How The Black Pearsons Became The First Family Of This Is Us
For six years, the Pearson family of ‘This Is Us’ has broken our hearts — and healed us — all at the same time. This is an oral history of the Black Pearsons, the show’s best part.
The first time we meet the Black Pearsons of This Is Us together, they are on a soccer field. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) are side by side, taking turns watching their daughters, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman) play on adjacent fields. Tess is killing it, leaving boys crying in her dust, and Annie is braiding hair, uninterested in the game unfolding around her. Both parents are equally proud of each daughter, yelling encouragement as easily as they banter with each other. Over the course of six seasons, the Black Pearsons will evolve, tackle heavy-ass shit, and make us sob so hard we want to throw up, but one thing has always been consistent: It’s in the mundane moments like this when they are at their most radical.
In those early seasons, so much of the way This Is Us discusses race is in relation to Randall being a Black kid in a white family, a Black teen at a white school, a Black man in a white world. But in the family he builds with Beth, their Blackness isn’t contrasted against anything else. They just get to be. And the way they are — supportive, stern, respectful, funny, communicative, vulnerable, honest, understanding — is the antithesis of the typical picture of Black parenting we were largely sold on TV and film before them (with a few exceptions). The Black Pearsons never spoke down to us. Or told us how to be Black. Or acted as a shining beacon of Black representation meant to prove our humanity. They simply showed us a family of flawed, complicated, sometimes messy individuals whose love for one another was never up for debate. Even with all of the show’s twists and turns, devastating deaths, and time-hopping storylines, Beth, Randall, Tess, Annie and later, their adopted daughter Deja (Lyric Ross), persevere as a family unit. Their bond — like the need for a box of tissues every Tuesday night — was the show’s one constant unwavering good thing.
When This Is Us premiered on September 20, 2016, no one could have predicted how fervent the fan response would be or how desperately we would all need to spend an hour a week (or many hours straight binging) with the Pearson family for the next six years. It’s not just that the show, starring Brown, Justin Hartley as Kevin and Chrissy Metz as Kate as the now-iconic Big Three, their parents Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), debuted months before an election that would reveal the ugliest parts of America in spectacular fashion or that within the series’ run, there would be a whole-ass pandemic and a global racial reckoning that would change how some of the country talked about race out loud and on purpose. It’s also that This Is Us gave us a family during years when many people would become estranged from their own — whether over politics, vaccine status, distance, take your pick. The series was a balm during the Bad Times, and its brightest light was its Blackest characters (thanks in large part to two Black women, writer Eboni Freeman and executive producer and director Kay Oyegun). In 2017, TV Guide called the Black Pearsons “a daring, watershed moment for TV and for culture.” But the most daring thing Randall, Beth, and their daughters ever did was to be aggressively normal, enormously authentic, uncannily relatable and Black… OK with the drama dialed up to 100.
Not to be as dramatic as Kevin walking off every set he’s ever been on, but This Is Us changed my life. As an adult child of divorce with daddy issues, Randall’s storyline about reconnecting with, and ultimately forgiving, his birth father (William Hill, played by Ron Cephas Jones who is responsible for stomping on my heart in every scene), hit me hard. I wouldn’t be talking to my dad today if it wasn’t for William. Sure, it was the big, sweeping, gut-wrenching moments like William’s final words to his son on his deathbed that got me, but it was also the quiet parts — like William meeting his grandkids for the first time or that time he and Beth got high — that profoundly shifted something inside me; that made me want to cling to the family I had, not just the one I was overly invested in on TV. And I know I’m not the only one. Legions of devoted Black fans fell in love with the Black Pearsons on that soccer field six years ago.
Ahead of tonight’s (May 24) sure-to-be-tears-and-vomit-inducing series finale, the core Black cast (minus Sterling K. Brown who is deep in production on a new film and getting over a case of COVID) of This Is Us look back on the show’s impact, the power of R&B (Randall and Beth), how the first Black family of television came to be, and the legacy they’re leaving behind.
This Is The Perfect Cast
Susan Kelechi Watson, 40, Ron Cephas Jones, 65, Lyric Ross, 18, Eris Baker, 16, Faithe Herman, 14, and Niles Fitch, 20 (who plays teen Randall) remember their auditions and how they landed the roles of a lifetime.
Baker (Tess): I had an audition for an untitled drama series by Dan Fogelman and I went in, and I had no idea that it was even going to be this big NBC show. I was only 10 years old. I was just excited to audition. I was so, so excited I messed up on my lines and I was like, "Dang, well, I didn't get that one." [But] Dan saw something in that 10-year-old girl. And now, you’ve watched me become a young woman. That's so crazy.
