Out Lesbian Writer/Producer Lena Waithe gives us an update on “Twenties”

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You’ve probably heard of Lena Waithe before. Maybe you’ve watched one of the episodes she’s written for Bones. Or perhaps you’ve seen her web-series turned pilot, Twenties, which was originally signed on at BET. You’ve certainly heard of Dear White People, the much-anticipated movie that Waithe co-produced. No matter how you’ve heard of this talented and prolific writer/producer, you are about to hear her name a lot more. Waithe gives AfterEllen an update on her series, Twenties, which features a queer woman of color as a lead character. AfterEllen: I was very excited to hear that Twenties was picked up by BET back in July, but I haven’t been able to find any information about the show since. Can you give us an update? Lena Waithe: Well, as people may or may not know, Loretha Jones, who was head of Original Programming at BET left her post. She exited BET. I don’t know why, but she’s no longer there. Often what happens when there is a regime change is that there is a change in programmingshows get cancelled or dropped in order to clean house and make room for the new president. So, in that, weTwentiesis no longer going to be on BET. But people shouldn’t be fearful because since that sale happened, my brand has expanded and the landscape is different now from what it was when we I was first going out with Twenties. People should know that there are other places that are excited about and interested in Twenties. We are currently fielding offers. Twenties will live again, but it just may not live on BET. We are currently in the middle of trying to find it a home. Lena Waithe AE: As you shop the pilot around, is there any chance that the make up of the show will change depending on who decides to acquire it? I know that sometimes creators are asked to add or drop characters, or change the sexuality or ethnicity of a character. What I really loved Twenties was having Hattie, a queer black woman, being the lead of a show. What has been the response to that? Can we expect that to continue to be the case? LW: One of the great things about going out with this project is that that hasn’t been part of our experience. Just so people are clear, BET was never trying to change that about the show. Which is actually really exciting. And this new place that we’re dealing with, obviously there have been a lot of conversations but that is one of our deal breakers. I definitely really want her to remain a queer woman of color. I don’t want her to be questioning her sexuality. I want her to be very confident in it and for her to be, not unlike myself, very comfortable with who she is. She’s not a stud. She’s not a femme. She’s somewhere in between. Straight girls are obsessed with her. She’s trying to figure out this lesbian thing. At the end of the day, that is what’s really important and what drives the story. And I’ll always make sure that ‘s a part of my fight in getting this thing on the air. But that’s the constant fight that show creators have-to sort of maintain their idea’s integrity. Networks and Studios, their job is to make sure that the show appeals to a broad audience. Often times, when you do that, you end up with shows that are not specific, they’re lifeless and lack personality. So, I don’t plan to have Hattie change in any way. I don’t plan on swapping out the characters for white characters or Latina characters. The goal is to have three African American women as the leads, who have different careers, who are all in their twenties, who live in Los Angeles and who are all trying to figure it out. And one happens to be a lesbian. It’s not unlike my life. I’m surrounded by straight people and we all are going through the same stuff and have similar issues. That’s what is really important to me about the show. I think that is what television is missing. We never see a queer girl, especially a queer girl of color, where it’s not a coming of age story. I don’t want to see Hattie in an awkward phase in high school having a crush on her friend. No. I want to see the girl when she’s graduated college, she’s figured out her swag, and there’s a fly chick coming out her door every week. That, to me, is interesting. That’s something people don’t see. That’s something that, I hope, defies stereotypes. Twenties actresses AE: I know this is a very personal project for you. Some of the scenarios that are in the show come from personal experiences you or your close friends have had, including the tampon vs. pad debate. Can you elaborate on Hattie, who is based on you, and some similarities and differences between you and your character? LW: I think a similar thing is her checkered past with straight girls and dating straight girls. That was a huge part of my identity because a lot of straight girls looked at me like a gateway drug, you know? And it’s a funny thing because that was a really big part of my development, not fitting into the group I was supposed to fit into. When I went to a lesbian bar I felt really out of place. I’m in a different place now but I would like Hattie to have that journey, a similar journey where she learns her self-worth. Where she realizes that she’s worthy of someone who can give her as much love and admiration as she gives them. To me it’s all about the personal journey. For me, it’s about unique stories that are also relatable. AE: What about Hattie’s name? Shonda Rhimes gave Olivia Pope the alias of “Julia” when she was on the island with