Mallori Johnson: 'Kindred' captures heaviness of Octavia E. Butler's time-travel tale

Mallori Johnson stars in "Kindred. Photo courtesy of FX
1 of 4 | Mallori Johnson stars in "Kindred. Photo courtesy of FX

NEW YORK, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Actress Mallori Johnson said she always was keenly aware of the gravity anchoring her TV adaptation of Octavia E. Butler's 1979 novel Kindred, which follows Dana, a modern-day Black woman who time-travels to the Antebellum South.

All eight episodes of the series are streaming via FX on Hulu.


"There's this line that she says, 'It's almost like a video game.' There are these moments where it hits you what this is -- that people who looked like me truly experienced inhumane awful suffering, and I have to take that on and carry that in my body," Johnson recently said about playing Dana in a New York Comic Con panel discussion.

"There were moments when I was like: 'Yeah, OK, I'm in my script. I'm doing my thing. I'm figuring out my circumstances.' And then, there were moments where I'm doing a scene and I'm like: 'Oh, my God. I can feel the presence of my ancestors here,'" she recalled.


"There was something in the land, particularly, because we were filming in Georgia. I would look down at the lake or I would touch the ground, and I could feel this heaviness. It's devastating."

Writer and executive producer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins confirmed the show was filmed on property most likely worked by Black slaves more than 200 years ago.

"There was a general sense of uncanniness always around us," Jacobs-Jenkins said about the African American members of the cast and crew.

"That's part of the tension of the show -- taking contemporary sensibilities and placing it back there and being forced to call into question the assumption of our superiority or our safety and security."

Jacobs-Jenkins pointed to Episode 2 in which Dana keeps forgetting it is not socially permissible to look White people in the eyes in this time and place.

"But that was a real thing," he emphasized. "That's a small thing, but a profound thing to see someone negotiate because we're just so used to being present with each other on equal terms."

Micah Stock, who plays Dana's White boyfriend, Kevin, acknowledged it is rare that an actor is offered an exciting role that also feels like "an awakening of sorts."


"The questions that Kindred asks, [Butler] was brave enough to ask decades before people were willing to do so," Stock said.

"In time-travel stories that we've seen before, people who travel back in time are like, 'I know exactly what to do.' What Octavia explored in her book and what Branden highlighted in his version was what would be the real response to this?" he said, referring to how Kevin eventually accompanies Dana on her trips to the past.

"Kevin fumbles and tries to respond to it the right way, the strongest way, but he sometimes fails because he is thrown into a situation that is unknowable and utterly terrifying."

Jacobs-Jenkins agreed this human authenticity gives even more dimension to the sci-fi-historical fiction story.

"The journey of Dana and Kevin trying to manage this drag is the source of a lot of strangeness and humor and absurdity in the show," he said, alluding to how Dana and Kevin try to pretend they belong in the past so they can help the people they meet there.

The showrunner said he regards himself as "the luckiest fan in history" because he was able to give a book that has meant so much to him "its next iteration."


"On some deeply nerd level, actually, I'm just interested in conversations with other fans," he said.

"There are really devotees who have been following and championing this work and really meditating about her legacy and her philosophy for so much of her life, a lot of creatives and activists, too. This is super-duper wild. This is not just a fan event, it is a literary event."

Johnson added: "I'm just proud to be a part of a project that gives Octavia Butler her flowers, which she never got while she was alive.

"That's such a wonderful and beautiful thing. She was one of the first African American women to create stories that were expansive for Black people, and that's something that I strive to do -- cultivate a world of possibility for us.

"We don't have to just watch our history, we can actually change it. I think that's what the story is for me, and I felt grateful."

Butler died in 2006 at age 58.

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