Herman (Annie): It was my first audition. I was eight years old.We got to be in the room with Mr. Dan [Fogelman] and the producers. And I was also very nervous for that. My mom remembers sitting by Eris and she doesn't normally talk to any kids at an audition. So she's talking to Eris and I remember [later] I was like, "Hey Mom, that'd be cool if the girl that's sitting next to us would be my sister, because she was super nice."
Baker: In the waiting room of my audition, I saw Faithe who plays my sister, Annie, and her mom, Ms. Donna and Ms. Donna was like, "Hey, you guys can easily be sisters on the show." And then I got Tess and then Faithe got Annie and then we saw each other and we were just like, "Oh my God, this is so trippy." Faithe was my sister from day one.
Ross (Deja): At that point, I was going on all of these auditions and I wasn't getting any calls back and I didn't know what was going on. I got to the point where I'm like, Is this whole acting thing really something that I should do? I was even talking to God about it like, “why isn't anything happening right now?." [At the audition] If I remember correctly, Sterling and Susan were there, Eris, Faithe, Ken Olin the director, and I think Dan Fogleman was there too. There were a lot of other people in the room too. So, all eyes were on me. I was terrified. I was so in awe of all of them. I remember seeing Sterling and Susan walk into the room before anybody else was there and they walked in like royalty. I didn't even know who these people were. You know how you get this chill when greatness walks through? That's how it was with them.
Kelechi Watson (Beth): It was a pilot season type of audition. I remember being in a backroom, just me and the guy running the camera. I did the audition, went home, did another audition for a play Danai Gurira was doing. It was her play Familiar off Broadway. I bombed it. I was upset about it. I was talking to [Danai] about it and then at the same time, I get a beep on the other line saying they [want you to read] for this untitled Dan Fogelman project. And I was just like, "Yeah, yeah. Okay. Thanks." Went back on the other line and was like, "Girl, I cannot believe how bad I did in this theater audition." At that time, I was teasing and saying I was going out like a white girl because I had more than one audition a month or whatever it was. They called me and said, "They can either submit your tape or you can go to LA and be in the room with Sterling and all of the producers and the showrunner and audition again. But they're very interested in you for it." I hadn't read the script yet and I went home and read it. And literally, after I finished, I said, "Yeah, put me on a plane.”
I remember seeing Sterling and Susan walk into the room before anybody else... You know how you get this chill when greatness walks through? That's how it was with them.
LYRIC ROSS (DEJA)
Cephas Jones (William): I was just finishing doing The Tempest at the classical theater of Harlem in their amphitheater playing Prospero. And I had just finished doing Luke Cage. I got a call to audition for This Is Us. I was extremely comfortable at that time and really proud of the work that I was doing. So I went in and auditioned for William. It was a beautiful script, besides, I just thought it was perfect for me at the time. By the time I got to the train station after leaving, my agent called me and said, “[they] just loved what you did and they want to hire you.” So I thought I had to go out to LA for a screen test or something, but he said, "No, you got the role for the pilot.” I think one of the reasons why I got called in was because the [This Is Us] casting people told [my people], “For this role, we immediately thought of Ron Cephas Jones.”
Fitch (Teen Randall): When I got to the final casting call it was a bunch of really younger kids and I was the only 15-year-old there. And I was like, "Okay, mom, I don't think I booked this." Maybe three, four months later, I got a call again for the real audition. I auditioned on, let's say a Monday, and on maybe that Wednesday, I got the call back, found out I booked it, and had to head to a fitting that day because I had to shoot that weekend. It happened very quickly. I literally had just come back from swim class and was ready to lay down and then I got the call. I didn't know how big This Is Us would be at the time, but all I knew was I had to drive all the way from Thousand Oaks to LA and that's an hour drive. So I was just like, “dang, it's a long drive.” [laughs].
It All Starts With Randall
Randall puts the “Pearson” in the Black Pearsons and it’s not just his name that makes him a key member of the family. Randall Pearson is the walking opposite of the pervasive and insidious “absent Black dad myth” — in reality, Black fathers are actually more likely than their white counterparts to be involved in the daily life of their kids. He’s doting to the point of annoyance, armed with a dad joke at all times, and fiercely protective of his girls. Randall is the perfect dad. And the perfect husband (also a glaring opposition to the trash Black romantic male partners we usually see on TV). But it’s that perfectionism that at times is his downfall — from panic attacks to a bit of a savior complex to constantly pushing to perfect his identity, Randall is one of the most complicated, yet steady, Black fathers we’ve ever seen on TV. And that’s what makes him so great. That, and the fact that he’s played by an Emmy-winning powerhouse. Here, the cast talk about Sterling K. Brown behind his back (only good things, promise), and Niles Fitch explains what it’s like to tackle a role also played by one of the greatest actors of our generation.