Jake as a nod to Diahann Carroll and her character, Julia,  from the groundbreaking 1968 television series. Is the name Hattie a homage to the legendary Hattie McDaniel? LW: Absolutely. I was named for Lena Horne, I wanted Hattie to be named for someone as well. I liked the idea of her mother naming her after the first African American to win an academy award. It’s one of those things that if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. AE: I also watched your Youtube videos Two Gay Men in a Car and Two Black Actresses in a Car. So funny! I was watching it while wearing headphones as to not disturb my roommate, but I was laughing so loudly that she came in from the other room saying, “OK, you have to tell me what you’re watching.” LW: I love that. That warms my heart! It’s really fairly simple, but people get such a kick out of them. People have been bugging me to do another one. I think I will. I think I’m going to do two black moms in a car. I have the people I want, but scheduling is such a bitch. I’ll figure it out, though. AE: Please do! Please make another one. I can’t wait for that. One of the things that were mentioned in Two Black Actresses in a Car was the idea of the “black voice.” Yanni King and Nia Jervier discussed Lena Dunham’s statement regarding not putting a black actress on Girls, because she isn’t interested in tokenism and she can’ t specifically speak to that experience. I appreciate that she doesn’t want to stereotype or appropriate, but the one of the actresses said something that resonated with me: “Why does it have to be written in a ‘black voice’? It’s not a show about black women in a black community. Why can’t they have a black friend with a voice similar to theirs? There are black women who have experiences similar to them. It’s a show about women!”  Twenties Screen Cap So, I just wanted to give you an opportunity to speak to that, because what I thought was refreshing about the pilot presentation of Twenties was the very first clip where Hattie admits that she’s been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift and that’s it’s jeopardizing her gangster status. Is this idea of performing blackness something that you’re interested in discussing more in the series? LW: I think that’s a good question especially with all the controversy surrounding Blackish. We have a lot more people of color on television, especially this fall, and people are trying to understand what that is. You have two sides of it. You’ve got Shonda Rhimes who basically ignores it, which I think is really smart. Which, lets face it, she got from the great Dr. Bill Cosby. The Huxtables never talked about being black. They never did. They didn’t have to. They were obviously a proud African American family with very normal everyday problems. But you know, in Modern Family they don’t talk about being white. In Twenties there are a couple of cultural differences such as the tampon vs. pad thing. I grew up in a house where my mom was like, you’re not going to use tampons because that means you’re sexually active. Meanwhile, white girls in my high school would use them. It wasn’t a thing. It’s the same thing with pierced ears. White girls in my high school weren’t allowed to get their ears pierced until they were 16 because it the equivalent to wearing makeup. My ears were pierced two months after I was born. That’s just a thing that black people do. I mean, shit, my nephew’s ear was pierced when he was like two. I don’t know why that is. I can’t explain the anthropological, you know, background of that. There are just some cultural things that we do differently. But I think these like that-pads vs. tampons, getting your ears pierced-pointing your finger at those things are actually more interesting than “How come we ain’t eating fried chicken? Why is it baked?” or “I came over here because ya’ll have grape drink.” I wouldn’t necessarily go for that. I’m not that writer. No shade to those who do that. That’s just not my cup of tea. At the end of the day, what it means to be black is so different for my generation and we have no qualms about redefining it. I’d love to tackle it (performing blackness), possibly, but I’m more interested in discovering what it’s like for a black person of her age, and in her group, living in Los Angeles. I doesn’t always come down to dialogue. It can be expressed in the clothes she wears, her record collection. AE: Glad to hear that Twenties is not a dead in the water. What are your hopes for the show? What is the best case scenario? LW: I just want to do it the right way. Whatever that might be. It could be on a major network, cable, Amazon or Hulu type thing. Whatever it is, I just want it to be done correctly. It sounds crazy, but I’d rather not do it if we were just going to do it the wrong way. Because I love these characters so much. They’re me. They’re my life. These are pages from my diary. I really hope that the places that are stepping up and showing interest understand that I’m not some kid who just wants to make some easy money. I’m a person who wants to do something great, and really change the game. I have no doubt that Twenties can do just that.   Twenties will be coming to a small screen near you soon, but in the meantime, Lena has recently sold a pilot for her original series, Bros Before Hoes, which is about a gay black man with two very straight black brothers. Dear White People opens in LA, NYC, DC and ATL on Friday, October 17 and theaters nationwide on October 24.

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