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Interview

For Real

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At the center of UPN's hit comedy Girlfriends is a universal message exemplified by the lives of four African-American women in L.A., played with rousing honesty by Persia White, Golden Brooks, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jill Marie Jones (as pictured above): Life is always more fun when shared with friends—girlfriends, in this case. With boldness and sincerity, the show takes on common issues that appeal to all women regardless of race. From dating a man who is a sex addict to facing the consequences of taking Ecstasy, Girlfriends tackles its stories with compassion, forethought, and respect.

In some ways, it's a West Coast Sex and the City—but unlike that acclaimed awards-nominated show, Girlfriends, on the air since 2000, has been UPN's best-kept secret. TV critics have championed it, and it consistently tops the network's ratings—indeed, last season it was the fastest-rising comedy on any network. But the show, executive produced by Kelsey Grammer, still flies mostly under the mainstream radar. Is it because it's seen as another of UPN's African-American sitcoms? Well, without taking anything away from the success of Moesha, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Steve Harvey Show, and The Parkers, Girlfriends is different. It's something special, and it deserves a wider audience outside the netlet's "urban" niche.

Taped before a live studio audience at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Girlfriends, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., revolves around the day-to-day situations faced by Joan (Ross), a successful L.A. attorney who's on the fast track professionally but stumbling along in her romantic life; Maya (Brooks), Joan's headstrong assistant at the law firm, who's the grounded voice of morality and the only one who has what they all envy, a loving husband and child; Lynn (White), the resident bohemian and perennial student currently in her eighth year of grad school; Toni (Jones), the real estate goddess looking to find a fabulously wealthy man to share her life with, and the honorary "girlfriend" William (Reggie Hayes), Joan's friend and colleague, a conservative guy who suffers from "nice guy" syndrome.

Girlfriends is the brainchild of Mara Brock Akil, who previously worked as a writer on the series Moesha and South Central. She also served as supervising producer on The Jamie Foxx Show. As often happens, Akil, raised in Kansas City, Mo., got her industry start working below the line.

"I came to L.A., and Mark Atkins, who is Sinbad's manager and brother, was the one industry contact I had," recalled Akil, speaking with Back Stage West at her production office. "I called him and he hired me as a stage P.A. The Sinbad Show had gone through all these different executive producers, which was a bad thing for the show but a good thing for me.

"That's where I met Ralph Farquhar and Michael Weithorn, who came to Sinbad to help out for a short time before they went off to do their mid-season show, South Central. Basically I cornered Ralph and said, 'Take me with you!' He asked me why. I didn't give him the reasons that were obvious to how it would help my career, but I gave him all the reasons why I could help his show. It probably came out a little arrogant, but whatever—it worked. That was one of the biggest turning points in my career."

Got Validation?

Although South Central—an admirable attempt to do a sitcom in a hardscrabble environment—was cancelled shortly thereafter, Akil formed a lasting relationship with Farquhar, who later hired her to work on the hit sitcom Moesha, as a writer/executive story editor. "It was a great place to grow," recalled Akil, "because not only did I have Ralph as a mentor but I also gained executive producers Sara Finney and Veda Spears as mentors. It was a nurturing environment that helped me find my voice."

A year later, Akil made the tough decision to leave her comfort zone at Moesha and search for greener pastures. It was another important turning point: She landed the supervising producer position on the WB's The Jamie Foxx Show, which eventually led to a first-look deal with the studio. She pitched several ideas to WB network executives, who never bit.

"They were basically passing on all my great ideas," said Akil. Eventually word got around to UPN executives that she was pitching shows, and Akil was called in for a meeting. Said Akil, "They said they had a need for a show, and the only parameters were they wanted an ensemble comedy of women. I asked, 'What kind of women?' They said, 'Black.' I almost fell out of my chair."

Needless to say, Akil had exactly what they needed. She went in for a second meeting, pitched Girlfriends, sold it, and left with only one hurdle to leap.