Fitch: Maybe because I was prideful at the time, but I kind of wanted to do it all myself and take on playing Randall on my own. So the entire first season, I kind of avoided meeting [Sterling] because I didn't want to overly do it and have it not come off real and authentic, because even though they are both Randall, younger him wouldn't act the same as adult him. Randall is a family-first person that puts everybody before him, especially at his younger age. He takes on other people's emotions, I feel as if he's a perfectionist, but he does everything out of love. SKB really shows the love that he has for everything that he does and it's always for the betterment of other people, which I really like.
Kelechi Watson: This [show] wouldn't have been what it was without [Sterling] being Randall. And so it's just a beautiful, beautiful thing that we got to do this together and through it, we got to really be great friends.
Cephas Jones: When I got to LA, [Sterling and I] sat across the table from one another, we were already very familiar with one another because in New York we were brought together by Tarell McCraney, the MacArthur writer who wrote Moonlight. He brought me and Sterling together to read some passages from this play called Head of Passes. Sometimes you can just trust an actor and you know that you're in good hands. And I think we both felt that. Once you have that [trust], you can be open for magical things to happen.
Herman: Working with Mr. Sterling is so nice because he's such a fun TV father and he's so amazing and nice. In the beginning, I was always super nervous about messing up my lines because it was all so new to me. So he said that it's okay to mess up and that's a part of learning. I definitely learned a lot from watching the show and seeing his acting and working with him as well. And he always asks how we're doing and how our parents are as well.
Baker: Sterling has given me some amazing advice and he told me that I had to appreciate everything when it's happening. And don't think about yesterday or don't think about tomorrow or don't think 20 minutes ahead, but just stay in the moment, because when you think about something else you're going to miss what's happening right in front of you. And I really appreciated that advice and it definitely changed my mindset and outlook.
Fitch: Sterling and I have recently had more conversations because I'm getting older and it's getting to a point to where I'm able to now approach him, because I have that self confidence that I didn't have when I first started when I was 15. Now, I'm about to be 21 so [when we finally had a scene together] was a beautiful, beautiful moment. He always says we are two creatives that are in two different phases of their career but at the end of the day, we're both creatives that are trying to tell stories. He says not to call him Mr. Sterling, but it's still hard because I'm from the south. It's been really cool to get to know him and finally going to work with him.
Ross: [Randall and Deja] have a great love story between them. They found a piece of each other in the other. [When Deja tells Randall “you’re my day one”], those are the types of scenes that just make me completely nervous because having those one-on-one moments with Sterling is just like, "Y'all really putting me through this again?" But playing that game with him is incredible. I learned so much from him and he's so willing to teach me anything. I'm still intimidated by him. I don't think that'll ever go away because he's just that great.
Everybody Loves William
At first glance, William Hill is the stereotypical Black dad of TV tropes past. He’s an addict who left his baby at a fire station. He was absent for all of Randall’s life until adulthood. But what This Is Us does so well is take these seemingly one-dimensional characters and turn them into vivid, beloved family members (case in point: Miguel). By the time William’s cancer diagnosis is revealed and he and Randall road trip to his hometown of Memphis to lay him to rest, the character is no longer a plot device for Randall’s growth, he’s become one of the most fascinating fathers in television history. It’s no wonder Cephas Jones took home two Primetime Emmys for his work in the series.
Cephas Jones: Not many African Americans get to play redemptive characters that are perceived to be evil and bad when it turns out that they're really angelic at heart and their circumstances drew them to decisions that are perceived as bad. So many times African American males and females have been put into that particular category. Where you either did time or you made a choice based on your fear or your anxiety. And you make a decision that's not indicative of who you really are. It was amazing how [the writers] were able to capture that.
Baker: [Ron] is such an incredible actor. He's an even more incredible person. He cares for everyone that he encounters. And he really gives off that incredible welcoming energy and he makes everyone just feel so comfortable on set. And he's so wise. He taught me how to play chess on set. I think we were playing it as a joke, but he was like, "No, let me actually teach you." I think he taught Faithe as well. I definitely forgot a few things, but he definitely taught us. He is just as sweet and pure hearted as he was on the screen.
Herman: [One of my first scenes] was when we met Grandpa William where I said, "You have a hole in your pants." My mom's dad passed away when I was two years old in 2009. So getting to work with Mr. Ron was super nice and he definitely felt like a grandpa to me. I got to film a scene and have a nice monologue with him on the stairs. [A flashback scene in Season 2, Episode 3 with Annie and William as he tries to slip out of the Pearson house the first night Randall brings him home. Annie catches him and convinces him to stay.] That was really nice and something I always remember. He's such a great person. He's very sweet.
