Showcase from PRX’s Radiotopia features original, limited run series of all stripes, from emerging and leading producers around the world.
In our latest Showcase series, we featured Season 2 of Errthang, a storytelling show co-hosted by Al Letson and Willie Evans Jr. This dynamic duo tells stories about love, fatherhood and the political unrest in our country. It’s a wild, fun ride with a lot of heart and depth.
In this interview (edited for clarity and brevity), I sat down with Al Letson to talk more about the inspiration for Season 2.
AM: We were really excited to present Season 2 of Errthang on Showcase. It’s been a long time coming! What was it like making another season of the show?
AL: It was a little different than how we did it in Season 1. I love Season 1, but it’s kind of all over the place because it’s a show about…errthang…and we were doing…errthang. I want to do errthang but also make it focused.
We really thought about that a lot this season, what are we trying to say and how do we spell it out in each episode. Also, around the time we were working on Season 2, Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN came out. In it, he tells this kind of epic, circular story — you end where you begin and you begin where you end. I felt like I wanted to do something like that, and so those were our marching orders.
Can you tell us more about the amazing scenes you and Willie staged for each episode’s artwork?
Yes, the album cover art came up because Willie and I wanted to figure out a way to communicate to our generation, that we are doing a type of storytelling that actually kind of originated from this generation. I wanted to give a nod to the things that made us. So a friend of mine made this post about an Eric B. and Rakim album, and I was like “Oh my God! That’s it. We’re gonna do classic hip hop album covers.” Some of them we killed, others are…good [laughs]. But I wanted to show the things that make Willie and me tick.
Pretend you have a friend who doesn’t listen to podcasts, and might not be familiar with your work. How would you describe Errthang?
I would say that it’s a storytelling show. We tell stories but in different ways each time. This season was highly focused on telling stories of the African American experience, and if you drill down even more, the African American experience in the South, and how that plays out. You never know how we’re going to tell a story. Sometimes we might do an interview, sometimes we’ll do an audio play, sometimes Willie and I will do some hip hop.
For Season 3, I’m planning on doing a musical, so we’re going to have a good time with it.
Between Season 1 and Season 2, a lot changed, both for you personally and in the world. Could you speak to that a bit?
Personally, I moved to California. I was a single parent. All those things were really new, and I was just trying to figure it all out. When we did Season 1, it was during the Obama era, and in doing Season 2, we’re in the midst of the Trump era. It just felt like the way we have to look at the show has to be really different. I’m personally in a different space, and the world is in a different space. How do we respond to those two things? For me, it was important to take the personal and tell stories that speak to the larger question of what’s going on in America.
In Season 2, there’s a two-part radio play called “John Coffey Refuses to Save the World.” For me, telling that story was about trying to bring attention to how we think about and characterize black people in fiction as well as real life. The hashtag would be #BlackImaginaryLivesMatterToo. How we, in our national conscience, imagine, and how the stories we tell about ourselves shape our times.
I want to talk about you and Willie. One of the great joys of listening to the show is getting a peek into the dynamic between you two. It’s funny, and it’s emotional at times. What is it like to work with such a good friend?
It suuuuucks. [Laughs] No, it’s great. Willie and I have been friends for a long time. I think I met Willie when I was 17, and I’m 46 now. That’s a really long time. The benefit of having a friend for that long is that you’ve grown up together, learned about life, and held hands through some hard stuff. But, you’ve also celebrated some really good stuff together, too. Willie is probably the only one of my friends that I’d really want to host a podcast with. Because he’s really funny. He’s ridiculously funny. Just thinking about him makes me giggle.
He has a strength that I don’t have — he knows how to think about, and weave in, the music of the story in a way that I don’t. I’m really good at storytelling. He’s also a natural storyteller, but we compliment each other really well. We just have a good time and a whole lot of love for each other. We’re friends but we’ve transcended into family.
Every episode feels like an opus in many ways because there’s so much production. What was one of the most rewarding episodes for you to make?
“How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” because in it, a lot of different things came together. Kiese Laymon is one of my all-time favorite writers, and because he’s my favorite, I feel like he hasn’t gotten enough props. So to work with him and turn his text into an audio piece was just amazing. Then, to go out and get my former mentees to come in and play roles, it was just really fulfilling. When I finally heard the episode, it touched me, because it’s three different parts of my life — the literary, the audio, and the young men I mentored (that are so much a part of my heart). Bringing those all together felt like magic.
What was the hardest episode to make?
John Coffey Refuses to Save the World. It’s a two-part play that I wrote and cast. I did all the editing on it and worked with Claire Mullin on scoring, mixing and she did some producing as well. That one was a really big undertaking, but I feel like what I’m trying to do with Errthang is to be as ambitious as I can.
What is it like to make Errthang and Reveal, your other show, simultaneously? They’re very different.
I see my primary job and title as being a storyteller. My job at Reveal is to help guide the audience through some hard, complex stories, and try to do it with as much humanity as possible.
One of the things missing in a lot of news coverage is the people who are giving the coverage. A lot of it just sounds like “announcer voice.” We all have a stake in the stories we tell, whether they directly affect us or not. We’ve been talking a lot about children being separated from their parents at the border. I think a lot of reporters reported it like they don’t have stake in it…but they do. If you’re an American citizen, this is being done with your tax money, this is a part of you, you’re a part of the issue. If I don’t reflect on that as a newscaster and a host, I’m not doing my job.
That also happens with with Errthang. I am putting my humanity first. The biggest difference is, what you hear in Errthang is a true and honest reflection of who I am as a human being. What you hear in Reveal is also a reflection of who I am as a human being, but I’m not the focus, the stories are the focus.
I think Reveal is such a special show because of you, and the humanity you add, so that makes a lot of sense…
We just did an episode on families being separated at the border and throughout the entire episode, I was really aware of my tone. I’m not trying to editorialize, but I’m sorry — separating parents from their children is not a good thing, it’s bad. As long as America has been a country, we’ve found ways to do this. It’s not a new thing. Let’s take the gravity of that and understand it. I think about that stuff a lot, which probably makes people at my job crazy [laughs].
What are some things you do outside your job that keep you grounded, sane and relatively happy?
I make Errthang and I tell stories that give me joy. When I’m not working on Reveal, I don’t engage in a lot of things other people do. I don’t watch TV and movies that feel too realistic. Mostly I’m watching superhero shows, and things of that nature. And now I’m in California and I love to hike, so I go out in the woods and get lost a little bit, breathe through it all.
Other things that ground me are my kids, the people I work with, and my family. In the midst of all of this bad stuff we have to report on every day, there’s a lot of beautiful things happening as well, and I try to think and reflect on that as much as I can. America is definitely a pendulum and we swing hard one way, and then the other. My job is to try and help the people getting caught in that swing as best I can.
What was the most important thing you learned over the course of making Season 2 of Errthang?
You can balance out the hard stuff with joy, and it’s important to do that — to say some hard stuff, tell some hard stories, but also laugh a little bit along the way.