chat room

Flatbush Misdemeanors’ Kristin Dodson Has Big Dreams for Zayna

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

In the second season of Showtime’s Flatbush Misdemeanors, Kristin Dodson’s Zayna Bien-Aime is the grounded, understandably exasperated straight woman to the men who keep letting her down. Her former teacher Dan (series co-creator Dan Perlman) is still taking benzos despite promising to get clean in exchange for her testimony at his reinstatement hearing. New boyfriend Desmond (Joshua J. Williams) is more involved in his cousin’s drug-dealing operation than he would like to admit. And her father Anthony (Kirk Jones, a.k.a. rapper Sticky Fingaz) is serving time while her guardian and uncle, Drew (Hassan Johnson), is in hiding after accidentally shooting someone at the end of season one. Still, Zayna is devoted to experiencing an ordinary adolescence — and Dodson’s silver tongue and no-nonsense performance make that desire urgent, funny, and deeply felt.

“It can be really intimidating working with these people,” says Dodson, who received her M.F.A. from the Graduate Acting Program at Columbia University earlier this year, of acting opposite Jones and Johnson. “I’m working with these heavyweights in the culture and holding my own. Zayna is the leading lady, if we have to call someone a leading lady, and she’s going toe to toe.”

With alternately wry and dry humor, Flatbush Misdemeanors offers a portrait of a gentrifying neighborhood and its working-class inhabitants, people trying to maintain their identities while making ends meet in the face of such encroachment. Season-one Zayna often served as a complicating factor in the tensions between drug dealer Drew, drug-addicted Dan, and Dan’s close friend, the artist Kevin (series co-creator Kevin Iso), but season two expands her sense of self. Over the ten episodes that concluded with August 21 finale “Memento Mori,” Zayna experiences her first heartbreak, indulges her creativity via a successful jewelry business and costume-designing the high-school play, and grapples with her place within her community while establishing her own boundaries and independence.

You’re born and raised in Brooklyn and you’re of Caribbean descent, two qualities that overlap with Zayna. How much of Kristin is in Zayna?
Probably a good 60 percent. Zayna reminds me a lot of myself when I was in high school. What we don’t talk about enough — and if there are future seasons, I would love to hear more about — is that she’s half-Caribbean and half–Black American, which is literally me. My mom’s side is from Saint Vincent, and my dad’s side is from the South. Growing up, you have two very different cultures at the same time. With this season, it really hit me when we see Zayna’s dad: They have a different relationship and connection than Zayna and her mom. There is so much anger with her mom not being there, but with her dad, it’s like, Oh, he can do no wrong. And when I was that age, I was like, Daddy could do no wrong, whereas Mom is like, Ugh, God. [Laughs.] She was probably a little bit stricter, too; Caribbean parents are, especially in how they raise girls as opposed to boys. I feel like I got more leniency from my dad than I got from her. My dream is to see Zayna’s parents together in an episode and what that does for her. I would love to show more of her Haitian culture: her trying to learn how to cook black rice or even griot.

What else do you think the series should explore?
I would love to dive into the celebratory aspects of Caribbean culture: the West Indian Day Parade, a Haitian masquerade ball, or something called Passa Passa, which is another party.

I think only Zayna’s mom is back in Haiti, so I would love to see her hanging out with her Haitian grandma who only speaks Creole. She’s messing with Zayna because she doesn’t speak Creole and doesn’t know how to cook the food. I know I felt like that growing up. My mom was hell-bent on us being as American as possible because she’s an immigrant; she knew how hard it was coming to this country, so she wanted her kids to be just as American, but still know their roots. I would love to see that struggle of feeling displaced in your own community because you have to relearn your language again.

Are you fluent?
No, I am not. I wish! I’ve been trying to take lessons on my own.

Was Zayna’s season-two arc presented to you before production? 
It was hinted that she was getting a little boyfriend, and I thought it was going to be really cute, lovey-dovey — and no. Yeesh. It doesn’t end so great. It got dark for her.

It did get dark, but my sense of Zayna this season was that she was very committed to figuring out who she could be on her own: She runs her jewelry business. She ends the relationship with Desmond on her own terms. She stands up for herself in ways Dan, Kevin, and Drew don’t.
I was really excited about the scenes between Zayna and Desmond. It was very important to make her feel cared for. This was not an opportunity to be gratuitous or overly sexualize her. I loved trying to invoke more body positivity, because I’m just going to be real: When we see these younger characters, there’s a certain body shape, and I don’t have that body type. [Laughs.] I was happy we got a chance to embrace her curves. And also see her softer side: We so often see Black girls deal with trauma, and there’s a hardness that develops in order to stay afloat. We get these moments with Zayna where we see that break, whether she’s having fun creating costumes or walking down a street with a boy she likes. You see that pure innocence and joy.