This is the first time in my career that I've gotten feedback from people from all over the world. People went looking for their biological parents. [They] said "[William] gave me the strength to find my mother and I found her.”
RON CEPHAS JONES
Cephas Jones: I always wished I had more time with those two, Eris and Faithe. I have a daughter [singer and actress Jasmine Cephas Jones] so they drew me back to my daughter when she was a little girl, just plus two. They were so young and beautiful at the time. And, they've grown up so much, man, to be these beautiful young ladies.
Kelechi Watson: I love that scene with Ron [when Beth and William get high]. I remember me and Ron getting together at this diner one day and running lines and working on it together. By the time we got on set, we knew it and we were just having fun with it. I'm not a big weed smoker or anything like that, but I know all about it [laughs]. And so to find out that about Beth was funny to me. It was interesting and it was surprising. It was really great because before that they hadn't really bonded. It was just [Beth] trying to figure him out and making sure he wasn't going to bring Randall any more pain than he already had. This was a moment where they could really get together and have fun. And I love, love, love hanging out with Ron on set. I could listen to Ron all day. We'll talk, he'll tell stories about theater in New York, his life in the industry.
Cephas Jones: Susan is a Brooklyn cat. So, we had that aesthetic, Susan is just so real and down, and she just reminded me of New York. It really felt like we were just somewhere in Brooklyn at Marcus Garvey park and Harlem or something, just kicking it, smoking a joint together or whatever, and laughing and really bonding. For William, that's when she started to feel like my daughter-in-law that's really caring for my son in this beautiful moment.
Kelechi Watson: For [Ron] to now be experiencing the type of success he is and getting the type of love he is now after all his years in this is just so well deserved and so amazing to watch.
Cephas Jones: The [reaction to William] was worldwide. This is the first time in my career that I've gotten feedback that much from people from all over the world. It was pretty amazing to me. It took me aback — I didn't realize how it put my name and my image on the map as an actor in Los Angeles and Hollywood. There was a haunting beauty in William's death. If you think about all the things that he had lived through, there was a beauty about his death, where his son was there holding his head, just telling him to breathe. The feedback was a lot about how people dealt with their parents or their grandparents passing away and other people who didn't get a chance to have that moment with their parents or grandparents. A lot of people felt happy that William gave them an opportunity to go back and experience it. A lot of people went looking for their biological parents. There were people who said, "You gave me the strength to go back and actually find my mother and I found her.” So many stories. I tried to read as much of them as I could, but my feed got flooded. I mean, it was amazing.
Introducing Deja & The Other Big Three
At its core, This Is Us is a show about family in all of its forms and the highs, lows and FEELINGS that come with family. Naturally, since Randall is adopted, the show chose to have Beth and Randall become foster parents. Enter: Deja (Lyric Ross). From the jump, Deja is distrusting and closed off. She’s a Black girl in foster care after all. But over time, the relationship she builds with Randall is my favorite of the whole series, and the one that makes my eyes leak the most — and that’s saying something. In Lyric Ross, the show found a formidable actress who nails teen angst and annoyance as well as the devastation and maturity that comes with bearing life’s burdens too young. She’s a STAR. And in her fellow cast mates, she found sisters. Deja, Annie, and Tess are The Other Big Three.
Baker: There was multiple girls that were auditioning for Deja, and they flew all of them out to LA and we did a chemistry read. It was me, Sterling, Susan, and Faithe and we all had lines and we went in with every single girl. And when Lyric came in, the energy was just incredible. And it was just like we knew. I don't think I ever told Lyric this by the way, I don't want to hype her up [laughs].
Herman: I can't imagine how nervous Lyric was but soon as we met her, it was so nice. She is so sweet and such an amazing big sister.
Ross: Faithe and Eris were the nicest beings in the world. They were just so welcoming with me and it was like they already knew that we were going to be family. Like, "She's new here, but she's still blood. She's still family, she's still our sister.” I remember I got a knock on the door the first day of filming for me and it was Sterling, Eris, and Faithe and I opened the door and they were all screaming like, "Yay, you're on This Is Us now!” And Sterling, I mean, he gave me the most genuine hug ever. And these people, they didn't know me. They didn't know me at all, so for them to give so much love on the first day, I don't see or hear a lot of that happening in this industry. It was a blessing.
