The series Wu-Tang: An American Saga isn’t a show that only chronicles the rise of the legendary hip hop group from Staten Island, New York City. As young Black men coming of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, their lives are also representative of a lot of Black people’s experiences in this country. To that end, the first season, which premiered in September 2019, laid out the pre-Wu-Tang struggles of the young men, offering intimate glimpses into the lives of a handful of the Wu-Tang family, most notably Bobby (RZA), Bobby’s brother Divine, Dennis (Ghostface Killah), Sha (Raekwon), Shotgun (Method Man), Ason (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Gary (GZA), Rebel (Inspectah Deck) as well as some of their family members.
Economic instability and violence were constant threats. Now that the show is back for a second season, those challenges haven’t disappeared. But the light at the end of the tunnel—the birth of Wu-Tang—is much closer, offering both hope and inspiration.
“This year, we are really Wu-Tang. We come together, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, we are actually transitioning into them and the whole season, we are them,” says Johnell Young, who plays Gary/GZA. According to T.J. Atoms, who plays Ason/Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “You’re going to hear “Protect Ya Neck,” and other hits off their platinum Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debut album, released in 1993.
Getting to this breakthrough is a journey, especially for Bobby and Dennis. Fleeing one crisis in New York City only to run into the next in Steubenville, Ohio, where his mother and stepfather have moved, has Bobby fighting for his freedom in a murder trial. Meanwhile Dennis and Shurrie are also in Ohio preparing to be parents. For Siddiq Saunderson, who plays Dennis/Ghost, the challenge parenthood presents for him is particularly significant.
“That makes Ghost have to shift his perspective and point of view about what's important. I think, in the shifting of that, there’s this widening view of the world that he has, which happens when you go through traumatic experiences, whether they're positive or negative, you know, you just kind of get more perspective I think,” says Siddiq Saunderson who plays him.
But that’s not the only major change relationship-wise, Saunderson shares. “The relationship between Ghostface and Raekwon definitely develops into something that I don't think audiences would expect, given where we were at first,” he dishes.
Playing real people is not easy and, with Wu-Tang’s U-God being such a major role for Damani D. Sease, it was even more challenging. Although he shares that he initially got into character “by studying [U-God], watching his interviews and reading his book,” meeting him was the real game-changer. “After talking to him, I got to honestly understand him more,” Sease says. “I think it gave me a better perspective and it made me more comfortable.”
Sease isn’t the only one Wu-Tang members help to gain new perspective. “Brotherhood,” Young says, is one of the most important lessons from the group.
“They all [were] fighting for one dream,” he expounds. “We’ve seen the adversity and that it didn’t work when they were trying to do it by themselves and now coming together and actually pulling together as one, they take off and blow up.”
“The team can really make the dream work,” is one of the lessons T.J. Atoms, who plays Ason/Ol’ Dirty Bastard, got from this season. But he also tapped into something very personal and individual as well.
“I’m definitely more in tuned with the character than last season,” says Atoms. “There’s more feeling that comes across the screen. It’s more than just putting in words off the script.”
“It’s a whole aura,” adds Young.
In the midst of all of this testosterone, there are also strong female voices, most notably that of Bobby’s (or RZA’s) mother Linda Diggs and “sister” Shurrie, who is a composite of several of his actual sisters, played respectively by the great Erika Alexander, best known as Max from Living Single, and impressive newcomer Zolee Griggs.
“This is a very strong story about a very male-dominated space, the Wu-Tang Clan,” says Alexander. “But it also was a time where masculinity was put on display as the preeminent sort of culture marker of cool. . . . I think RZA tries to pay tribute to [his mother] by putting her into the story as the reason why he thrives; the reason why he survived; the reason why they had somebody who took them seriously or especially him as a creative, artistic, sensitive brother.”
Griggs is proud of how Linda and Shurrie represent for Black women. “I love that they do put these men in their place. And they are outspoken, and they're not afraid to tell them when they're right or wrong,” she explains. “But they're also vulnerable when needed. So they're not just one-dimensional women. And, so, I respect that Shurrie is able to nurture the guys, but also let them know when they need to be snapped into place.”
For Shameik Moore, who plays Corey/Sha-Raider/Raekwon, Wu-Tang’s story resonates in a very specific way that we haven’t always seen.
“It’s inspirational mostly,” explains Moore, who also starred in the hip-hop themed Netflix series, The Get-Down. “We know the story of the drug dealers and the gang violence and stuff, yes, and Wu-Tang was all of that, but that Black boy joy on stage, you know what I'm saying, that finding love in your brother who's also struggling [is powerful]. You made bad decisions, I made bad decisions, we made bad decisions, less than three-minute walks from each other, but we can all come together.”
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is now streaming on Hulu.