Fresh, sexy, and necessary, Not Looking takes an insightful and entertaining look at the lives of three newly single gay men of colour in New York City—best friends Olu (Delius Doherty), Brandon (Jonathan Burke), and Sharif (Ahmad Maksoud)—who make a pact to stay out of romantic relationships for a year in order to support each other on their journeys of self-discovery. The series, which was co-created, co-written, and executive produced by Burke, Maksoud, and Doherty (who also directs), sets out to examine themes often neglected by television, including the first-generation American experience, colourism, and the nuances of racism in America.
So far the hour-long series has screened in New York, Los Angeles, and at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. Before the start of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, Delius Doherty, Jonathan Burke, and Ahmad Maksoud spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about how they came together to create Not Looking and their hopes for developing it further.
You premiered Not Looking in New York earlier this year, what did it mean to each of you to finally share the series with family, friends, peers, and the wider world, especially given the really warm reaction that it received that night?
Jonathan Burke: “It was really special and quite emotional for me. I cried because I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone showing up and also moved by how much it affected the people who were there watching it. Having an audience next to me and hearing their responses and how much they connected to these characters showed me how necessary this story is and how important it is to see yourself reflected on screen.”
Delius Doherty: “I had my mom and my sister there that night. My mom has seen me on Broadway and on television and in high school plays, and she’s always been like, ‘Okay, good’. After the Not Looking premiere we were in an Uber together and she looked at me and was like, ‘Delius, that was amazing’. After that I didn’t call any of my friends to ask for their opinions. I don’t care what anybody else thinks because my mom told me that it was amazing! To do something so queer and so vulnerable in front of my family, especially coming from the South where you hide everything, was really meaningful and for her to say that it was amazing really warmed my heart. I was like, ‘I’m complete now.'”
Ahmad Maksoud: “Getting to reflect on the incredible circumstances that this series was born out of and the collective experience that we all shared—not just the three of us, but everybody who came to see it—heightened the meaning of this piece. To be able to finally encapsulate that in an evening and to have us all collectively almost exorcise a lot of these past two years was overwhelming and beautiful.”
How did you come together as a trio and how did Not Looking come about?
Delius: “I first met Jonathan when I was in high school and he was in college, then we reconnected when I moved to New York. Ahmad and I met in December 2019 when we were doing a show together at the Public Theater called The Visitor about immigrants. In July 2020, we all decided to take a trip together to Provincetown. While we were there, because of the direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd, it seemed to me that white people were really overcorrecting or trying to overcompensate. They were being really, really nice and really flowery with their language to the point that we almost felt like an exhibit everywhere we went. So many weird, annoying, frustrating, funny things kept happening to us because we were this unit going around P’town together and I was like, ‘We have to write this!'”
“When I got back, I got on my computer and wrote about 10 pages that weren’t that great. It was called The Good Negro at that point and I presented it to Jonathan and Ahmad and they were like, ‘Okay, the idea is there, but let’s flesh it out’. At that time I was back in Houston, Texas where I’m originally from and that’s where I met our cinematographer, Alscott Worrell. We had intended for it to be a web series, but then the Broadway community was willing to work with us and so it got bigger than we’d initially thought it would be.”
Jonathan: “Delius was the glue that brought us together. That experience in P’town not only saw us deal with a lot of microaggressions and things that were a result of what happened that summer with the awakening of the racial trauma of the United States, but there were also a lot of fun and crazy things that happened in wild, unexpected circumstances. Our lives are so dynamic and so diverse and with the experience of being a gay man of colour comes so many nuances. We thought that those things would make an interesting story and something that we’ve never seen before on TV. There have been a lot of web series that have attempted to tell stories about queer men of colour, but on a large scale that really hasn’t happened. There have only been a few series that have centred gay men of colour which don’t only deal with the sexual aspect of being gay. We wanted to add to that to show that we are multifaceted. There’s so much more to our experience than sex. Yes, that’s a part of it, but there’s much more that goes with it.”
Ahmad: “As performers in 2020, we were all affected by the implosion of an industry that is still recovering, so we recognized this opportunity to take back the creation of our work. We had an opportunity to take back some of that agency and start making something based on our own experiences and revitalize what keeps us in this business. The circumstances were just so right; the three of us meeting, having this great time, going through all of these challenging experiences together, and then having the motivation to actually make something.”
