For a lot of us, the illusion of existing in a post-racial world has been broken over the past couple years, though many still see the mild strides in racial diversity in media as “good enough.” But just like having a black friend doesn’t give you permission to say the N word, having one black cast member doesn’t make your show diverse.
Enter “Tokens,” a new web series exploring both the benefits and the drawbacks of being the token diversity. The show follows Troy, played by series writer Troy Dangerfield, and Stefan, played by Stefan Dezil, as they tire of their homogeneous ivory friend circles and set off on a journey to reconnect with their cultural roots at a mysterious, exclusive black Halloween party called “Mecca,” held somewhere in LA.
I spoke with Troy and series director Benjamin Welmond about their own roots, their show, and what the future holds.
Stareable: How did you all meet?
Troy Dangerfield: Benji and I met through Stefan Dezil, the star of Tokens. Benji and I were actually in pre-production on another project back in the day. We met every weekend for about three weeks and just had coffee and talked about art that we enjoyed. I loved Benji’s eye and his knowledge and respect for classic cinema. The most important thing I considered when Stefan suggested Benji was trust. We really had to trust each other and I knew it was going to be a long process. It’s funny that now I feel like we touch base every night.
Stefan and I actually met in NY. It was an interesting because I was doing my final semester of college in NYC in a program called Tepper. It is kind of a transition from being a student to a professional actor; we took classes at Juilliard and the MTC (Manhattan Theater Club). Stefan was one of 6 directors in the same program. I think in a lot of ways we both were isolated from our peers in the program. I was a transfer and Stefan being the young genius that he is wasn’t 21 yet. We were also the only black guys from each of our programs. We spent at least a week actively avoiding one another not trying to make it look like the two black guys had to be friends but it didn’t work and after our first conversation we spent the rest of the program together as BFFs.
What was the development and production process like for the show, as a team?
TD: What is interesting about Tokens is that this concept has been in the works for years. Stefan and I had developed two pilot versions, a short, and a feature of the concept. So when it came time to write the episodes these characters flowed pretty easily. I found it difficult wearing the hat of producer, writer, and actor. It was pretty difficult to shake one thing and jump into the next but that was the genius of Benji. He was really good at kicking me into the gear of whatever hat I needed to be wearing in that moment. Also, Stefan was really good at giving both Benji and myself an objective view of how things were progressing on set. Sometimes what we had planned in our head isn’t coming across on set and he was a great eye and was able to see things that Benji and I may have missed.
Benjamin Welmond: One of the things that I have realized that I do as a director is I push people right to their limits and I don’t think I pushed anybody as hard as [I pushed] Troy, but he always delivered and it’s something I really appreciate about this production. I remember one time I had requested something and Troy said to me, “you realize that you just ask for something to be done and then I somehow conjure it out of thin air?” And I thought to myself, “I’m going to be working with this guy for a long time.”… Going into this production as a white director, I realized I would need help illustrating the more esoteric realities of being a black man in a white world that would take sensitivity and input from the cast. Luckily both Stefan and Troy were very open, and I think I learned a lot from the production.
What about the web series format felt right for this project?
BW: The web series format to me ensures that the right audience has access to the show. We are talking about very specific situations and characters that might feel like a risk at a major network. Plus we get the opportunity to experiment stylistically in a way that feels genuine and exciting and fresh. When the trailer first launched, Troy received an email from a 13-year-old kid talking about how much they related to the characters onscreen, and it’s great to me that a web series allows us to immediately plug into a very specific audience very quickly.
TD: Yes! Tokens are defined as “a thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of a fact or truth.” Troy and Stefan’s characters are a representation of the “token black guys” but, each episode can be a token moment. As a web series, I love the idea of being able to watch on your phone or computer a 3min Token episode and see it as a moment of truth.
How did you raise the funds for the series, and can you offer advice to other creators in that vein?
TD: Tokens was a project that was almost entirely self-funded… [it] cost $6,000 to shoot… I personally have a problem when people who have never made anything ask for $25,000 on Kickstarter. Where is your proof of concept? How do I know if I give you this money you will complete something? Why do you need so much to make something? I am the first to say that Tokens isn’t perfect, but we were able to create a piece of art with limited resources and anyone can do that. You need to be tenacious, creative and know how to ask for favors. For me, knowing that I handled a $6,000 budget and made a product I am proud of gives me the freedom and clout to ask for real resources to make more and to do it better, because I can say, “look at what I did with nothing, imagine what I could do with help.”
BW: I wasn’t involved in the fundraising, but I will say that you are probably wrong about how much money you need to get it done and that you can cut enough corners to make it work.
Editor’s note: for advice on cutting corners and raising funds, check out our fundraising article here!
Tell us about “Mecca”- is it based on a real-world community or area? What will the characters get from visiting, and what will they learn about themselves and their place in the world?
TD: Mecca for Troy and Stefan is a chance to reconnect with their roots- a place where they can find this acceptance and a community that they feel they are lacking. I think creating Mecca as a place is just a fun way of manifesting this loss and urge that they feel, as well as the fear of being the tokens without a community to call home. I will say that if Mecca was a place in LA it would be Colors. Colors is a slew of nationwide events from comedy nights, R&B nights, and 90’s hip-hop nights to name a few. I will say that in my daily life in LA whenever I have the opportunity to experience Colors there is a sense of home community and joy that I don’t often get a chance to experience. In a lot of ways just having that momentary joy does replenish my spirit; it’s church.
BW: Mecca, to me, almost entirely functions as a symbolic expectation of our heroes, this naive idea that their feelings of alienation and their insulated world of micro-aggressions can be solved by simply reaching a location. In the beginning of the show, Stefan, in particular, is sure that reaching Mecca means that reconnecting with his black roots is a simple process that will solve all of his problems, but as the show continues, our characters begin asking themselves more complex questions about what that means. One of the beautiful things about the show is that we don’t say that there is a right or wrong answer to the question of identity and that understanding one’s own roots can be a fun and exciting process too (don’t want to ruin too much).
What were some of the challenges of making this show?
BW: Other than some of the more identity-related questions I had during and prior to filming, our production was honestly pretty smooth sailing all the way through. We were blessed to have such an array of passionate talent both on-screen and off, I honestly can’t imagine things could have gone better with our shoestring budget.
TD: I worry about finding ways to challenge ideas of identity and diversity and push people out of their comfort zones without being gimmicky…. especially when we are trying to get people to laugh through the process. It’s something we strive to do but to consistently do it well.
What are some of your favorite web series?
BW: I love Vic Berger remixing interviews with famous people into surrealist nightmares for Super Deluxe… [and] a friend of mine, Alex Spieth @Alex_Spieth , is working on a really awesome web series called “Blank My Life” which I recommend for its strong performances and smart writing.
TD: My introduction to television was working for ABC on Castle with Nathan Fillion. While I was working with him on the show, he and Alan Tudyk were getting ready to shoot Con Man. I really enjoyed the series, and though it is not a typical web series, it had a lot of laughs, and as a nerd, I am a big fan of those two.