“Abbott Elementary” fans, class is back in session. Created by Quinta Brunson and led by a star-studded cast, the Emmy Award-winning series returned with its second season on Sept. 21. In just its first year, the ABC sitcom has made a name for itself in and out of the classroom, but especially on TikTok.
On the app, Black creatives have envisioned who could be the latest addition to the staff at Willard R. Abbott Public School, be it a new PE, drama or art teacher. Akin to series creator Brunson’s online ascent, Black actors are leveraging their TikTok followings to “audition” for the series.
Justen Ross, known as @heyjusten to his 110,500 followers on TikTok, is a multihyphenate freelance artist who has been working professionally in the performing arts since he was 16. Based in Atlanta, the 23-year-old actor made his “Abbott Elementary” debut on TikTok as “Mr. Ross, Abbott’s new drama teacher” inspired by his chronicles as a teaching artist.
“I teach high schoolers theater, musical theater and Shakespeare, so I love teaching,” said Ross, who graduated from the theater school at DePaul University in 2021. “My father is an educator as well, so when I was really young, I would follow my dad around because he was the assistant principal of a lot of schools and I would just follow him to whatever school he went to. For a little bit of time, he was also an elementary school teacher; he taught fifth grade.”
After getting off one of his shifts in September, he partnered up with his little sister Jada to make the TikTok, which amassed over 77,000 likes. From talking about the school’s forthcoming production of “Romeo & Juliet” abridged to how Abbot Principal Ava Coleman allotted a theater budget of 11 dollars and 11 cents — because “that’s Ava’s angel number, apparently” — Ross embodies the drama teacher archetype with precision.
“I’ve been practically begging Mrs. Howard to assistant-direct ‘Dreamgirls’ with me in the spring,” says “Mr. Ross” in the clip, a nod to the fact that Sheryl Lee Ralph (who portrays Mrs. Howard in the show) starred as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical’s debut. “I don’t know. I just feel like she’d be a great eye to have on that show.”
For Ross, the impetus for choosing to depict a drama teacher was twofold. He recalled that his middle school drama teacher impacted his life deeply and said he believes children’s theater is a gold mine for comedic storytelling, introducing new child actors into “Abbott Elementary” episodes, and instilling values into youth.
“Acting, what it really encourages in kids is how to commit, and just go for it and say, ‘I’m gonna look stupid. I’m gonna look silly, who cares? Because with great risk, comes great reward.’ Of course, there’s a lot of fun opportunities for the kids. I would love to see the kids on ‘Abbott’ do, like, a ‘Dreamgirls’ cabaret,” Ross said.
Funnily enough, Ross said he recalls Brunson viewing that TikTok he posted in September at the height of Emmys week.
After comedian Mel Mitchell posted her TikTok inspired by the series in January, it took her months to realize that Brunson followed her on the app.
“I didn’t find this out until a couple weeks ago. She follows me on TikTok — and that’s crazy. Their notifications aren’t as organized as Instagram’s. There’s no tab to filter out the verified accounts,” said Mitchell, 28.
Self-described as “chronically online,” the Atlanta-based comedian has been “a Quinta stan” since Brunson’s earliest videos, from “He Got Money” to BuzzFeed to “Black Lady Sketch Show.” On her TikTok account @thebaddestmitch, she portrays “the (other) Black teacher at Abbott Elementary.”
Her video was part of a larger series of skits she created online titled “the Black teacher multiverse.” A former substitute teacher herself, Mitchell takes on being a teacher in various television series in her online skits: “Stranger Things,” “Gossip Girl,” “Euphoria,” and now, “Abbott Elementary.”
“It’s a lot deeper than me just being a Black teacher,” Mitchell said. “It just shows how a Black woman’s point of view can save a lot of franchises, and we’re just not in them.”
Through her TikTok, Mitchell seamlessly blends in with the staff at the West Philadelphia public school, telling Janine Teagues that she will not be downloading her boyfriend Tariq’s mixtape, asking Mrs. Barbara Howard for peppermints, and even dishing with Principal Ava over a cute happy hour spot.
“So, one plus one is what? Two, and that’s a single,” says “Ms. Mitch” in her TikTok. “And two plus two is — what’s Beyoncé’s best album? Four! We’re going to listen to that while y’all color.”
From her dorm at Florida A&M University, Mitchell watched Brunson and “Insecure” creator Issa Rae ascend from their respective online series. Five years ago, she even auditioned for the production assistant gig contest that “Insecure” launched in Los Angeles. As Mitchell follows their lead, using social media to advance her dreams, she said that being acknowledged by Brunson affirmed her path.
