Diarra Kilpatrick may not be a household name yet, but we have a feeling that the 33-year-old actress won’t need an introduction soon. Kilpatrick, who starred in her first play at age 12 and graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has been acting for two decades in plays and guest starring on TV shows and movies, and even had a role in the 2015 film, Lila & Eve, which starred Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis. Kilpatrick and Davis have joined forces again as Davis’ production company, JuVee Productions —which she runs with husband Julius Tennon— is executive producing Kilpatrick’s web series, American Koko for ABC.
Kilpatrick initially launched American Koko on YouTube, and it won the American Black Film Festival’s Best Web Series Award in 2015. It also caught the eyes of Tennon and the rest is history. ESSENCE spoke exclusively with Kilpatrick to learn more about the series and why she isn’t afraid to discuss race on the show.
Keep reading for the lessons Kilpatrick has learned along her journey to the small screen.
Follow your heart
“In television or film, I was going out a lot for nurses, prostitutes and sassy friends. Every Black actress, and really every actor of color, has that story,” said Kilpatrick. “I was just interested in doing something that saw a Black woman at the center that went on a journey with her.”
Sometimes all you need is an idea—and a support system
When Kilpatrick came up with the idea for her web series, she admits that she didn’t have any money to actually make it happen. “I had a great support system,” explained Kilpatrick. “My boyfriend at the time, his sister who had just graduated from American Film Institute —and got a degree in producing— and some of my friends, got together and decided to make this [webseries] for fun.”
Your network can take you to the next level
From her previous theater work and minor roles in indie movies and TV shows, Kilpatrick was fortunate to have a network of artists who she was able to promote her web series through. “I had done a play with Julius Tennon, who is Viola’s husband and runs JuVee Productions,” said Kilpatrick. “He was one of the people on that e-mail list and I think we had less than 100 views on YouTube when he called me and was like ‘Diarra, this is incredible! I want to work with you. I want to be a part of getting this out to people.’ From that moment, he and Viola and the team at JuVee have just been so generous and so great about helping get ‘America Koko’ on a larger platform, and championing not only me as an artist but what the web series has to say and the questions that the series is asking.”
It’s important to take risks
When it comes to American Koko, Kilpatrick admits that the show is a bit edgier than most. “I’m having the conversation that we don’t normally have in public spaces,” said Kilpatrick. “It’s a little bit edgy. It’s taking a risk and talking about subject matters that might ordinarily make people uncomfortable. But I think we’re having so much fun with it that I hope people will enjoy it.”
Comedy can help heal wounds
Kilpatrick describes American Koko as a “satire comedy about a woman named Akosua Millard who works for this fictional agency called Everyone’s A Little Racist agency and she solves race problems. By day she’s all about work and married to the job and then by night, she’s sort of making a mess of her love life.” Kilpatrick thinks the audience can expect a lot of laughs, and perhaps takes away a few lessons as well. “My hope is that by employing comedy, we can make it a little easier to even talk about these things and even look at them. Because the solution is not to just pretend like they are not happening,” explained Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick is also writing and starring in the upcoming pilot The Climb for Amazon. Seasons one and two of American Koko premiere June 19 on ABC.com and the ABC app.