[As for the role], I've heard a lot of feedback from former foster kids who are adults now and it blows my mind every time because when they tell me how spot on I was with every decision and every choice in the portrayal, it's incredible because these are people who actually went through it.I remember I got one DM that said Deja actually inspired them to actually become a foster parent. That's enough to just make me bawl, just start crying. It’s incredible to know I have something to do with that because it's so much bigger than me.
Kelechi Watson: Lyric is just such an amazing actress. She's just an amazing young actress that is going to get more amazing as she gets older. And it's a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. I'm grateful that I could say I was there when it started.
Ross: The first day was rough for me because I think the first scene that I did, they had me screaming and throwing stuff. I had to call Susan the B word and I was 13 [laughs]. I was still trying to prepare myself for having to cut my hair later on, and that was my real hair. I had to cut my actual hair off to the short which was crazy especially for a Black 13-year-old girl. But they didn't start me off easy. Deja was taking everything out on these people who were welcoming her and taking her in.
Kelechi Watson: At first it was tough [between Beth and Deja], but I always saw it as the challenge of what it was to adopt an older child. And Beth, if they were going to adopt, this is the way she wanted to do it, where it would serve the purpose of rehabilitating somebody to serve the purpose of letting somebody know that they're loved and taken care of even later in their life when they might think nobody wants them. So she was up for the challenge and then eventually her and Deja bonded. I think the more Beth backed off, Deja finds her own way.
Ross: It's even more intimidating with Susan when it comes to our one-on-one scenes [than Sterling] because she's just so cold. It's like, How do you do that and so effortlessly? Aside from her being amazing and just her talent alone, she's just a dope person. She really is. She's so supportive of me, what I do, just who I am and she's always so present with me cracking jokes and just being there. She's just a light.
Ross: I love our [Black Pearson family] dinner scenes. Those are the moments where we really just start talking about anything in between takes. We just start joking around and people calling other people out. It would be stupid stuff too. I remember having salad for one dinner scene and it was these two big old leaves on my plate. And I'm like, "What am I supposed to do with this?" So I think this is our first or second take. In the scene, I pick up one leaf and I'm trying to figure out how I'm supposed to eat it and they were like. "And cut." Sterling is over here cracking up at me and he was like, "My girl don't know what to do with no salad." And I'm mad so I'm trying to cut it into pieces and Asante [Blackk, who plays Deja’s boyfriend Malik] is over here like, "Why are you cutting your salad so aggressively?" We are just always joking around with each other.
Baker: It's honestly not even acting for us because we are like that in real life. We do argue, but we love to love each other. Since day one, it was a sisterhood and me, Lyric and Faithe, we love each other like sisters, we fight like sisters, on and off the camera.
Ross: I think out of all of us, Faithe should be the older sister. That's how responsible she is. And Eris is definitely the youngest. That says a lot about her that's all I'm going to say [laughs].
Herman: I feel like I have an old soul, like Annie and I'm an introvert. I think I agree with Lyric.
Ross: We're real sisters and it's hard that we won't be seeing each other like that anymore now that the show is done because we really grew up together. We’re still going to keep in touch, well they better keep in touch with me! The love between us is deep, it's really deep.
Baker: Those are my girls for life. And we're always going to be connected even when the show's over. We're making plans to go to Disneyland next week. We're always going to be there for each other.
Randall and Beth (R&B) Forever
In the canon of Black love TV couples, Randall and Beth are top two and they aren’t number two. They are college sweethearts who have held each other down through failed dreams, unexpected accomplishments, disappointment, celebration, death, and everything in between. They are the soul of this show and the backbone of the Black Pearsons. They parent with care instead of an iron fist. They are a united front. There is no R without B. Watching Susan Kelechi Watson and Sterling K. Brown love each other on screen so fiercely, tenderly, faithfully, with admiration and affection but also conviction and conditions (it never feels like Beth is in this marriage out of obligation or duty) makes you believe that a love like theirs not only exists, but that Black love is our superpower. That’s the strength of R&B.
Kelechi Watson: It's not like we sat aside and tried to develop a thing. I think we were just playing it as honestly as we could and we just kept finding who [Randall and Beth] were. And they seemed to be a couple very much in love who was going to rock with each other and be on each other's side. So we just played that and we just kept playing with it. We never sat and said, "What do you think about our chemistry?" It was not a thing that we ever discussed or talked about and still to this day, we don't. It's always just been us really trying to be as honest as possible.
Ross: Beth and Randall stuck with each other throughout everything. Everything that happened, whether it was between them, with their kids, with the rest of their family, they were always together, they were always here. It's just about having that type of love. And I believe that with love comes accountability. I think that's where Beth comes in pretty strong. She'll call you out for real. I just love that they are the other half of each other, that's a blueprint really of an incredible relationship of Black love and to have their kids look up to that, that's a beautiful thing. Deja looked up to Randall for that, not only as a dad, but as a blueprint of a man. And just to have that, to have pretty much a blueprint in your family of what a man should be and what a relationship shouldn't be.