"My development was backwards," she confessed. "I sold to a network that didn't have a studio. I didn't have anyone to finance it. It was late in the game, so there weren't a lot of options. I went straight to Rose Katherine Pinkley, who is very important to this story, and she hooked me up with two meetings, one of them with Kelsey Grammer and Rudy Hornish of Grammnet. I feel as though it was kismet—it was supposed to be. They needed a show and I needed a home. It was a good place with good synergy."

A number of African-American actors, comics, and other talents landed network shows in the 1990s, as certain networks—especially newcomers like Fox, the WB, and UPN—tried to produce the equivalent of rap television: edgy urban fare that would attract the young, hip audience of all colors that advertisers would crave. But these shows had little of the crossover appeal that has made hip-hop a chartbuster. Part of the problem is that these shows played it safe, went for easy laughs, and lacked the necessary ingredient for ratings success and viewer loyalty: real and relatable characters. Akil did not want this.

"I wanted our show to be almost like a validation as well as a documentation of African-American existence," she said. "We want to show real people, not hip stereotypes. We have flawed characters, and I think that makes them human. I know that's what fun to write about."

Her writing staff couldn't agree with her more.

"How many times have we watched a sitcom where they just totally sell out a character or joke?" noted writer Regina Hicks. "We try not to do that. There are so many other things people can do besides watching TV nowadays, so you've got to be able to grab their attention and keep it."

Added writer Tim Edwards, "I think what people are starved for the most is smart television. I think between smart and real—those are two words that I've always felt were the directive of this show."

That's a high bar for a sitcom, but the writers have proven themselves up to it. And after years in the trenches of TV writing, they know what they don't want Girlfriends to be.

"One of the things I appreciate creatively is that the show's not a sermon," said writer Norman Vance Jr. "I've worked on shows where you have these stories that you basically have to wrap up in 30 minutes, where it doesn't leap over to the next episode. You always have to get it right on the head. Here we plant little seeds and those seeds grow. You have to follow them as opposed to just wrapping it up. We totally get away from that."

Check the Egos

Equally important as good writing is having a rich, dynamic, and multitalented cast with great chemistry to bring those pages to life. Girlfriends has a cast of mostly seasoned film and TV non-"name" actors. For Jill Marie Jones, Girlfriends marks her first series-regular role; some may recognize Jones from her stints on the Saturday morning series City Guys. Born and raised in Dallas, Jones always knew she wanted to be an actor. A former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and Mavericks dancer, after attending Duncanville High School and Texas Women's University, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full time, studying with acting coach John Kirby.

"Everything has been such a new experience for me," said Jones during a break from shooting. "I've learned so much from the other actors because they've worked before. The whole process of doing a sitcom, just being in it, you are able to learn so much."

Golden Brooks and Persia White are heavily versed in theatre. Brooks was born in San Francisco, which she calls "a small mecca for theatre," and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology with an emphasis on media representation of minorities from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a master's degree from Sarah Lawrence College, in New York. Throughout her schooling she inundated herself with everything that is theatre performance, studying Meisner, Stanislavski, intensive Method, and more Meisner. "Theatre is the core where acting comes from, just like blues and jazz is the core where all music stems from. For me theatre has been the foundation of my training."

White received her first scholarship, at the age of 3, to the Nassau Civic Ballet Company. "I think dancing helped me originally as an entertainer," said White. "I think every form of art I did helped me." But it was a stint, at age 8, with Miami's Coconut Grove Children's Theatre that got her hooked on performing. "I got a couple of scholarships to college doing theatre and was a part of a bunch of theatre groups, came to Hollywood, and was kind of shocked at the whole television thing. I had high artistic expectations of the industry that were sort of shattered when I had my first extra role on Baywatch."

