‘Random Acts Of Flyness’ Imagines A World Where Black People Have The Freedom To Heal

In the second season of this Peabody-winning show, filmmaker Terence Nance puts an emphasis on spirituality, rituals and Black love.
In "Random Acts of Flyness," Terence (Terence Nance) and Najja (Alicia Pilgrim) use rituals to find a healing that can lead them forward, both individually and together.
In "Random Acts of Flyness," Terence (Terence Nance) and Najja (Alicia Pilgrim) use rituals to find a healing that can lead them forward, both individually and together.
Rog Walker/HBO

Imagine a world in which all of Black folks’ needs are met in order for us to tap into whatever spiritual practices we need to find healing without interruption. That’s part of what Terence Nance wants us to do in the second season of “Random Acts of Flyness.”

Nance has a knack for pushing past television’s limits to deliver some of the most avant-garde and thought-provoking work gracing the screen right now. That’s true of “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” and true of the latest iteration of his HBO Max series, which premiered on Dec. 9. Unlike the first season, which covered Black death, sexuality, gender, love and a vast array of topics, this season — or program, as he’s describing it — of “Random Acts of Flyness” has more of an overt storyline.

That is the story of his character, also named Terence, and his on-again, off-again lover, Najja (Alicia Pilgrim). They’re on a journey, both as individuals and as a unit, to address the sacral wounds and traumas they’ve inherited, generationally and from their experiences. They participate in rituals appropriate to their own healing as a way of connecting to the spiritual realm and leading them on a path forward.

This season, themed around “The Parable of the Pirate and the King,” is heavy in some ways. It’s a reminder that the only way out is through. And as difficult as that may be to face, it’s a truth that we need to hear, according to this show. But just as it asks us the hard questions and positions us to look within, it offers reprieve with tender moments through physical touch and prayer.

As fantastical as it may seem to see a world in which we have space, resources and liberation to use rituals and spirituality to heal and let Black love be free, Nance’s “Random Acts of Flyness” gives hope of what that could look like.

Nance discusses his approach to the current season, the complexities of Black love and how believing that spirituality is corny is, well, corny.

Nance, seen here at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, has a different approach in Season 2 of "Random Acts of Flyness."
Nance, seen here at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, has a different approach in Season 2 of "Random Acts of Flyness."
Theo Wargo via Getty Images

Congrats on this second season of “Random Acts of Flyness.” This season is a different approach from what we were introduced to in Season 1. Why is that?

It definitely is a new form. In some ways it’s as simple as that was what I was feeling at the time. That’s just what I wanted to do, how I wanted to express. But if I were to sort of interrogate a little bit more, I think the idea that we wanted to explore “The Parable of the Pirate and the King,” divination, going back to ritual initiation, it just required a cipher. You’re watching this story, you need something to see yourself in so you can understand how it might be useful to you as not quite a mirror, a piece of glass that you can see yourself in; an image you can see through, that kind of thing. And I think that this form accommodates that utility of a story or a fable or parable, which is meant to have a divinatory use.

And I think in the first season we needed the space to do whatever, to have a form that really accommodated liberation and to show that on HBO, on the platform of this scale, Terence Nance and artists like Terence Nance can do whatever we want to do or whatever comes through. And so the form, I wouldn’t have called it variety, I would’ve just called it liberation. It’s just what it is, just what came through. But that was what needed to be put down at the time and it was just very different than what needed to be put down right now.

In the first iteration, did you feel like you needed to make sure that you did have that freedom so that moving forward you could maintain and grow that? You created this area, this broad area to play so that there isn’t any restriction. Do you feel like that was something that you did intentionally or was that something that just kind of came with just how you create in general?

I think it was actually the opposite in the sense that the first season we had no sense that they were actually going to put it on TV. And the energy of it was not super like, “Oh yeah, this is definitely going on TV.” It wasn’t that. It was very, “We’ll see,” energy. Not that anybody actually called me and said we’ll see. People finish things all the time at HBO, at other networks and they never see the light of day. It was objectively illegible to a lot of people internally, externally. So it created a very “your first rap album” vibe. I’m putting my whole life in this.