Do you think Zayna has any regrets about ending her relationship with Desmond?
No. But that scene was so hard to film. They had me do it so many ways: a comedic way, a more dramatic way. It was heartbreaking, like, Damn. You were the one person I could depend on in a very intimate way, a way others don’t see me, and you let me down. She just lost her virginity, and he’s not a virgin, and you get upset because of something between my uncle and your cousin? And then you leave me? I was so frustrated doing that scene. I remember talking to the director, like, “I don’t like what’s happening! Am I reading the same script as y’all? We can’t do this to this girl! This feels really traumatic! We need some justice for her!”

The next scene, when she’s on the stoop, was fucked up because now he’s saying, “Well, actually, I was thinking about fucking your friend.” [Pauses.] That was improv, too. [Laughs.] Me and the actor, Joshua, we hated doing that shit. We were like, “I don’t want it to be this way.” It was so intense for us. But I don’t think she regrets it. If anything, she felt really let down in that moment. I would love for her to not feel that way in the future. I want to see her come out on top in terms of relationships, particularly with men. It’s like, damn, she got let down by Dan with the whole drug shit: I just vouched for you, and now you literally are turning around and popping pills. Her relationship with Drew, he never could do right. He be trying, but it always falls short. Now, with her dad in the picture, I’m sure there will be some growing pains.

Despite the tensions with Drew and Anthony throughout the season, do you think she ends up feeling protected by them?
Definitely. Something I had to learn as an adult, and I think Zayna is learning at a young age, is that we may want something to look a certain way, but even if it doesn’t end up looking the way you want it to, that doesn’t make it wrong. Sometimes you have to learn how to shift your perspective. From a young age, she’s learned that Drew may not be a model caretaker while her parents are in different places, but he is there. He does care. And I think that’s why she didn’t want to leave: Leave everything that I know? Leave my uncle, no matter how much he gets on my nerves? I don’t want to do that. 

Your line delivery of “You my family, too” to Drew in the season finale is so layered because she’s exhausted by him but also very affectionate toward him.
That whole scene melted my heart. It was not traumatic. I didn’t have to be snarky. This is a moment where I can be the child and allow myself to be vulnerable. It was so sweet.

You mentioned Dan and Kevin encourage improv on set. Which moments made it into this season?
Man, here’s the tea on that: There’s always improv. A lot of that Buffy the Vampire Slayer stuff with Drew was improv. We are just able to [snaps fingers] bounce off each other so naturally. Or we’ll get the “Showtime cuts” out of the way, and after that it’s nothing but play. In the last episode, when it’s Zayna, Anthony, and Drew sitting at a table, I make the comment, “Yeah, some crazy white lady, she really liked my costumes” — I never had a scene with Nancy, but I’m bringing that full circle, the crazy white lady who loves Black culture.

In that final conversation with Drew and Anthony, Zayna says, “It’s time for me to start choosing myself.” What do you think “choosing myself” looks like for her? 
A lot of kids who are not in the same household as their parents are forced to grow up faster and look out for everybody else, which breeds these people-pleasers with a heightened sense of anxiety. I would love to see her focus on, What do I want? What do I need? The hope is to have an episode where everyone wants her to go to college, but for her to choose herself and say, “No, I’m not going,” and move away from that idea that you go to college after you finish high school. Not take a gap year — “No. I don’t want to do that. I know exactly what I want to do.” Choosing herself is learning how to set boundaries, especially with the adults in her life. For her to be able to say, “I can’t and I’m not going to deal with that” and also telling them, “I don’t want to be this mini-adult. I just want to be a kid right now.”

I don’t know if there’s an opportunity for her to do design and work underneath someone. I hope Kerby Jean-Raymond is hearing this: I would love Zayna to get an internship working with Pyer Moss. Or Unique Expozzure by Jeff Karly. We see a ton of his stuff in the first season. I love that they included these young Black artists in the wardrobe. I hope to see more of that.

The costumes for Zayna were really fun this season. Her denim outfit in the finale is great. 
That outfit is from Broken Land. Janai Wray’s a young designer in Brooklyn. Dajia Milan, the costume designer this season, and [stylist] Kareem James, they did the damn thing with the fits. I was so impressed by everything that they pulled. They chose a lot of Black, Brooklyn-based and Harlem-based designers.

There was always the fear, “We don’t want Zayna to grow up too fast.” She had this gorgeous look — a durag and this long trench coat with a fur collar — and it was fire. We wanted that so bad, but they were just like, “No, she looks a little too mature. We want to hold off on that right now.” But it was hot.

That reminds me of a ’90s Mya look.
That’s what we were going for! Slash a little Rihanna-inspired. It was everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Flatbush Misdemeanors’ Kristin Dodson on Dreams for Zayna