Every once in a while, the stars align, the clouds open up and casting magic is made. Such is the case with Minneapolis-based poet, songwriter, and recording artist Dua Saleh making their acting debut in the British Netflix dramedy series Sex Education. It’s a match comparable to that moment when two friends from different social circles meet in the wild and you didn’t see it coming, but it just makes sense.
From the get-go, Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, is about agency, diversity, and indeed, an education. The show’s first season revolves around insecure teen Otis Milburn, played by Asa Butterfield, opening up an underground sex advice clinic with a team of his bold and bright best friend Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) and feminist social pariah Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey). Otis unwittingly walks into the shoes of his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), herself a renowned sex therapist.
As the show and the world it has created expand, so does its cast of diverse and complex characters revealing their most intimate insecurities and concerns, to Otis and each other, sexual or otherwise. The show works to dispel taboos around sex and therapy through reassuring its characters and viewers that there is no normal, not really, and so no one is inherently wrong because they are “abnormal” in the problems they face. It manages to do this while being absolutely hilarious and very well-written. Sex Education has become increasingly inclusive in its portrayals of various identities – race, sexual orientation, body type, disability – but there is still room for more. Many viewers have been wondering when we’ll see a gender nonbinary character grace the halls of the show’s Moordale Secondary School.
Enter Saleh. The Sudan-born artist has been on their poetry and activism grind for years, and came out as nonbinary their sophomore year of college. Saleh’s musical star has been rising since their first EP in January of 2019, Nūr, and continued this summer with their new EP ROSETTA. Their music is multifaceted, defying genre categorization and utilizing light and dark, headiness and humor, complexity and silliness. According to their Bandcamp page, ROSETTA is named after Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a revolutionary Black artist who came to be known as the Godmother of rock and roll. Tharpe and Saleh have a lot in common, including a disregard for taboo and dogma. This is just one of the reasons it feels like Saleh is a great fit for Sex Education.
Early last month, it was announced that Saleh will have a recurring role in season three of Sex Education as Cal, a nonbinary student at Moordale who clashes with another new character, played by Jemima Kirke. Cal will be the show’s first nonbinary character. Saleh posted on Instagram in September announcing the casting with a mirror selfie from Newport Wales, where season three is currently being filmed. In a recent interview with the website them, Saleh said they are “excited to make my acting debut on such a groundbreaking show and elated for Sex Education to include me as an actual enby to portray a nonbinary student.” (“Enby” is a phonetic spelling of “NB,” for “non-binary.”)
If it’s not already clear, I am very excited to see Saleh on Sex Education. First of all, a nonbinary character. Second, the shared forgoing of prescriptive ways of being. Third, the mutual mix of heaviness with a lightness and humor. Sex Education has a way of writing and portraying their characters with an empathetic, sometimes celebratory, and very human lens. I’m so curious to see how this applies in drawing out Cal’s story. And then, the visuals. The visual world of Sex Education sometimes feels like if you took a cartoon and turned it into a live action story, and I mean that in the best way possible. Its sets are amazing, it uses color in a way that is very aesthetically pleasing and adds to the show’s storytelling, and each character has very distinct styling. Seeing how much Saleh’s own aesthetic gets plugged into this world, if at all, is something I’m looking forward to.
It’s hard to say when season three will be hitting Netflix, given just about everything going on in the world right now. But when it does, I know if nothing else, I’ll be proud to see a Minneapolis-based artist doing hugely important work in their portrayal of a Black nonbinary character. In an interview with PinkNews this past February, Saleh said that, to them, being Black and nonbinary means they “often operate from a place of survival due to oppression, but can still manage to find joy and self-love.” Ultimately, it’s this lived experience and awareness that make Saleh a perfect fit for this show which is so much about facing harshness, repression, and sometimes cruelty and still managing to grow into loving and honoring yourself and your life. I’m curious to see what this looks like for Cal, and excited to see Saleh telling that story.