Sesame Street has a long history of inclusion and diversity amongst its cast, and the show's latest additions include two new Black muppets named Wesley and his father Elijah Walker (via Yahoo! Entertainment). Wesley and Elijah are being introduced so that the show can talk about racial identity and what's it's like to be Black in America in a greater way, topics that the show has touched on briefly but never in such a focused manner. Wesley will be played by Bradley Freeman Jr, and he was Christmas shopping when he got the big email confirming his casting, though he initially thought they were sending a rejection email.
"I had to read it over, like, seven different times to make sure that I actually got the part," Freeman Jr. said. "I say yes, and then I realized I didn't actually type anything so I had to send a second email and say yes and then texted—I was like, 'Just making sure you know that I accepted this part.'"
Wesley and Elijah will debut on March 23rd, and Freeman Jr. still can't believe it's all happening. "To actually, fully believe that I have my own original, brand-new character on the show is not something that I can really accept," Freeman Jr. said.
Sesame Workshop is shifting how they address race and racism on the show, and they'll do it in the way they have broached so many other weighty topics on the show, a method that allows children to comprehend the core message.
"After last summer with the racial unrest that happened and the murder of George Floyd, we collectively as an organization decided that the only way that we could go about dismantling racism was by being bold and explicit," says Kay Wilson Stallings, the executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop. "People were working remotely. People were feeling a lot of emotions, and it was almost like everyone had the same realization. If not Sesame, who's going to address this? It felt like everyone had the same, 'Yes, we've got to do something about it, and the first way to address it is that we need to define racism for 3-year-olds.'"
That's also why they created the Coming Together initiative, an educational framework and curriculum that has included a town hall with CNN that dealt with racism and protests and a special titled The Power of We, which dealt with systemic inequality and prejudice. It's also launching a set of resources called the ABC's of Racial Literacy, which gives children, parents, and educators the language and tools to talk openly about race and racism, and senior vice president of U.S. social impact for Sesame workshop Jeanette Betancourt said: "It's not necessarily taking a risk but meeting a demand that we know we need to meet."
Sesame Workshop "It's not that it's different," says Louis Henry Mitchell, Sesame Workshop's creative director of character design. "It's just that now we have an opportunity to turn up the volume of what we've already been doing."
Betancourt said it was a purposeful choice. to make both characters humanoid Muppets with realistic skin tones because they wanted to address the physicality of race, but they also want to teach kids that race isn't the only thing that defines them.
"It's not just that they are Black Muppets; they're built as a family," Betancourt said. "There's a backstory for them and their personalities. What we really look at is, What is the identity of our Muppets? What are their characteristics? What is their personality and their self-identity?" It was also said that Wes's mom Naomi will also be introduced.
As for Wes, Freeman said "He's very imaginative, he's very fun. He's always trying to help his friends and make sure that they feel safe and that they feel loved and that they can feel strong in their own skin. The more I perform him, the more I get to know him. Sometimes he gets a little lost in his own emotions because he comes from a family that's very big on communicating how they feel—he's able to communicate, but he's also 5 years old. So sometimes things overwhelm him, and he can be angry or sad. So that's where he really relies on his dad and his friends to make sure that he can come to the best solution possible."
Mitchell sketched the new Muppets and says that his son served as an inspiration for Wes and tried to bring the "spirit of fatherhood" to his work. The same goes for Elijah's puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes, who said "A lot of the things they wrote, I was looking around, like, 'Are they watching me?' Because it says there is a 5-year-old son; I have a 5-year-old son. It's really been a moment of thinking about the conversations and the situations that I'm going to be dealing with my kid being in this world. And that's something I hope that I bring to the character."
Fans will meet Wesley and Elijah on March 23rd.