Tituss Burgess addresses issue of diversity in the media

Tituss Burgess was rarely still during the talk, interacting directly with the audience at times. Samantha Kruzshak | Concordiensis

On October 25, Speaker’s Forum, Union Pride, and Black Student Union worked in collaboration to bring Tituss Burgess to Union in an event regarded as “A Night with Tituss Burgess.”

Burgess is well known for his starring role in the hit comedy show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” as well as his two-time Emmy nomination, 2015 Best Actor Webby Award and 2015 Best Supporting Actor Gold Derby TV award.

Before making his mark on the world of television, Burgess held several positions on Broadway, including Hal Miller in “Jersey Boys,” Sebastian the Crab in “The Little Mermaid” and Nicely Nicely Johnson in the 2009 version of “Guys and Dolls.”

Making his first ever appearance in the Nott Memorial, Tituss regarded his talk on October 25 as one more iconic moment in his career. “Being here and being able to speak to you young people … ” Tituss explains. “This assists me, and therefore this moment is iconic.”

Burgess was welcomed to the stage by Union student Andrew Cassarino ’18. Sitting across from one another in a mock television interview, Cassarino asked his first question: “To you, what is alternative media?”

“An unfortunate phrasing,” replied Burgess, to which was received with laughter and snaps of agreement from the audience. “It suggests that minorities are offered up something not worthy of being the center of attention.” Alternative media, according to Burgess, does simultaneously offer a platform to address such issues.

“How do you see diversity in the media reflecting a campus like Union?” supplemented Cassarino. To this, Burgess replied, “Being in college is just insular.” Burgess proceeded to explain that college campuses, especially those as small as Union, can be somewhat limiting in terms of real world knowledge and experience. However, acting on the initiative to bring speakers such as himself proves that we as students are actively embracing different voices and outside influences. “College is a bizarre maturation period between high school and the real world … how you are going to tackle the world and contribute is being formed right now,” Burgess commented.

Cassarino continued the interview with an inquiry on one of the most prevalent sources of television entertainment in college. “Do you think Netflix is doing enough to counter the lack of diversity on cable networking?” Burgess answered that Netflix is single-handedly deconstructing race and gender stereotypes, as well as recreating the strategies with which these issues are addressed. Netflix, Burgess explains, does not answer to any other businesses, advertising agencies or any source that would influence its content. Viewers of Netflix “pay sole focus to what they want.”

Cassarino proceeded to read Burgess a question by a member of the audience, Toni Batha ’17, who asked: “Has the diversification of visual media sources, which caused a diversification of shows, also resulted in a fragmentation of audiences?” Burgess responded: “We are living in a television renaissance.” Because there are so many places to find what you want to watch, people no longer rely on a middle man for a show to be successful.

Although polarization can sometimes dictate how a show is written and received, Burgess emphasized that the streaming networks he and the cast of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” work with allow freedom that pushes beyond such restraints.

Switching to topics of gentrification, Cassarino steered the conversation with the question: “Along with highlighting diversity, the show looks at social problems, like gentrification and how it affects people. How important is this dynamic to the show?”

Burgess answered with a straight face, “We could just have a whole show about a raging queen, but that would be boring.” With this construct, however, Burgess emphasized that the struggles of his character Titus Andromedon in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” provide a backdrop for gentrification. Titus Andromedon’s inability to keep a job, partnered with his ever-present threat of eviction, is just one way gentrification is displayed in the show.

Cassarino, guiding the discussion towards Burgess’ acting career, asked, “The New York Times said your role on the show was tailor-made for you. When you read the casting call for Titus Andromedon from Tina Fey, what went through your mind?” Burgess agreed that he saw himself strongly reflected in the role. Burgess expresses his confusion over this, as he had not spoken to the show’s writer, Tina Fey, since he played a small role in the sitcom “30 Rock” years prior.

At the time, however, he had been living in a basement apartment in Harlem, facing the same aspriring-actor struggles that Titus Andromedon faces in the show. “I thought it was a cruel joke. I thought, either I’m going to have job, or I have to figure out how to sue this woman.”

Focusing in on the character Titus Andromedon, Burgess commented on the character’s emotional development over the seasons. Burgess expresses his excitement for the third season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which is still in the process of being written.

“Would you be roommates with Titus Andromedon?” Cassarino asked. “Hell no,” responded Burgess. “Are there any similarities between you and Titus Andromedon?” Cassarino continued. “No,” Burgess once again concluded, inciting laughter from the audience.

Continuing on the topic of Burgess’ acting career, Cassarino asked about both childhood influences and current mentors in the acting/music industry. Burgess responded, “Lena Horne’s in the movie ‘The Wiz.” Burgess stated that Horne’s performance of “Believe in Yourself” was the reason he went into the music industry. As for current mentors, Burgess advocated Tina Fey, primarily due to her work ethic.

Steering the conversation to Burgess’ personal life, Cassarino inquired about Burgess’ wine brand, PBTB Wine. “I think a lot of people here know your season one beloved song ‘Pinot Noir.’ What they may not know is that you actually own your own wine brand now. How has that experience been?” Burgess began to explain how the idea of his own wine brand came to be.

After performing the song “Pinot Noir” on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Burgess was repeatedly tweeted pictures of different Pinot Noirs by fans of the show/song. Burgess thought to himself that he might as well be tweeted pictures of his own brand of Pinot Noir.

After tasting a variety of wines, Burgess was very confident in the wine he called “Number three.” “A lot of mass distributors frown on celebrity wines,” commented Burgess. “But this one is really worth it’s ‘Pinot.’”

Cassarino proceeded to open the interview to a Q&A session with the audience. When asked the question, “Have you fulfilled your dreams?” Burges answered that to do so is impossible, for his dreams are “ever-changing” and “reconfiguring.” Although he agrees that he has fulfilled many aspirations he had years ago, Burgess continues to set goals for himself.

Another question asked was “Have you ever been offended by anything written for you?” in reference to the script of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Burgess replied that the context of the overall script always satisfies the need for whatever odd things he has to say as Titus Andromedon. Although there has been content he has been temporarily uncomfortable with saying in the past, he commented: “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it had substance.”Lastly, Burgess was asked “Do you have a mantra that you live by?” Burgess quickly responded with the words “You have nothing to prove, only to share.”


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