Instead of it creating a runway, it created more a successful precedent. You know what I mean? Season 1, it looks and feels a certain way that, I’m going to just hint at it, that a lot of stuff started to look and feel like right after it. But it wasn’t seen as anything other than, “Oh, this is what it is now. This is what ‘Random Acts of Flyness’ is. Let’s do that.”

But it also wasn’t what liberation looked like for this season. It looked a different way. And that was very clear from day one. We didn’t have to try anything out to see that, the moment we were going to start writing, I came in and said, “This is what I want it to be, this is what I want it to do.” You know what I mean? So I think it had a different effect. It created a precedent that we didn’t have to explain. And I think because we are protected in the ethereal realms, a runway was made for it, but it was a new runway.

I just can’t help but to also compare this piece to a place that we are in now as young Black people in the conversation around healing our traumas. It’s not a new thing, but it does feel like a more effervescent thing, but it also feels like an aspirational piece. And specifically in this season, we see there isn’t a lack of familial or relational willingness to take on these rituals and do this healing work, but there’s also not a lack of economic resources. And it feels like, to me, looking at this perfect world where all of our other needs are met, this is where we’re able to do this kind of work and this is the potential of how we’re able to approach these rituals.

I’m wondering where that came from, but also is that correct? Is that how we should be looking at this? Is there no certain way that we should be looking at this and just getting what we feel and take from our own experiences and applying it to the show?

Man, that was a beautiful question. I’m thinking about a lot of the threads of it. The first thread is that we’re effervescent in terms of describing the energy, that conversation, that is bubbling up. But also it’s taboo in a specific way around how difficult it is to approach languaging and talking about our spiritual practices in a legacy of them being illegal and threatening our lives. And also the conditioning to code them as corny. You know what I’m saying? Not cool. And I think that it’s bubbling past through that.

But those are just two things, two resistances, and then there’s a central question of the show that you just said out loud in the question, of which the answer is yes. Can Black people love each other over time in longer-standing relationship through healing through trauma and process of healing through trauma? Answer is yes.

But the more important question is what racial practices and spiritual practices do we need to support that? That’s what I don’t know. Is it maybe a different answer for each person? OK, what do you need to maintain those ritual spiritual practices? You just hit on a big one. You need money, you need resources, you need the space to not be in a certain sort of modality in terms of survival to even go to that.

Then it’s kind of like, to what extent is that true for everybody? That is true for at least a lot of people that maybe you and I know, for instance. But is it true for everybody is another big question. It’s not in the show. It’s that we didn’t get there, you know what I mean? But the class question that’s going on with maybe more specifically Najja’s character, but in a way with Terence’s character that project on the Pirate/King dynamic starts to invite that question in the subjects. Somebody who comes from money, but money that’s precarious, where somebody comes with no money, it’s just different. You know what’s going on, it ain’t the same moment but a different moment, that kind of thing. But I think it creates something like that effervescent feeling of the conversation even with that specific lens on of class.

Can Black people love each other over time in longer standing relationship through healing through trauma and process of healing through trauma? Answer is yes. But the more important question is what racial practices and spiritual practices do we need to support that?

What are conversations like with you and your team while conceptualizing and creating all of this?

A lot of it starts the first several weeks around readings. I basically sent out a reading and watching list and then talked about what I wanted to do. And we talked about the readings. And because everybody in the room is family and have all known each other a very long time and mostly know each other outside the context of writing a TV show together, there’s a lot of just openness and willingness to explore things like, “What ancestral trauma is your mom bringing to your relationship right now? How’s that having an impact on your desire to have children? Let’s talk about it.”

It’s not phrased that directly, I’m just saying that because that’s in the show. That comes from just a conversation, a long, weekslong conversation about that. We are all talking about our parents or grief and then just things happen. It was a pandemic. People are dying. So we’re talking about grief, we’re talking about grief rituals. And then so much of the conversation creates stories that we write that just aren’t in the show. You know what I mean? So a lot of the feeling of this density is because of how just dense these conversations are and how relatively unexplored on television they are and our feeling of just how much there is to say. And then a process of just cutting that down to what’s possible, which is obviously a small percentage of it compared to what is actually there.

