writing. And this particular framing, a major split in community within the context of exploring of what motherhood is about. That was really devastating.

Yes.

And I wanted to talk to you about that particular theme of motherhood  — maybe as it relates to her, but maybe just in terms of why motherhood is an ongoing theme in “Pose.”

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Absolutely. I appreciate you bringing this up because I keep bringing that up, that motherhood is so critically important, not only to this episode, but to this show as a whole. It's not by chance that if you go back to our first season, we have two episodes that have the word mother in the title, you know.

Motherhood is as critically important to “Pose” as community and love and resilience and family is. And when it comes to this episode specifically, I think the thing that I was really excited about exploring on the page was, what is the next phase of motherhood for Blanca, right? Because the first season it was all about creating a family. And then this second season really has been all about empowering the family to go out and to stand on their own two feet and be individuals and live their best life.

And so, what does that mean when the family then actually accomplishes that goal, and begins to live as individuals and the way that you've encouraged them to? Where does that then leave you?

Certainly moving into season three, how do you redefine who you are as a woman and how do you redefine motherhood once you are no longer actively serving as a mother? I think a lot of artists of color have to contend with that regardless of gender.

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I grew up in a mixed-race family, both black and Puerto Rican. And my family was heavily female-centered, you know? And so I had a lot of very strong, very independent, very funny and complicated and joyful and messy women in my life. And so I bring all of that with me to, to my work, to my work as an artist.

And so in many ways "Pose" is equal parts my wanting to center my own identities as a queer person of color as it is about honoring and paying homage to all be incredible women in my life who encouraged me to be who I am today. I think my work will always be an investigation into mothering and motherhood, primarily because as a cis man, it's just an experience that I won't ever have. And I'm fascinated by it.

What specifically fascinates you about it?

Well I think specifically through Blanca — and you've seen it throughout this first season — just the agency and identity as a person. How does a woman define who she is in conjunction with being a mom? It's something that I talked to my own mom about quite a bit already.

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My mother's in her 60s, she's near retirement age, and yet she's still very much defined by her role as mother. I'm going to be 40 pretty soon. And I'm constantly going to her for advice and vice versa. But the reality is, I don't need to be mothered by her anymore. And I'm constantly pushing her to reconsider, ‘what are the things that you want to do with your life. What is left for you to accomplish? What more do you want to go out there and, and see and do?’

I'm fascinated by the pressures that we culturally place on women, particularly once they have children, whether they bear their children themselves or not.

And one of the ways I'm working through that is through the character of Blanca.

That’s the reason why we chose to have Blanca go out there and open up this nail salon for herself and focus on her own dreams. And now, being an empty nester at the end of episode eight. What is next, you know, and how scary that has to be for her because for the past two years she's completely been defined by her role as house mother.

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And that moment at the end of the episode, where she’s sitting alone at the dinner table, was particularly tough to watch in the context of having lost a woman I think lots of writers and creators would think of as a mother. When we have to let go of our mothers,  sometimes we look towards our art to see where to go next.

Absolutely.

Choosing this episode to write and direct must have been enriching but also really difficult, because you are choosing to portray a major breaking point in the series. So what informed your choice to helm this hour in particular?

I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I already have a close working relationship with the cast. And the conversations that I had with Ryan were around wanting someone to helm this episode who would be able to support the cast through this journey. Because we really are seeing the House of Evangelista fracture. We've never seen these characters this angry with one another, you know. Everyone is fighting.

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The conversation with Ryan was just how critically important it would be to have someone there, someone on set and specifically behind the camera that the actors could go to who they know lives with these characters in the way that they do. So that was really the intention behind my directing this specific episode. And I think it was great. I feel pretty strongly that it was the right choice,  because I know that there were definitely moments with some of the cast where they had some questions about some of the choices that were being made in the episode.

Also the Pray Tell and Ricky romantic development was a surprise. What was the reasoning behind that choice? That must have been a major talking point.

