Across the cultural landscape, many new shows are creating storylines that either predate the pandemic or allude to the circumstances to normalize it. While some shows may include elements like face masks or talk about illnesses, there are few shows about how the pandemic shifted the world for more than three years, and about the humans who need to live with those transitions daily.
Offsides Productions’ newest show Normal Ain’t Normal premiered at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) to two sold-out screenings, and will be available on BuzzFeed starting September 27.
The four episodes show people straddling with the effects of the demands to “return to normal.” Written and filmed during the pandemic, ”Normal Ain’t Normal” faces the impact of the pandemic directly by naming the anxiety and stressors happening to people in real time.
Directed by Yvan Iturriaga and Executive Produced by Josh Healey, the two co-creators of the new show previously collaborated on the The North Pole, a series from 2017 that focused on North Oakland. Normal Ain’t Normal also makes Oakland a character in the show and largely features local talent in front of the camera and behind the lens. The short form series follows four characters based in Oakland, each navigating how their world is shifting as they deal with rent increases, to debt created by medical bills, and the layers that impact people of color within those health detriments.
Rosario Dawson, who also acted in The North Pole, returns for Normal Ain’t Normal as Executive Producer and makes a comedic appearance in the first episode. At the premiere, Dawson seemed elated to be in Oakland sharing these stories with a local audience. “We kept wondering if the year and a half in a post-COVID world, that this was going to somehow seem irrelevant…It actually feels that much more poignant now than it was,” Dawson told Oakland Voices.
Normal Ain’t Normal calls out the state of society, the “normal,” we lived in prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the inequities that was only made worse, especially the already-struggling working class: artists, small business owners, cleaners, and others.
The show features Reem Assil, James Beard Award finalist, chef and author of Arabiyya: Recipes From the Life of An Arab in Diaspora, lending her voice to issues of food justice. Assil makes her acting and screenwriting debut playing a fictionalized version of herself in Episode 4, “Share The Pie”. “It’s semi- autobiographical. So it is a piece of myself out there, but I think this could be anybody’s story in the food world,” Assil said at the premiere.
As a small business owner, Assil herself was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. Owner of Reem’s California, Assil was experiencing the pressure, attempting to save her own restaurants while being asked, “what would save the restaurant industry?”
”I’m hoping that it will hit heart strings–at least get people angry enough to remind themselves that we need to change the industry,” Assil told Oakland Voices. “If we are going to build resilience among working class folks and BIPOC folks, then something’s gotta change.”
In the first episode, Tristan Cunningham plays Sasha, a woman burdened by fears mounting as high as her medical bills. Relating to the comedy through tragedy while learning about her role, Cunningham’s character jokes with her friends about not calling an ambulance. Although in jest, Cunningham understood the fears around the cost of getting sick being worse than the illness. “We were kind of normalizing this thing that’s heartbreaking,” Cunningham said. She added that she felt drawn to work with Offsides Productions because they connect humor with their messaging. “It’s real and it really straddles humor and realness, which I think is a hard thing to do.”
Sal Lopez (Full Metal Jacket) plays Jamie in the third episode, who believes in saving and repairing things in a world where material items are discarded and disposable, a parallel for how humans are treated.
Normal Ain’t Normal also stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Reservation Dogs) as Wes, an Indigenous young man grappling over his familial and inner turmoil over property and land, caught between a brother (played by Martin Sensmeier) who seems greedy and wants to build generational wealth, while his working class tenants are suffering and angry. Tommy Orange, author of There, There, the award-winning book about Native Americans in Oakland, comes on as screenwriter for this episode.
The premiere was a celebration of Oakland, including voices from organizers and nonprofits, such as nurses, who remain on the frontlines of healthcare equity advocating for Medicare for All, and the local, Indigenous women-led Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, among others.
The love for Oakland was definitely present, with Dawson adding that through working together, the team was able to produce something “bigger and better than what we could do on our own: that’s what Oakland brings.”
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To learn more about Normal Ain’t Normal watch the trailer, visit Offsides Productions’ website, or watch the series on Buzzfeed starting September 27, 2022.
Episode 1: “Life and Debt”
Episode 2: “Unlord the Land”
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