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Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty

“The truth is political change is often preceded by cultural change,” said Tessa Thompson about the impact of engaging voters through the digital series Zoom Where It Happens. 
Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls
Photo illustration by Imani Nuñez

Margaret Thatcher famously once said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” For a well-connected group of Black women in Hollywood, getting something done has been protecting America’s democracy. Through lengthy group chats and precision planning of multiple A-lister schedules, the voter awareness series Zoom Where It Happens began.

Every Tuesday for the last seven weeks, our onscreen faves have reimagined classic sitcoms while advocating for voter participation and turnout. “We decided to just make it a celebration,” says Ryan Bathe, who’s been a co-producer as well as acted alongside her husband Sterling K. Brown in the Friends episode. (She was Rachel, he was Ross and it was really cute.)

“The truth is political change is often preceded by cultural change,” says Tessa Thompson, a co-producer who will step from behind the Zoom curtain in the series final episode dedicated to A Different World. (In a full circle moment, Debbie Allen returns as director for the virtual table read hosted by Yara Shahidi.)

Ahead of tonight’s last Zoom Where It Happens, ESSENCE chatted with a few of the producers about why it all began, how they made it work and why engaging the masses about electoral justice is only the beginning.

She was first Black president of ABC Entertainment. Next year, she begins her new role as chairman of the Warner Bros. Television Group

Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls

CHANNING DUNGEY: A number of us have all been friends and colleagues across the business. We’ve worked together, we’ve collaborated together, we’ve bonded at Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon together. And we had been gathering, we first started gathering actually when Trump was elected, having conversations about what we could do as women who are in the business, who whether we’re onscreen making films, behind the camera, what could we do to make a difference?

DUNGEY: We had participated in some activism at that time and then had slowed down. And with everything that started happening earlier this year with the pandemic and everything else, we started gathering again on a regular basis and having lots of conversations about how do we use our voices? How can we use the power that we have in this business and the community to move the needle in a positive direction?

DUNGEY: And that started us down this conversation about getting out the vote and are there things that we could do and what could we do? It was more of a collective effort in terms of, hey, everybody’s been on Zoom. then we organically got into this idea of, oh, what if we put on some live shows? And then what could the shows be based on? Hey, what if we do a Black spin on some classic sitcoms? What about Golden Girls? So it just became this thing.

She has produced more than 10 films, including Dear White People and Hustle & Flow. Last February, she coproduced the 92nd Academy Awards.

Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls

STEPHANIE ALLAIN: When this idea came together, I got a call from Tracee Ellis Ross. She called and said, “Look, we want to do this thing. Do you know anybody? Could you do it?” I was like, “Of course I can do it.” I’ve been looking for ways I can use my skills for this election, for this time, to really help folks realize what’s at stake, to get people motivated, to be involved and to do what they can. Little did I know how much work it is. I produced the Oscars this year and it was the first time that, professionally, I had worked in a live capacity. It was amazing, just the fun of putting on a live show. But the stress and the pressure and, one shot, that’s all you got. I was looking forward to getting back into that space.

ALLAIN: There were a lot of discussions about whether it should be live or whether we should tape some. As soon as we did the first live one, it became clear that we should do them live. The immediacy, the energy, the vibe of it was so great for the actors too, because you have to put yourself at this point where whatever happens, you’re ready for it. That’s super, duper exciting. It was just working with all the ladies, especially Ryan. Ryan and I have been joined at the hip, and Tessa and Ava [DuVernay] and Gina [Prince-Bythewood], and Karen Richardson.

A stage and screen actress who’s appeared in Girlfriends, Army Wives, Empire, and most recently BET’s The First Wives Club. Up next, she’ll star opposite Tessa Thompson in Sylvie’s Love.

Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls

RYAN BATHE: Karen [Richardson] and I have a friendship prior to this. As a matter of fact, her husband went to Stanford and he and Sterling are friends. We were all in the same sort of close friends circle. When she called and was like, “Would you like to kind of help out?” And I was like, “Sure.” During COVID time in quarantine questions seemed very nebulous and you’re just saying yes to stuff. Like, “Do you want to help voter engagement?” “Sure.” “Do you want to help figure out a way to get Black people to the polls?” “Absolutely.” Like yes, to all of these questions. And that has morphed into where we are now: Zoom Where It Happens, which is how we can mobilize and, get the electorate fired up and engaged and educated every step of the way.

BATHE: But how do we deliver this information? How do we deliver these voters to these organizations that are working, some nonprofit organization that are working? And so when Karen called, I said, yes, because she’s Karen and she’s great and she’s amazing. And we’re friends and I said, sure.

A political strategist with over 15 years in politics. She worked with Barack Obama from his term as senator to president.

Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls

KAREN RICHARDSON: When we came up with the idea, it’s how do we creatively reach potential voters about engaging in the democratic process? It’s something that is elusive to many. It sometimes can be viewed as being something that’s hard to do. So then it’s like, how do we engage people creatively in using their voice and making a difference? So in addition this wonderful fun evening of culture and live entertainment, we are looking to catalyze voters and amplify the fight for voting rights and electoral justice and making sure that people understand the power of their voice.

RICHARDSON: It’s such an all hands-on deck type of thing with very, very smart people having conversations really about the same conversations that everybody is having at their dinner table.

BATHE: I never saw myself in a behind the scenes capacity, but it’s very, very gorilla in the sense that we don’t have a budget. All we have is a lot of heart and a lot of grit and we’re just imagining what we loved about these sitcoms.

An actress (Thor: Ragnarok, Creed, Westworld) and activist, who’s a founding member of Times Up.  

Sitcoms, Stars and Civic Duty: The Black Creatives Getting The People To The Polls

TESSA THOMPSON: I have definitely slid into some DMs that I have not been in before, just to say “Hey, will you help us?” My proudest moment is probably getting Aaron who went viral for doing a gospel version of riffing over the Golden Girls theme song. Sliding into his DMs was a great joy and great pleasure. Shout out to Yolanda Hunter, who’s been our incredible official casting director, but we certainly have had the opportunity to leverage our relationships inside of the industry.

THOMPSON: For me, it’s been such a solve during this time to figure out how to channel all of this energy into action and also to be able, which Ryan reminds me often to find joy inside of it. I’m also in a place where I’m really interested in and actively producing a lot. So it’s incredible just logistically to get to sharpen that, to learn from brilliant people like Stephanie Allain who’s just a giant in her field in terms of just the kind of problem solving that producing requires, and Ryan and I have really had a crash course because people fall out last minute or you don’t get rights to things.

THOMPSON: But to get to really collaborate on something, to work on something where we’re not front and center necessarily, but where our hopes, our dreams, our desire for this country, for our children, for our families get to be front and center inside of the activation that has been really profound for me. And something that we’ve already had conversations about continuing after election season.

To watch the final Zoom Where It Happens, sign up here.