Tracee Ellis Ross has appeared in national advertising campaigns, hosted her own television show, written and produced segments for cable shows, and worked as a fashion editor for Mirabella and New York Magazine. But her true gift and love lies in acting. "I definitely worked before I got here, but this was definitely my break on some level," said Ross. It was sort of a steady rise to here, and it was the perfect progression. I studied theatre at Brown University and the William Esper Acting Studio program in New York for two years, and then I studied privately. I have to say I am a huge advocate of taking classes. You can't teach talent but you can teach craft."

Chicago native Reggie Hayes studied acting in high school and college, at Northwestern Military Naval Academy and Illinois State University, where he graduated with a B.A. in theatre. The role of William—the platonic male friend—was a vital element in the show's conception, said Akil: "The black man to me is either projected as the smooth cat, the lady-killer, or he's the bubbling idiot nerd. William is just the nice guy that I think is universally relatable to all men." The role has "changed my life," effused Hayes. "I'm proud of this show. I hold my head up high. It's a blessing."

Of course great individual actors don't necessarily make a great ensemble. And this is where Girlfriends again rises above the pack. A day on the set with cast and crew reminds you that the word "friends" is in the title.

"There is an amazing chemistry shared among the cast members," gushed Ross. "We all feel it. From the beginning we had it. It's that special something everyone talks about. I don't know what it is, but somehow when we get together and we're doing our thing it just works."

Part of the reason, said Jones, is the absence of diva attitude.

"No one had a huge name," said Jones. "It was all about the show and putting out good work. Sometimes when you have a large name attached it becomes about something else. We all want to put out good work, and that was really our focus from the beginning." Brooks chimed in enthusiastically, "We all leave our egos at home."

Crossover Dreams

The comparisons to HBOs' New York-centric, female-driven hit Sex and the City have been inevitable, but they can be misleading—not just because of the coast and color.

"It's nothing like Sex and the City," said White, "except that it's women who sometimes talk about racy sexual issues and who are attractive."

Quipped Hayes, "The Golden Girls is like Sex and the City, you know what I mean?"

Jones noted, "I don't think it's a bad thing. It's just that our show is different. You see our characters interacting with each other more as girlfriends, if not all the time. We deal more with our relationships with each other."

Ross agreed that the initial hook—a "black Sex and the City"—made an easy selling point and a shorthand for the show. But, she pointed out, "We're a sitcom, we're done in front of a studio audience, we have commercials, and we're on a network. If comparing it to Sex and the City gets people to watch the show, then whatever."

The comparison that seems more relevant is to the glory days of The Cosby Show: a first-class sitcom that just happened to be made by and starring African-Americans, which was both specific and universal. Whether it can reach the blockbuster success of that 1980s TV milestone may have a lot to do with the up-and-down fortunes of the UPN, whose reach has grown gradually but haltingly. Hayes compared it to working Off-Broadway, and Ross mentioned the positive side of being on a smaller network: "On another network they really don't give you a chance to grow. This is our third season and we really have found our groove—we're, like, in it. And people by word of mouth are starting to catch on. I have to say people say all the time that we're a crossover show. It sounds so '60s, you know? We're just a really good show."

Jones said she didn't have a problem with the connotations of "crossover": "I think it's a good thing—it says that people other than those of African-American descent can identify with our show."

Countered Ross: "I definitely agree with that, but it still sounds dated to me. I think it's sad that people from the business point of view think that what African-Americans identify with white people can't identify with."

Jones compared it to "behind-the-scenes" movies about Hollywood. They're hilarious to those in the know, but my friends back in Dallas don't get them because they're not in the industry. I think sometimes we have black movies or black TV shows that are 'inside.' But when I hear 'crossover,' I think it means we just happen to be black characters on the show—we could be white, Latino, etc."

"I love the 'just happen' part of it," replied Ross. "First and foremost we're five friends dealing with each other. I remember Mara saying from the beginning that the No. 1 thing she wanted was for people just to tune in because of the quality of the writing and acting."

If Girlfriends keeps up its ratings streak, that "No. 1 thing" could mean more than just its creator's first priority. BSW

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