It sounds a lot like group therapy.

It was like a classroom therapy situation. I haven’t been in a group therapy, but I can imagine it felt something like that.

What does ritual mean to you?

Well, I think that for me, when I think about that question in the present moment, it brings me to this quote from Malidoma. It’s not an exact quote, but he says a lot. This idea that ritual as a word is misused in Western culture. Mostly when we say ritual, we really just mean a routine, something we do regularly. And then he gives the example of going to a wedding. He’s like, “I thought I was going to a ritual. But they just do the same thing in every wedding.” When the best man gets up, tells a joke, and they say these vows that are more or less the same and then they kiss and say, “I do.” And that’s it. That’s not a ritual.

And then he corrects us as a ritual is a set of interventions in the material world to facilitate a spontaneous interaction with spirit. He always underlines that word spontaneous because you don’t control them. In conversation, you dialogue, you make contact, and then you comport yourself with a lot of readiness to either receive the guidance that you don’t know what it’s going to be or be in a spontaneous interaction, which gets difficult to talk about, especially in English.

And I think at present, what I’m trying to cultivate is how to always enter into ritual with that awareness and that intention that I’m inviting a spontaneous interaction. And then that is where the relationship is built between the physical world and the spiritual world, the ethereal world. And that relationship is the most elusive to orienting in our modern life, it’s also the most necessary for our survival, which is so strange.

Even to the context of thinking of the spirit world as your emotions or your trauma, those are things you can’t see, but they have a profound impact on everything you do. Or your concept of the future or your dreams about what could happen. Stuff like that also has to happen. So maintaining that relationship and cultivating interventions in the physical world to come into relationship spontaneously with all kinds of ethereal means is a discipline that I’m cultivating.

Do you think that you have to have a spiritual or religious foundation to engage in these practices?

I think there’s a pessimistic view, this realistic, pessimistic view of religion and its necessity that is present within me, that pessimistic view is that religion in the way that mostly I understand or hear about it is just a cultural practice of people who are organizing themselves around stories, stories of the spiritual worlds, spiritual realms. They create a lot of customs and rituals that are often destructive and/or contribute to atrophy of what it actually takes, the level of commitment and ritual it actually takes to build a relationship with the spiritual world. That’s my pessimistic view.

But my optimistic view and maybe my more realistic view is that the thing that isn’t there is the reality that ritual practice in the Black church — that I grew up in or in most places— is done in community. You do it with other people who are committed to it, who believe, and that’s necessary. You can’t do none of this alone. You can attempt for a while and that’s good and that’s necessary to build your own personal practice. But you got to touch down with community at some point to grow and expand as a practice. That’s hard.

It’s really hard to do outside of a concept of religion that is about people coming together. And a lot of the aspirations of the show are to make the show a spiritual practice. And the challenge, but also the possibility, of the show is that the people who make it are our people who are believers and who believe in caring for it, the rituals it takes to finish it and get it out there to keep doing this show or other things. And spread that good news that, theoretically, that’s the possibility of it. So that there’s people who believe these ways and carry them forward and do it and work on them together because it’s not going to be done without that.

Najja tackles generational wounds in "Random Acts of Flyness," Season 2.
Najja tackles generational wounds in "Random Acts of Flyness," Season 2.
Rog Walker/HBO

There are so many complexities in this show, and specifically I think about how the season shows Black love. Black love is complex yet tender. Outside of real life were there any other references you may have drawn on to ensure that you depicted it in a way that it was not only seen but also felt?

It was all about real lives. It was interesting because I had only met Alicia a week before production, so it was like she was theoretically on a physical plane, a totally new person. And so we had to build. Terence and Najja have been on and off together for a very long time, and we had to make them vibe instantly, more or less. And that is a testament to her commitment, her talent, her rigor. And I think that’s a big part of what’s felt in their relationship.

