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When words no longer work

Film by musical theater student Nolan Robinson reckons with the unspoken struggles that Black men face
Nolan Robinson’s film touches on several taboo issues faced by Black men.

Nolan Robinson, a senior at the School of Communication, earned many stage credits during his time at Northwestern: actor, dancer, singer, entertainer. Now the soft spoken, yet confident theater major is adding one more to his growing resume — filmmaker.

Robinson is the writer, director, producer and choreographer of a new short film titled “Grief Night Club.” It’s a jazz musical that tells the story of a young Black man named Jordan who is dealing with questions about his own mortality, mental health and identity. Robinson said the screenplay isn’t autobiographical but does touch on many taboo topics that he and many other Black men face.

Watch now: Check out a promo video of “Grief Night Club.”

“I wanted to integrate a message in my piece that surrounds the unspoken struggles that are seldom seen as those that Black men face: anxiety, depression and grief,” said Robinson, who also stars in the film. “Jordan is brought along a musical mental journey that teaches him how to love himself, how to gain self-worth. The language of the film is music when speech no longer works.”

Robinson began working on “Grief Night Club” in his second year at Northwestern. The film is preceded by his 2018 web series, “Where’s Noah,” about a Black student navigating the challenges of attending a majority-white university.

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I wanted to integrate a message in my piece that surrounds the unspoken struggles that are seldom seen as those that Black men face: anxiety, depression and grief.”

Nolan Robinson
Senior, School of Communication

Robinson said both endeavors are the fruit of conversations he had while attending the School of Communication’s “A Starry Night Gala” in 2018. That event during CommFest brought together the school’s prominent alumni, faculty artists and student actors for a one-night concert and performance.

“I was walking around and talking to the talent and the question I asked all of them was, ‘What is something that I as a growing student should do right now?’ They all said make your own work. As a freshman, I wouldn’t have imagined I would be making a musical. But it was a lightbulb that said you need to create things, make your own art and don’t wait for anyone to tell you that you should or should not make it.”

Producing a film presents many challenges, even for the most experienced filmmaker.  Robinson faced those and one additional and unanticipated obstacle — COVID-19. The global pandemic brought all productions to a halt, triggered quarantines and health restrictions just as he assembled the film’s cast and crew early last year. 

“When we started rehearsing and filming during the pandemic, I questioned what am I doing it for. What am I asking these actors to do? Sometimes it felt selfish. Once I really looked at what the story was, I wanted to finish it even more. The theme of the movie is loving yourself and not being afraid to ask for help. I think the message is even more powerful and timelier [during the pandemic] because you have the right to feel everything that you’re feeling. We just happen to be in one of those times [in history] where it feels like there is no hope. This film acknowledges that, but also tells the story you are loved, and we will get through this.”

“Grief Night Club” features a 25-person ensemble cast and combines the talents of current and former students from the School of Communication and Bienen School of Music. Actress Jennifer Grey also lends her voice as a therapist in the beginning of the film.

Robinson said the process of writing and producing the film was therapeutic. He’s also grateful for the advice he received at the beginning of his journey at Northwestern. He feels others could benefit from it, too.

“Don’t wait for anyone else to give you permission if you have a story you want to share,” Robinson said. “You are that boss. You don’t have to wait for someone to say ‘yes’ because your spirit already told you ‘yes’. Now just go for it!”

Following the initial virtual screening Feb. 12-15, Robinson plans to submit the film in the student competition of the Cannes International Film Festival and other film festivals throughout the year.

Register now: Get free tickets to see “Grief Night Club.”