Tell me about each of your characters and where we find them in their lives when we first meet them.
Ahmad: “Each of the characters draw from our own individual experiences which are then dramatized and expanded. My character Sharif is the first person you meet in the show. He is in this crisis of identity, particularly racial identity, and he deflects that through his sexual appeal and prowess and sexual desire. He doesn’t know how to reconcile that interest with the kind of person that he’s growing into. He’s used to sitting back and taking a lot of microaggressions that he faces in his stride and not really examining them. That’s his own personal challenge during the course of this story.”
Jonathan: “I play Brandon who comes from an upper middle class family in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents are very successful and they have instilled in him these qualities of wanting to do things “the right way”. That has manifested in him wanting to live this so called perfect life. He finds himself in a long-term relationship with his partner, Nate, and on the outside everyone thinks they’re a perfect couple. Brandon is an interior designer, he has a perfect apartment, but underneath it all the relationship isn’t good and he masks the traumas in his life with this veil of perfection because he doesn’t want anyone to see the real hurt that’s inside of him. All that comes to a head when he discovers that Nate has been cheating on him. That ends their relationship and leaves Brandon in a place where he’s able to discover who he is devoid of a relationship and examine this idea of what it means to be a perfect gay Black man in America. He goes on a journey of finding love of self and joy on his own terms.”
Delius: “At the beginning, these three newly single best friends make a pact to stay out of relationships for a year. That’s how these characters are connected. Being back in Houston, the pandemic afforded me so much time to think critically about my own actions, everything I’d done and hadn’t done up to that point. Living in New York, I’d never had that much time to think critically about myself and to really work on loving myself consistently and actually deal with the big traumas and the little traumas that I’d faced as a kid. My character Olu is someone who hasn’t yet gone on that reflective journey in his life. In an attempt to find love and keep love Olu moulds himself into other things. Taking drugs and partying is part of that. Olu is crazy and fun. He’s from Houston like me and he’s first generation Nigerian-American. He’s awesome.”
“We talk about colourism in Not Looking, which I feel proud to speak about loudly, but it’s also something that’s very vulnerable for me to do because in Texas it’s all about skin colour. On his journey to loving himself, Olu hasn’t got to the part where he’s like, ‘No, I’m not going to let all these outside factors and traumas affect who I am’. With these characters, we want to explore how we love ourselves as gay men of colour devoid of a romantic relationship.”
What you’ve created so far is really just a flavour of these characters and themes. What are your hopes for the future with the series, where would you like to go from here?
Delius: “We want to do a television show, that’s the goal. We did all of this with a $20,000 budget, from pre-production to production to post-production. We shot seven episodes that were around seven to 10 minutes long, and ideally we want each episode to be 30 minutes. Each chapter already has a theme that we can really expand upon with that additional time.”
Jonathan: “In order to make that happen, we’re looking for production companies to partner with so that we can take this series to networks and studios and pitch it to get that development deal to make the full-length series.”
Ahmad: “In terms of the content itself, we don’t often hear these nuanced conversations that men like us have with each other. There’s so much detail and complexity in our own experiences that we only get to touch upon in the hour-long piece that we’ve already created. Particularly coming out of this global conversation, we want audiences to dive into the intricacies of what these men go through individually and as friends and how they interact with society. When it comes to the intersection of race and sexuality, there’s such a dearth of material there and the conversations that we do get are often really thin or superficial and can be pandering.”
Delius: “It was really important for us as the co-writers and creators, and for me as a director, to have those conversations. It could have been really easy to say, ‘Look what happens to us, we’re so angry, we’re so traumatized’, but Black people and people of colour are so much more resilient than that. We’re not crying all the time about trauma, we are conditioned to keep pushing.”
As well as having something to say, the show is really funny. One of my favourite lines is when Sharif shouts at his brother who wants him to be less open about being gay, ‘It’s New York, everyone makes a scene!’ Was the comedy always an important part of Not Looking?
Ahmad: “The comedy exists in our own lives, so we didn’t necessarily have to work hard to make it funny. I had that conversation in real life and that was how I responded. Our lives are really funny sometimes when you look at them from a bird’s eye view. We wanted to be authentic to our own experiences and they happen to be really funny sometimes.”