Fitch: I love seeing them as a team. I think that's a great representation of a Black household; the head has to be on point. And I think that's what we really see with Randall and Beth. And I love seeing how there are times where Randall will take the backseat to let her take over and vice versa. I think it's a beautiful showing of Black love. And then not only that, seeing the love that they have for their daughters and how Randall’s always there protecting the Black women, which I think is such an important thing to think about. Hashtag Protect Black women. But I don't think people really understand that what Randall is portraying is exactly what that hashtag is trying to make more men do, especially Black men.
[Randall and Beth] seemed to be a couple very much in love who was going to rock with each other and be on each other's side. So we just played that. We never sat and said, "What do you think about our chemistry?"
susan kelechi watson
Baker: Randall and Beth are my mom and dad. I'm very invested in them. And I never had doubts when it came to them. I always knew that they were endgame always, especially because of their storyline and how they met when they were younger and in college. I was just like, "Yeah, this is forever." Now with other relationships, I was just like, "Hm. This is about to end." And I was right for a few, but I never doubted R&B.
Kelechi Watson: The one scene I think about a lot is when [Randall and Beth] had that big blow up. I think it was Season 3 and we were in the bedroom. We knew it backwards and forwards and we just kept going through it and rehearsing it and doing all these different ways. And I remember work that went into that because we were really so fully aware of what the consequences of what they were going through might be. And we knew that people were counting on Beth and Randall as a couple. And so what would it mean if they weren't a couple anymore? And what if we allow things to really get bad between them? Which had never happened before then. And it was just a really great scene.
Fitch: I love seeing the comments of people being happy about seeing me and Rachel [Hilson] who plays teen Beth, that makes me really happy and inspired but I can't wait to see the next Randall and Beth.
Beth Pearson, my mother, my best friend, my everything. Can you tell I love Beth Pearson? Beth is revolutionary in a lot of ways. She’s not the wife whose sole job is to support her husband. She’s not a mom who lives blindly for her kids. She’s a person. A whole one (what a concept!) who gives up on her dreams of becoming a dancer but finds a new professional passion in teaching dance. In two major Beth episodes of the series, “Our Little Island Girl” and “Our Little Island Girl Part Two” (which Kelechi Watson co-wrote with Eboni Freeman), we learn more about Beth and what motivates and moves her. It’s the kind of interior depth Black women characters rarely get on TV at all, let alone over six years. The best thing about Beth? And Kelechi Watson too, according to her co-stars? She’s f*cking funny.
Kelechi Watson: Our Island Girls, those are two of my favorites just for what they gave me, what they gave the character of Beth, and the response from those episodes was just so great that the two that I feel really proud of. Beth has gotten more comfortable in her skin. Beth has found her own path, her own way to fulfill her dreams while being a wife, while being a mother. She didn't let those two titles define her as a person. She made sure that she really initiated some self care and in doing so, you honor your dreams and your aspirations and your hopes and what you want. I'm really proud of the character that she was, and hopefully she could be a symbol for women who feel like they still have a dream that they want to fulfill and won't let any of the labels stop them from doing that. They can be all of those things.
[After the episodes aired], I heard from people who really felt like they understood what it was like to give up on a dream because somebody deterred them. A lot of dancers and even a lot of people who didn't dance understood the metaphor of it and how it applied to their life. If the dream is to have kids, then ‘Mother’ is a beautiful label, but there's always more to it than that. People always want to minimize so that we can put everybody into a box and go, "Okay, I understand what that is." But the part of Beth for me that meant the most is that she’s somebody who you couldn't just minimize or just put into a box.
Herman: Watching [Ms. Susan] as an actor and learning from her has been really great. And she has a lot of patience and seeing her be a TV mom to me, Eris, Lyric has been really special.
Ross: She's one of those people that you really want to keep with you just keeping your circle, so I love her. I love her.
Baker: Susan's hilarious. She's a comedian. She's also a rapper. She raps on Instagram when she has the time, because she has a really busy life, and it's the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. She's hilarious. Every time we're on set, we're always laughing. She's always coming for me about how I don't know any of the lyrics when we're singing songs.
Tackling The Tough Stuff
If there’s one thing This Is Us is gonna do, it’s hit you with a heavy storyline. From Tess coming out to her parents, to Randall confronting his white siblings about the racism he faced during their childhood, This Is Us has never been shy of saying the quiet parts out loud. And while most shows fumbled clumsily through conversations about race or queerness, or both, this show managed to pull off the seemingly impossible: Their stories were nuanced and real; progressive without being performative.