Yeah, I mean I think there were a couple of reasons that we made that choice. One is, we spent a lot of time in our room talking about what we haven't ever seen represented on TV. And there were two conversations that we had had in our room early in the season, and we didn't necessarily know that it was going to lead to Pray Tell and Ricky coming together as a couple.

Those two things were, one: inter-generational queer love. Cause it's just something we've really never seen represented on TV. And more often than not, when we're seeing inter-generational love, whether it's between queer people or straight folks, more often than not it's the older person who's pursuing the younger person. And obviously that isn't the case here. So that was really fascinating for us.

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The other thing that we haven't really seen represented are individuals who are living with HIV who are in loving relationships. And that was also really important for us to show in the same way that in the first season, Blanca’s diagnosis isn't taken as a death sentence, but a cause to live. And it's really the catalyst for her to go out and form a house and leave a legacy behind.

We certainly didn't want to only ever represent these characters as having HIV and suddenly now their sex drive or sex lives dry up, you know? And so it was really important for us to represent that as well.

So it felt like a natural place to have both of those really interesting story elements come to life through their union.

What is it like for you, particularly in this era when so many marginalized people's rights are under attack, to have a show that seems to have caught on in the mainstream — even with people who might actually, say, go to a Trump rally and don't quite make the connection between who they’re voting for and how that impacts your life?  What is that like for you?

The last time someone asked that question, I was at a round table with six journalists and I went into full-on ugly cry about it. It's always a tough question for me to answer because A, it's a very emotional question, but B, I'm still deeply entrenched in it.

You know, we're still making the show and I think when the show has ended and some time has passed, I might be able to reflect on it and have a more nuanced answer. What I can say in the moment is that it's just such a joy and a privilege to write and direct and produce this show, and all of us come at it from such a pure heart space. We care about representation. We understand the need to see black and brown people, and specifically black and people who are also LGBTQ, occupy space unapologetically, and to have not one but five trans women playing trans women of color on a show as series regulars, how critically important that is.

To know that I am just one small part in the creation of all of that, it's really beyond words to be honest. It's so much bigger than I really have ever allowed myself to dream. Especially looking at the response that the show has received.

You know, people create important work all the time. It doesn't necessarily find an audience or resonate. And so to have a show that all of us recognize is critically important and needed and necessary and important and to have found an audience and to be so warmly received by journalists and by critics and by an audience, it really is beyond words, truly. It's really hard to articulate exactly what it means.

Whenever I meet people who are like, ’Oh my God, I watch the show and this is what it means to me,’ it takes my breath away. And that happens so frequently. The only thing I can ever do is hold that space with those individuals and let them know that their life and their voice matters, and that we don't take their commitment to us for granted.

Obviously I don't want you to give away spoilers for the rest of the season, but what would you say are most interesting aspects of what's to come?

As we've discussed, we've been really focused on motherhood and family. Here we are now at the end of this episode, and we see Ricky and Damon and Angel and Little Papi in many ways truly step into adulthood. You know, this is the moment that Blanca has been preparing them for, which is to go out into the world, stand on their own two feet and be independent. And that's what they're all going to do. And that's heartbreaking for her and will be heartbreaking for the audience. The reality is that she's always going to be their mom. They're always going to need her.

But I think what's exciting for us to continue to explore throughout the rest of this season and certainly going into season three will be that adulthood, and how do these young people who we met in the beginning of season one and are still figuring out how to navigate life and making mistakes, how do they now go out into the real world and navigate life as adults?

Thank you so much for this conversation.

You know, something else I want to say though, that I just occurred to me regarding your earlier question about Toni is that, and I hadn't really thought about it until you posed the question, is that motherhood is such an important theme of “Beloved” and that really never occurred to me until this moment. That's probably one of the reasons that I loved that book so much.

And I love the transformational arc of Denver as a character, going from being this young woman who by the end she winds up really standing on her own two feet and being an adult too. And it's fascinating, I never really thought about the fact that in many ways we’re sort of tracking a very similar arc on “Pose.” So thanks for that.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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