You’ve put together a great soundtrack, how did that come together?
Jonathan: “The three of us have all been in Broadway musicals and have training in musical theatre so we understand the importance of musical storytelling and how that can really enhance things. We looked for songs that weren’t only cool tracks that sounded nice, but ones that would actually help to advance the plot and further open up what the characters were feeling and going through.”
“Because we’re so intent on telling queer stories and elevating queer voices, we tried to find as many queer artists as possible. That was a huge thing in creating the soundtrack which we’re so proud of and we’re so grateful to all those artists for being part of it. We have created playlists on Apple Music and Spotify so you can listen to these amazing artists and hear the story of the series, because these songs truly mirror the characters’ journeys.”
Delius, what were your intentions for the look of the show?
Delius: “We used cine lenses because they pick up all that beautiful detail of colour and depth. People of colour look really good with good lighting and good cameras, and I wanted us to look good! Once we get real money, I want it to be shot like a film using a RED camera. That’s what’s so beautiful about shows like Insecure and I May Destroy You.”
How about when it came to the costume design, which you were in charge of Jonathan, what was your approach there?
Jonathan: “Talking about looking good, in terms of costuming we were very deliberate about how we dressed each character. With Olu, he’s fun and full of life and has his Nigerian heritage, so he’s a very colourful character. We wanted to highlight that through what he’s wearing, so there is a lot of colour and and we play with patterns. Then with Sharif, he’s an Arab American, he’s very spiritual and in tune with nature. He’s also trying to find himself, so his fabrics are flowing and unstructured because he’s not as settled in himself, he’s still finding who he is. Brandon is very structured and he has tailored outfits. Black and white are his colours, he’s very chic and clean in the way he dresses. He goes from these darker colours when he’s in his more depressed states, then as he tries to find some light in his life he goes into white. There’s a blend of the two when he’s trying to figure things out. It was very fun to style and costume everyone. It really added to the storytelling. The distinct style of each character allows you to understand what type of person they are.”
Talking of costumes, there’s also a great Speedo moment on the beach!
Jonathan: “Yes, we did have a lovely Speedo moment! It was actually freezing cold that day, it was one of the coldest days ever and we were in Speedos on the beach! We were running and doing push-ups between takes to stay warm, then we’d chill when they called action so hopefully we didn’t look like we were all freezing, but we were!”
Delius: “That was the last day that we shot so that why we’re so skinny at that point because we hadn’t slept or eaten for about two weeks! We were all wearing so many hats on this production, but as exhausted and hungry as we were it was so fun to have ownership of our work and of our own stories. I feel like that was reflected on set. Those were some of the most magical days because as hard that beach shoot was, once it was over, I was like, I cannot believe we did this and that these people showed up for us like this, in Speedos in the freezing cold! It was really amazing.”
Lastly, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Ahmad: “Paris is Burning. I find it to be such a seminal launchpad for our culture, for men of colour, and particularly for Black men. What that piece has generated for our culture for decades is extraordinary. Almost everything goes back to Paris is Burning, so that’s my touch-point.”
Delius: “Noah’s Arc. As a kid, I was astounded to see gay men that were Black in a scripted series that had multiple seasons, and then a movie. They were so fine. They are so fine! I would love to one day to be able to do something like that and to be seen in that way.”
Jonathan: “Yeah, Noah’s Arc was the blueprint. Patrik-Ian Polk, we speak your name, thank you, sir. I agree with both of those things and I would have said either of them, but I’m going say Tarell Alvin McCraney. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I worked with him on the Broadway production of Choirboy that he wrote. He’s really pushing the narrative forward about what it means to be a Black gay man in America in a really nuanced way. Not only theatrically, but also on screen with David Makes Man. He speaks to our generation in such a true, honest way and I can’t say enough about the beauty of his language and storytelling and creativity. He brings another element to queer storytelling that is so necessary and vital. And, he’s an Academy Award winner for Moonlight, let’s not forget. He’s covered all the bases—theatre, television, and film—and it’s fantastic.”
By James Kleinmann
***This interview was conducted prior to the start of SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes***