Black women haven’t been as visible as we should in TV dramas. Of course, we have seen aspects of ourselves in shows like Scandal, Hot To Get Away with Murder, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar. And, sometimes, if we squint hard enough, even in reality television. But Delilah, the newest offering from OWN, promises to show us in ways TV hasn’t even begun to explore in the past.
Set in Charlotte, Delilah circles the life of its title character, a recently divorced mother of two –a boy and a girl who are both musically gifted — who stepped away from the corporate law fast track to be more present in her kids’ lives. The show from Greenleaf creator Craig Wright shows Delilah managing her intimate law practice, attending to her kids, trying to co-parent with her philandering and irresponsible ex played by the sexy Lyric Bent, stepping up for her brother and nephew, going through growing pains with her best friend all while playing David to Goliath as she searches for the algorithm to justice.
You probably won’t recognize series star Maahra Hill by face since she hasn’t done a whole lot of television before now. But you will recognize her in spirit. Like her character Delilah Connolly, she’s a mother who loves fiercely and a Black woman who like so many of us has rarely seen herself truthfully rendered on screen. “What I like about the show is that it’s intentional about presenting images that are aligned with a reality about who we are,” Hill shared in an exclusive conversation with ESSENCE.
“That from the very beginning was really important to me because there’s only certain ways that I’m willing to portray a Black woman,” she continued. “We just have to have well-rounded, more realistic ideas of who we are presented in the world. It’s so important for that to be the case. And this show does that in so many different ways.”
One of the ways the mother of one who grew up mostly in the Chicago metro area thinks Delilah accomplishes that is in the casting of Black women of various hues. “I think only like one in five Black women are darker complected on shows,” Hill shared, referencing a recent study she’d seen. “Most of them are lighter complexions and this show was very intentional about making sure that we are seen in all of our colors.”
Our fave, Jill Marie Jones, whose character Toni Childs of the iconic comedy Girlfriends forever warms our hearts, plays Tamara, Delilah’s best friend since childhood. Rounding out the core group of women is her secretary Harper played by Ozioma Akagha from Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu; the ambitious and rising legal beacon Demetria Barnes by Susan Heyward, who played prison warden Tamika Ward on Orange is the New Black; and Tamara and Delilah’s classmate, Leah Dorsey, played by Broadway star Saycon Sengbloh of Eclipsed and Fela fame. Charlotte native and violin prodigy Kelly Jacobs also plays Delilah’s teenage daughter Maia.
Delilah also gets it right behind the scenes. “One of my favorite things about this show is when I would sit down in that hair and makeup chair, I didn’t have to worry because they had everything set up for women that look like me,” Sengbloh tells us. “They had the products that I needed so I felt really comfortable. There is a certain stress that you feel when you made yourself look super cute to get a role and then you get that role and now your beauty is put in the hands of someone who’s not prepared for it. And that is highly stressful for a lot of Black actresses. On this show, the hair makeup team was amazing.”
That this show comes from a white man (creator Wright was also the driving force behind Greenleaf) is quite surprising. But that mandate, Wright explained during a recent virtual conversation with the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), comes directly from Queen O. “I’m not a showrunner in the traditional model. I work for Oprah Winfrey and I’m very proud to say that. And so everything starts with conversations with Oprah with like what do you want to say, what’s your intention with your network, what’s your intention as a creator of media, how can I help to do that? So the collaboration with Black women starts there and then it extends into the writers room.”
Morgan State and Full Sail alum Devan Renea is a Black woman writer who was able to lend her authentic voice and experience to Delilah precisely because of its focus on Black women. “It was such a wonderful experience,” said Renea during the show’s SCAD aTV Fest virtual appearance at the top of February. “It’s a show about Black women. I worked with a lot of other projects that didn’t necessarily put Black woman at the forefront, so this was like a real treat, and [opportunity to] dive right into the writing.”
Presenting the complexities of Black female friendship and sisterhood, especially when it’s challenged, while sidestepping stereotypes of Black women was often at the forefront of portraying Tamara and Delilah’s relationship strains. “When we were constructing the relationship between Delilah and Tamara, we definitely wanted to avoid those tropes or clichés of what Black women are . . . to understand the dynamic and chemistry between women so that we captured authenticity,” Renea explained.
An actress like Jones, Renea continued, brings so much to that effort, especially during scenes that show difficulty between Delilah and Tamara, because she is able to show “this friendship between these women that is nuanced, that is so layered, that has so many years [of history].”
Speaking exclusively with ESSENCE from the set of the third season of her hit series Monogamy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jones gushed about the show as well. “One of the things I love about Delilah is you see these best friends and their lives look very different; their work lives, their home lives look very different. These are two women that were friends since junior high school and they come from the same place, so you get to see Charlotte not just in one way. Tamara’s a high-powered attorney so you get to see her corporate life, but you also get to see roots in Delilah’s character.”
As a trailblazer in bringing multifaceted Black women to the small screen, Jones is grateful to be able to do that again. “It’s great to have representation on television, to be able to see yourself,” she said. “I was really blessed to be a part of Girlfriends.”
At that time, however, she admitted to not knowing what impact the show would have and expressed hope that Delilah would have a similar effect. “Even on Girlfriends, we were talking about it during our 20th anniversary interviews how we didn’t really know what we were doing for the culture. Inside of it, we had no idea. Looking back at it and hearing from others, it makes me feel very proud, and I hope that Delilah is showing up like that and I think that it will.”
One thing she has complete confidence in, in particular, are the men on the show. “I just want to say to all the women out there and guys, you’re welcome.”