Kiersey Clemons first learned about the musical RENT as a teenager, via its most famous number: “Seasons of Love.” She wasn’t really into musicals at the time, but she did have to sing the song at a recital. Nevertheless, when the chance came to play the role of Joanne — a Black, queer woman just like herself — she was excited by the character, who she called “inspiring.” She’ll debut her interpretation of Joanne alongside Drag Race’s Valentina, Vanessa Hudgens and Tinashe on Sunday night, when Fox airs its live version of RENT.
“When I was young, I thought that Joanne was so cool,” Clemons said in an interview with Out. “I was thrilled by anybody that looked like me.”
Representation is, as we all know, essential. And fortunately, Clemons has had the opportunity to play queer multiple times in her career. After starring in several Disney series and a Nickelodeon show, Clemons broke out when the film Dope premiered at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival. She went back to Sundance in 2018, playing queer again, in the film Hearts Beat Loud. She also sang several songs for Loud, which is about a father and daughter duo (played by Clemons and Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman) who start a band out of a Brooklyn record store.
Despite her evident aplomb on the pop-rock songs on Hearts Beat Loud, Clemons says that she was intimidated by RENT’s relatively high musical demands. When she first went to meet with the director and music director, she was forthright and told them she was nervous.
“I know that’s not how you start an audition, but I was just like, laying it out,” she says. “These songs are hard to sing. I didn’t know know if I could do them, but that’s because I never really tried.”
She adds, “Those harmonies in ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ were hard,” she says, “but we got it.”
Yes, Joanne is a vocally demanding role. But there’s a lot about the uptight lawyer that draws Clemons in. Playing the Black, queer role in one of history’s most iconic musicals isn’t just about playing Black and queer. It’s also getting to inhabit a character that offers an exciting (yet familiar) range of potential. Like Joanne, Clemons often sees herself torn between two extremes: her creative, carefree side and a more aggressive side.
“[Joanne] has this weakness for people like Maureen because she wants to be like her,” she said. “I want to make these complexities more apparent. I am trying to throw in these bits of vulnerability.”
Clemons does sometimes worry that her choice of roles might lead to her being typecast. Negotiating these kinds of dynamics is a burden that, as she points out, is often only placed on minority actors in Hollywood. Her key to progress lies in finding perspective. “I shouldn’t let that put me in a box,” Clemons says, “It’s actually the thing that liberates me.”
It’s a privilege — “I’ve played Black queer characters more than once or twice, which a lot of queer people do not get to do,” she says — but, of course, there’s a flip side. “I got a tweet and someone said like, ‘This person only plays queer people,’” she says. “We never say anything to white men about just playing straight white men who drink whiskey — and they do it all the time!”
But overshadowing her fear is her pride to be a part of this renaissance of Black queer representation. Nafessa Williams plays a Black lesbian superhero on CW’s Black Lightning. 2016’s Moonlight won best picture. And Clemons has her string of aforementioned queer roles. Eleven years may have passed since Clemons first learned about RENT, but she’s also hyper aware of what the 1996 musical has to say to our current political moment.
“Over that amount of time, to see technology and all these things change and yet our country is still kind of the same in how we treat people with illnesses or disabilities or because of the color of their skin or their gender identity or sexual orientation,” Clemons says, “the themes in this show are still relevant today.”