“It makes me feel amazing and that I’m doing the right thing that like I’m on the right track because I’ve seen it be done before. Even seeing the first episode of ‘Awkward Black Girl’ as a freshman in college, I’m like, this is hilarious and I felt so seen by it,” Mitchell said. “You don’t need much to start — just start — and it’s gotten me in front of the people that need to see what my talent is. It means so much, especially as a Black creator on platforms that don’t really prioritize us. It means the entire universe to me.”
Mitchell said one of her dreams would be to guest star on “Abbott Elementary” or even take her comedic talents to the writers room.
Brooklyn-based actor Edward Mawere auditioned for the “Abbott” pilot in spring 2021, aspiring for the role of Gregory Eddie when the series was under its previous name of “Harrity Elementary.” (“Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams plays Gregory on “Abbott Elementary.”)
“I was really burned by that actually,” Mawere said. “I just refused to watch the show, then finally, I was like, ‘Everyone is saying that this show looks good and maybe one day, I will be on the show. I need to at least watch it to get what the style of the show is.’ I watched the show, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, Tyler is brilliant. I was not doing any of these things that he’s doing. I had a completely different interpretation of the character.’ Through watching the show, that’s honestly what inspired me to make this TikTok.”
As @TheJokesOnEddie on TikTok, Mawere posted his rendition of an “Abbott Elementary” drama teacher in August ahead of the Season 2 premiere. From age 12 to his days at Temple University, which Brunson also attended, Mawere has been acting.
As a youth, he attended a performing arts high school, which explains his uncanny ability to emulate the down-and-out actor turned over-the-top drama teacher.
“I did a show for 17 years that only paid me $5 for the whole run, but I did it because I have artistic integrity,” Mawere says in character in his clip. “Oh and don’t forget to tell your parents, you get extra credit if they come see my one-man show called ‘The Drama Teacher Who Never Got a Chance.’”
The 30-year-old feels not only inspired by his fellow Temple alum but hopeful for what Brunson’s ascent signifies for Black content creators and creatives trying to break into the industry. Mawere said he’d love to see an episode in which Principal Ava breaks into Instagram virality and hosts an influencer event at the school.
“I feel like that’s a great way to get a lot of people on screen,” Mawere said. “Just create more opportunities for regular degular people who don’t have a million credits, who haven’t been on a million TV shows prior to also show up and do work in the same way that people have offered [Brunson] opportunities. I think it will be great if we can continue that kind of love language and vocabulary moving forward.”
While Mawere hasn’t crossed paths with Brunson yet, “Ghosts” actor and Temple University alumna Danielle Pinnock recalls seeing Brunson years ago at an audition in Los Angeles. Pinnock’s ties to “Abbott Elementary” go all the way back to her days on campus, where she met Kate Peterman, who went on to be a BuzzFeed employee and now a screenwriter. Peterman was in the first play Pinnock ever directed, “Kimberly Akimbo.”
In her TikTok depicting “the substitute drama teacher at Abbott Elementary,” Pinnock infused her Philadelphia experiences into the character. Her character, an amalgamation of the names of several Black historical figures, greets her students with “Ashe, ashe.”
“Her name is Dr. Betty Shabazz Colin Powell Jr. Coretta Scott King III. I lived in Philly for five years and a year after I graduated, those are just the kinds of people that I would frequent and that would teach us in schools. They would have the locs or the braids, the conch shells at the end, they would teach African American studies and we would do deep dives into August Wilson and all the Black greats. I just wanted to honestly pay homage to them, but also poke fun of them at the same time,” Pinnock said with a laugh.
In 2008, the year Brunson came to Temple, Pinnock went on tour with the university’s theater troupe. By the time Pinnock returned, Brunson dropped out of the university. Though the two have yet to formally exchange words, Pinnock said it has been beautiful to see both of them on “two hit broadcast shows at the same time.”
From cameos in “Young Sheldon” and the crossover episode between Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Scandal,” the 34-year-old actor now stars as Alberta, “a 1920s prohibition era jazz singer who was a hot mess, with a true heart of gold” in the CBS series “Ghosts.”
Pinnock has been in the industry for 17 years, but started moving into television just five years ago. She booked “Ghosts,” her first series regular role, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and credits her online presence and social media skits with supplementing her portfolio and taped auditions. Pinnock and her best friend run a page called Hashtag Booked that went viral during the early phases of the pandemic, talking about all the things Black actors go through in the entertainment industry.
Following in the footsteps of Brunson and Black women who built their legacies online, Pinnock said it means the world to her to be able to create her own. One day, she hopes for an “Abbott Elementary” and “Ghosts” crossover episode.
“I’m so inspired by everything that Quinta Brunson has done, everything that Issa Rae has done, and all of the creativity of Michaela Coel,” Pinnock said. “There are so many Black women that are doing it now that I can look up to and say, ‘They have paved the way.’ All I have to say is, ‘I’m up next.’”