Baker: I was so nervous [for Tess’ coming out scene]. It was the first time that they asked me to be vulnerable on camera. I did a lot of research about the community that she's a part of, because I wanted to learn more about other people’s [experiences] while also making Tess individual in her own way. What helped me a lot was writing in a journal as Tess and putting all of those thoughts that she probably had in the back of her mind like, "Is my family going to accept me? Are they going to treat me differently? How is this going to go down?” I even went to Sterling and I was like, "Since you cry every episode and you had to get vulnerable every episode, what's your advice for me?" [laughs]
The aftermath was beautiful and very positive and I received nothing but love. Tess received nothing but love. And I think that she really impacted people because there's so many Tesses around the world. And so many parents were actually DMing me on Instagram. So many people were reaching out and just saying that not only did Tess help them, but the reaction that Randall and Beth had to their child coming out taught them something as well. And all three characters really taught them a lesson.
Cephas Jones: Probably one of the most important moments for me in the series was when Randall finally confronted his feelings of racism within his family, with his siblings. Ooh, that was hard to watch. I'm so glad that they addressed it because it made a lot of people uncomfortable — in particular the white audience, because they're really comfortable with Randall. And it's like “he's one of us,” but deep down inside, everyone knew he is one of the family, but yet at the same time he is something else. And I'm glad they acknowledged it, that he was a young Black kid who was adopted. Fortunately he was adopted by the right people who showered him with love, but also neglected to understand that there was a part of him that was longing for something. I think when he finally confronted his sister and his brother, I think that was a beautiful moment because they took it in. And I thought the writing was exquisite how they handled it, because it could have been disastrous. That's the beauty of art and television writing. If you get it right. It should be disturbing because it kicks up things in us that we don't want to deal with.
We're talking about Black love because we rarely see it on TV. But where I come from in Atlanta, I saw Black love all the time... There's millions of Pearsons. It’s not a rarity. It's a reality.
Fitch: I'm glad that [race] was semi-addressed [with the teen storyline] because it was fully tackled with showing Randall talk about it with Kevin. But filming it was really cool because Logan [Shroyer who plays teen Kevin] and I — he started This Is Us when he was 18. I was 15 — our relationship has grown a lot. I have also had to have race conversations with him because as I've gone through this experience [on this show] as a Black man, he's gone through it as a white man. There are rooms that he and I will both be in and we get treated completely differently. We meet the same people five seconds apart and they know that he's on This Is Us, but they don't know I'm on This Is Us. We have seen face to face where we've had to have those uncomfortable conversations just like [Kevin and Randall]. We're not real brothers in real life, we were put in situations where those conversations have made us [closer] so it was real cool.
Kelechi Watson: Normal can be really special. I think that was a big part of the show too, just showing life. That's really special too. Cars weren't exploding and, it wasn't people falling out of the sky. It wasn't some big action film, which is amazing in its own right. But it was the minutiae of life. It was the small things. It's like what are you discussing over making this kid's lunch? Or what are you discussing over the fact that their mother was now diagnosed with Alzheimer's or somebody's getting a divorce or somebody is switching careers and this brother doesn't get along with that brother and this sister is trying to be the middle man. Everybody knows those problems in some way, shape, or form, and this was giving us a chance to just live with those issues and problems and try to get through them the best way that we knew how.
That’s A Wrap
The cast, in their own words, describe their bittersweet wrap days and they sound a lot like what me sobbing to This Is Us on my couch looks like.
Ross: I remember we did our thing and then all of these cameras started coming up and I'm like, "Okay, I thought we were done. What's happening?" And somebody said, “That's a series rap for Lyric, Faithe, and Eris!" And the whole room applauds and Eris just starts bawling and Faithe is getting teary eyed and I'm holding Eris and somebody was like, "Does anybody have any last words?" It got quiet and Eris said some beautiful things, Faithe said some incredible things and it started to hit me like, "Man, we're really not coming back to this anymore. This is the last thing." And I saw Susan and Sterling come up, I don't even know if they were working that day. I think they were just there for us, which says a lot about them.
They came up and they gave us the greatest hugs ever. I think that's when I started getting teary eyed. I'm not a crier, so for tears to come down my face, you have to have beat me up or something. But the emotion, it was very heavy. It was very heavy. It was a sad day, but there was so much love in it. Yeah. Oh God, my voice is getting shaky.
