A lot has happened within the past two years in this country, including but not limited to the exposure of inequality resulting in racial discrimination, an insurrection, and of course, the pandemic. Imagine writing a TV series amid such tumultuous conditions, but nailing it successfully. That’s just what the writer and executive producer Karin Gist did in bringing the forthcoming new Fox series Our Kind Of People (premieres on Tuesday, September 21st at 9PM) to life.
Inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham’s critically acclaimed book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, the series follows the rich and powerful Black elite of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Angela Vaughn, an ambitious single mom, is on a mission to reclaim her family’s name and make an impact with her revolutionary haircare line, showcasing the natural beauty of Black women. The series has it all: thrilling mystery, Black empowerment through achievements, and eye-opening exploration of race and class in America – and that’s just season one.
Gist is the writer and executive producer alongside Empire‘s Lee Daniels, Ben Silverman, Rodney Ferrell, Marc Velez, Claire Brown, Pam Williams, and Montrel McKay. Tasha Smith, who’s directed for 9-1-1, Big Sky, and P-Valley, directed the series premiere. As if the lineup of seasoned writers and producers weren’t impressive enough, the show has a star-studded cast comprised of Yaya DaCosta, Morris Chestnut, Joe Morton, Nadine Ellis, Lance Gross, Rhyon Nicole Brown, Kyle Bary, and newbie Alana Bright.
Ahead of the season premiere next Tuesday, I had the opportunity to chat with Gist about the inspiration behind the series, and what she’s learned about herself in the process, plus there’s a little gem to whet your appetite for the pilot. Check it out below!
Going into the inspiration, what were a few of the notable points that enlightened you from Lawrence Otis Graham’s book?
I loved hearing more and reading more about organizations. When I was growing up, my mom belonged to a club that was like a ladies club. I was just like, “Oh, it’s so much more than just kind of a social thing.” I loved reading about the agency that a lot of people in that community had in terms of really trying to impact Black people in this country. It made me proud to read it and just learn more about it.
Piggybacking off your thought about the historical relevance of what you read, I think the series is so unique because it really sheds a light on the intersection of race and class. It’s not about stereotypes for once. So, with the Oak Bluffs, why did you choose that town as opposed to say, Atlanta or L.A.?
Not only does Oak Bluffs have that historic piece baked into the location, but it’s also really pretty. The idea of seeing beautiful Black people of all different shades on a beach in the sun, living life, having that lightness to some of the stories, even though a lot of the stories have their struggle; there’s pain, there are ups and downs. Setting it in a place that’s on a beach: we don’t ever really get to see that and just kind of enjoy that and feel the lushness of that. So, I thought that made it a little bit different.
How long has this been in the works?
1,300 years! [Laughs] No, it’s something I’ve been developing for about two and a half years. When the pandemic hit and I was still writing I think the second episode at the time, but it’s been quite a while and then we were waiting for pickup and waiting to see when we could go into production. So, it’s been a labor of love for a couple of years for sure. I pitched it while I was on Star. I continued working on it while I was on Mixed-ish.
Besides the pandemic obviously being a hurdle, what would you say were some of the challenges you faced with being the writer and executive producer of this series?
Just trying to make sure I was telling the stories that felt grounded, authentic, and different. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pilot, but there are lots of generations in the world. So, I wanted to just make sure I had a different point of view for each character and each generation. Building out a world is like making a patchwork quilt. So, you want to make sure each square stands on its own and is beautiful, but that it all works together. So, just keeping a balance of that was really a challenge – and it’s still a challenge – because there we have a lot of characters, and there’s a lot that I like to cover.
I also really like to like stories that have different levels and layers to them. And so just kind of balancing all those balls in the air, and still trying to make sure it was saying something that mattered to me, but still entertaining. There were a lot of balls in the air I had to juggle and I’m still trying to juggle.
So, the challenge is trying to make sure that what I set out to do is what’s coming through on the page and finding the uniqueness. For example, Angela’s character and how that’s different from Leah’s character. One of the things I’ve always wanted the show to do, I didn’t want to vilify any group or social class. The show is really about bringing people together in a way that’s a delicious soapy network drama, so you got to have conflict and all that stuff, but I wanted it to be for people; even if you have money or don’t have money, you see yourself on either side of a class divide and the audience can see themselves in these characters in the women and the men.
I love the illustration of the quilt. Also, I agree with you on identifying with the characters. How did you come to the decision of who to cast for the role of Angela?
When Tasha Smith and I heard that Yaya [DaCosta] might be available, we were just so extremely excited. Angela is in Yaya. So, that was for me, just a dream come true. We got on the phone with her one night, I think she was still on the set of her Chicago Med and she was wrapping that up. She was already leaving. We just had a really nice, Black girl chat on Zoom about what we wanted the show to do and be and it was just one of those moments where, you know, you don’t get that a lot where it just felt like it kind of came together.
That’s so exciting! I’m so here for the Black girl chat, and definitely getting insight from an actress.
The script already existed, and she had already read it, but there was some serendipity in it. She was like, “I see Angela” and she was already kind of on that path for herself where she could see Angela or see how she could learn from Angela. Then of course, when you do finally cast an actor, it’s like you’re meeting a friend. For example, we just talked about how long it had been with me developing out who she was going to be and trying to find the balance. Angela was like my friend. I had to share my friend with somebody. That’s something so lovely to it. Creating a character is a living, breathing thing. It’s been really beautiful to watch her infuse her version of Angela into it and into the words that were on the page. It’s remarkable. It’s been awesome.
That’s great. I can hear that enthusiasm you have. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself in the process of creating this series?
I’ve been tested. Resilience is a big thing. Just continuing to try to go deeper, to find more, [and] pull out more, trying to fit the goal in writing this during the lockdown, and writing it during all the racial – or the exposure of what was already happening in this country. So, writing the show during that time would change things and now they’ve changed back. I could take all of that out or put a lot of that in my work. So, I learned it kind of helped to sharpen some of the commentary that I wanted to make.
Two years is a long time as a writer and working on a script for that long, you can kind of get weary; but I learned that this matters a lot to me. I love it very much. I have a relationship with these stories and these characters. I learned that you just keep going no matter what. You keep persevering. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing. There were some challenges along the way of like, is this going to happen? Are we going to find the right people? Am I going to nail this character right? Am I saying the right thing? So, I learned to just stand still and make sure to check in with myself and make sure I was feeling good along the way.
So, are you happy with the outcome?
I am very happy with it. I hope everyone is too. I’m proud of not only just the work that I was able to do over the course of developing it, but that everybody who has touched it has brought something special to it and have kind of bought into what I was trying to do and then helped me make it even better than I thought it could be. I’m proud of all the people around it. The studio network has been nothing but supportive. Every actor brings their A-game. I honestly think we have the best cast on TV, honestly. Every time we cast someone I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” So, we have so many people who are just here to help us tell the story and believe in not only just the soapy drama of it but how and why it can be special and unique. I’m proud of that.
What do you hope viewers will walk away learning or feeling – or both?
We try to put little cultural nuggets in there. So, if anybody picks up on that, I hope they learn something that they didn’t know. I hope people feel like the characters are universal and stories are universal. I hope a little girl watches it and feels and sees herself and feels beautiful. I hope Black women see themselves and feel beautiful and seen and heard. I hope people feel like they want to watch again. I hope they feel proud of seeing themselves on TV – whether the audience looks like the characters or not, I hope the stories resonate in that way.
‘Our Kind Of People’ premieres on FOX, Tuesday September 21 at 9PM
‘Our Kind Of People’ premieres on Tuesday, September 21st on FOX