Also, a lot of the ideas in the show that are written don’t make it in, but they’re in there somehow. And one of those specifically was we talked a lot about the currency of physical touch in relationships. In the fifth or sixth episode, there’s this sort of runner called a hug map. And it was based on some sort of concept of how if you hurt each other in some sort of way that has to be healed with all these sort of nonverbal moments of affection that recharge, heal the transgression at a base level and how the math of harm and healing is always skewed toward harm. I always give the example that it takes two seconds to cut yourself, but it takes three weeks for that cut to heal, which doesn’t make sense. It’s like, why isn’t it one to one?

It’s not about what’s said, it’s about what’s felt, what we touch. And I think that’s how we as Black people have survived so much. I think the way we survived is just looking each other in the face. When it was all happening, when we were being tormented, tortured, we looked each other in the face.

And there’s just so much affection and pleasure and beauty in each other’s faces as Black people on the register of “sensuality or sexual attraction,” but also on all kinds of other registers that we don’t have language for of understanding and feeling each other’s affection for each other and beauty. And where we dissolve, where we collapse is when we, because of reasons of trauma, cannot render that affection toward each other with clarity and consistency, and that happens, too, happens all the time. And we just talked a lot about that dynamic.

One other download around it, especially as a man, if I’m out in the world, I got to have my armor on — or it’s my concept, it’s my training from my parents and everybody that raised me — to survive. It’s an energetic armor I’m presenting. And then I come home and if my partner, my child, or anybody in my family is trying to touch me or hold me and I haven’t taken my armor off yet, even if I want to hug them back, they’re going to feel a coldness. They’re going to feel this negative on the hug map that I’m not intending because I forgot to take my armor off.

And that rendered itself in their relationship in so many ways because you see them moving through how much armor they have to put on to just move and knowing that they got to take it off. That’s what they’re negotiating. And I think it was important for me to show and see even for myself that they get it right a lot. They’re able to move through all the challenges. You got to move through to render affection in the right moment.

How do you dream? What is it that puts you at your optimal state in order to dream, in order to imagine what could be or what you are capable of creating?

I’ve been talking about recently that imagination is a skill. It’s this thing that we assume everyone has one. I’ve started to realize everyone doesn’t, because you can get penalized for having an imagination explicitly, especially in professional environments. People think your imagination is you, which is a specifically charged thing. It’s got to be morally right. It’s got to be within what the zeitgeist is feeling. It’s got to be worked out because it’s you. Which I don’t know if it actually is. If you’re really in the practice of training your imagination, I think that’s one of the first things you have to take it off the limitations of being some sort of relationship to your physical body or culture or anything like that.

It’s got to be more about making a channel open. And I think that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to not only train myself, train my imagination or my capacity to imagine, but maybe more importantly, how to facilitate places where anybody who I interact with can train their imagination or basically create an expansion of their imagination so that when we are interacting, especially making something together, and then there’s a power dynamic, they aren’t offended or overwhelmed by my imagination or our imagination. And their imagination also feels they’re in that same practice of the value system, their imagination being expanded. That’s the hugely heavy, maybe not relevant thing, but I’ve just been thinking about it a lot. And I think the way I have been trying to understand it is actually about saying things.

So much of our concept of how to imagine is rooted in listening and silence and finding the right space that’s perfect and cute and I can think or I can receive. And I think that’s true. And another way is to speak it out, especially outside of how English is understood; it’s not an incantatory language. But to find an incantatory language to say what’s coming up, coming through so that it’s just out there. Other people, other beings can hear it, feel it, say stuff back, which I think acknowledges that imagination right after you unbound it from your own or my own body is then a task of the universe that just other beings that I might be in contact with or could be in contact with through speaking it out. And that’s the hard part for me. That’s the hardest thing, I think to just put that in the process, to share things that are at an imagination level and they’re not yet at an “it exists” level. That’s not a part of what I’m comfortable with, but I think that’s where I want to go.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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