Herman: Ms. Susan came to set [on our last day], even though she wasn't working that day. And she came to say goodbye to us, with Mr. Sterling. And they gave us hugs and everything. That was very nice and special. And we walked through the house together and we talked about memories and we took photos.I think Eris and Lyric and Mr. Sterling and Ms. Susan definitely made me very emotional because I didn't really take it in that it was the last day, but as soon as they came and they said it was wrapped, I started tearing up. I think Eris was the most emotional, which was so sweet.
Baker: I told myself I wasn't going to cry, I just started crying uncontrollably. My face was so swollen, it was a mess. Then they're like, "Speech! Speech!" I couldn't even get my speech out. And I was just like, "I love you guys and I don't know what I'm doing." Because I was crying.
Cephas Jones: A lot of tears, melancholy, sadness, happiness. I think everything that you could feel in one time was there, everyone was so proud, joyous. Everyone knew all along that was only going to be six seasons but it was very hard to express myself. I couldn't stop crying. Everybody got a chance to speak on camera for posterity about how they felt. And I could barely get out any words because I kept crying, and then finally it was just “well, you know what I mean. I'll see at the wrap party!”
Kelechi Watson: I realized as [Sterling and I] were doing it, I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is our last scene, just you and I." I made up some song about it. I don't [remember it] but it was catchy. And he just kept laughing and walking away. I would be looking into his eyes like, "Sterling, this is our last scene." And he would be like, "Stop it." And walk away. He was just not having it. And I can usually count on Sterling to be the sensitive one. I'm usually the one who's like, "Eh, we're fine." That day, when the scene wrapped, we hugged, and we embraced and everybody clapped. And he whispered something to me. It was something like, "I love you or love you homie.” And I don't even remember what it was because we were just caught up in the moment. And then I was like, "Sterling, this is it." And then he walked away again. And I was like, "Is he walking away to cry?" And people were like, "He probably walked away to cry." We don't know what he walked away to do, but he did walk away again. And that was it.
The Legacy Of The Black Pearsons
I asked the cast a simple final question: what do you hope the legacy of The Black Pearsons will be?
Fitch: [The Black Pearson family] is not a rarity, it’s a reality. We're talking about Black love because we rarely see it on TV. But where I come from in Atlanta, I saw Black love all the time. It's so normal where I'm from. And I feel like because we don't see it in mainstream media, we feel like it doesn't exist. But it's so real. There's millions of Pearsons, it's so normal. It’s not a rarity. It's a reality.
Kelechi Watson: I just wanted them to be real. I was in awe at how many people still don't recognize that Black people live very normal lives, just like regular people. I was in awe. I was like, "Really?" We didn't have to be anything that felt in any way over the top or in any way, super stereotypical or anything like that. We could just be a normal American family in a house in the burbs, two kids, two cars, two-income family home. And I don't want to say we happen to be Black because I'm very specifically Black and that's a beautiful thing, but that's it. I just didn't want it to be anything more than that. It meant a lot to me for them to just be normal folks. And that's what we did for six years, we were a family and that was it.
I know it meant a lot to me growing up to see Black people on television. And to be able to see a family like this, I know it means a lot to people. I hope [people] see some of themselves in it. I hope they see something that really resonated with them. Whether they see Randall and Beth as couple goals, whether they see themselves in Lyric or in Eris or in Faithe, just that they see the humanity in it all and can identify with it in whatever way touches them, but also specifically for the Black culture. I really do hope that they see themselves represented in a really honest and truthful way. That means a lot to me. That's not lost on me and I'm just really grateful that I got the opportunity to bring that to people.
Ross: Even with their mistakes, The Pearsons took them in and acknowledged them. A lot of us don't really know how to do that yet. And I think it's very, very good for everybody of all ages to see that nobody is perfect. Even with the Pearson sisters, it was the same with them. Even when they knew some of the things that the other sister wasn't doing, it wasn't really right, they were still there for her whenever she needed it. I hope that type of love resonates.
Baker: I think that we showed that vulnerability is okay. Having family drama is okay. Not having a perfect family is okay. Not being okay is even more than okay. And I think that mental health is such a big aspect when it comes to the show and I'm hoping that people do take away and focus on their mental health more.
Herman: I hope people will take away from this show is that seeing how family — especially Randall and Beth — come together and how they support one another and how they deal with real life issues.
Cephas Jones: We're in a difficult time. So for me, what sums it up is love. I hope people take away the idea that love prevails. If we're going to survive, we're going to have to continue to love one another, find a way to love through our fears and through our anxieties and through our idea of separatism. We're going to have to come together to save the environment. We're going to have to come together to save our next generation of children. We have to come together to save our laws that are being taken away from us. This show has a lot of love in it. It's all about how we have this ability to really intensely love each other more than we hate each other.