What do Tichina Arnold, Tasha Smith, Malinda Williams, Regina King, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jasmine Guy all have in common? That’s a pretty straightforward question. Many would reply “they’re all successful African-American actresses” to that. Here’s another one: What other factor bind all these women together? Not as easy a question.
Terri J. Vaughn knows the short answer to that, and for good reason. In 2007, Vaughn produced a documentary, Angels Can’t Help But Laugh that brought all of the aforementioned thespians (and more) together to deconstruct and vent over a common problem: the subjugation of black women in Hollywood. As you can tell from the names above, these aren’t tyros in the industry. These are the deacons and elders of the church; their resumes are on point.
“We need more opportunities, we need more varieties of things that show our fullness and if the powers-that-be don’t give us the opportunity, then we have to create them ourselves,” Vaughn said about her film. “I know that our community wants to see us in different roles, in different situations. They don’t want to see the same thing and the same ol’ people.”
Call her bitter, but she may have a point.
In 1990, Fox was floundering in the television sitcom sector before they launched a slew of shows that catered to the African-American demographic. “In Living Color” became steady competition to “Saturday Night Live” and was groundbreaking with its satiric focus on Black subject matter. “Martin” came along shortly thereafter and was adored in many households and is regularly in many people’s conversation as one the best black sitcoms in the 90’s. Then along came “The Simpsons” and “MADtv“. “Roc” and “Living Single” were also highly regarded shows that were apart of the rising popularity of Fox television in that period. But by 2000, there was just a dash of African-American sitcoms on Fox.
In 1995, a year after “In Living Color” was canceled, The WB Television Network was started. The WB, as it was called, crafted most of its first sitcoms (Wayans Brothers, The Parent ‘Hood and Sister, Sister) to target the black audience. Once viewership picked up, “7th Heaven” and “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” were added to the network’s slate. Then “Dawson’s Creek” came along and established another identity for The WB. By 2002, Black sitcoms were nonexistent on the network.
Those two networks realized the profitability limits of catering too much to a niche market in the long-run. There’s a popular notion that black sitcoms are unable to appeal to a general audience, which explains why many are canceled inexplicably. It starts as a niche focus, and once the capacity for profits (marginal utility) is at its peak, then a general audience is needed. Shows such as “The Simpsons“, “7th Heaven“, and “Dawson’s Creek” receive top billing and sitcoms that cater directly to Black audiences are suddenly pushed to the side. It’s an implicit message that states: You are good enough to launch or revitalize our networks, but not enough to stick around on the come-up.
“Tadow, how you like me now?” became the ubiquitous catchphrase of Lovita Alizay Jenkins-Robinson, the ghetto-fabulous, kindhearted, loyal “administrative assistant” in “The Steve Harvey Show“. Though the show ended eight years ago, it is still in heavy syndication; so Vaughn is no less removed – or weary – from the constant reminders of her lovable character.
“There are definitely differences [between Vaughn and her character Lovita]. I don’t really talk like that and she’s probably more outspoken than I am,” reflects Vaughn. “But there are many similarities between me and her…I had to get it from somewhere. Her sass. Her passion. The fact that she was a good person…all of that is me.”
No stranger to successful shows, Vaughn has shown her face in many of America’s favorites: “Married With Children“, “Family Matters”, “Living Single“, “ER“, “Soul Food“, “Girlfriends“, and “All of Us“. The latter, “All of Us“, was Vaughn’s latest deep foray into the world of television sitcoms. She has been cast in an array of movies, from “Friday” to “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” to “Daddy’s Little Girls“. Vaughn, who also has used her platform to raise awareness to children growing up in perilous environments, is a mother to two boys and a wife to Karon Riley. But beyond that, she is a woman who feels that her talents remain underutilized. So like many who feel their proverbial backs are against the wall, Vaughn is taking matters into her own hands.
“The Real TV“, Vaughn’s signature Facebook weekly video blog, is her way of honing her skills to prepare her for another step. “Really, I just want my own talk show,” she intimates, laughing. “I want my own talk show and sitcom.” Some of the topics on her weekly blog thus far:
1) Is it OK for a spouse or significant other to have a friendship with his ex?
2) Is it OK to date the ex of a friend?
3) Is it OK for a wife to say no to sex to her husband?
4) Pursuing your passions and living in faith.
5) Divorce and child custody.
6) Women making more money than men in relationships.
Vaughn’s modus operandi is on giving viewers the “real deal” on topics. Her inaugural blog, I’m Sick of This Sh**&*T!, is a vociferous expression of her views toward the Hollywood industry. All pretentiousness aside, Vaughn shows that she is a working woman who is striving to give her voice in all its splendor. This is where Michelle Obama’s presence could help. The spotlight on The First Lady will do wonders to shed the limiting stereotypes of Black women, Vaughn says.
“Absolutely!” Vaughn exclaims. “Here is a normal Black woman. It’s not like she’s out of the ordinary for us. We’re just happy that we get to see this woman on television and that’s just who she is naturally. We need to see a variety of visions of ourselves and not just one vision and Michelle Obama is a vision that we don’t get to see enough.”
Vaughn’s philanthropic organization, the Take Wings Foundation, aims to show young girls another vision of life by exposing them to opportunities beyond the crime and despair of San Francisco projects. Not too long ago, Vaughn was a resident of these same projects herself. The path she’s traveled – from thwarting neighborhood bullies and working two jobs to pay for a car and college education – has only bolstered her belief that there is more to her career than Lovita or Jonelle. She has come too far.
“I just think that there’s so much more than the public hasn’t seen,” she says, “ and that time is coming. This just challenges me to dig deeper and work harder and figure out how I can create opportunities for myself.”
“TV ought to reflect the reality of America’s diversity and should do so with pride and dignity, not with stereotypes. – Barack Obama to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2004.
The glass-half-full mentality that Vaughn exudes may seem highfalutin in these times, but for her and many of her ilk, it is a necessity. The skewed amount of paleness in broadcast networks is, for many Blacks actors, downright lamentable. In 1997, broadcast networks (non-cable channels) provided 15 black situational comedies. Today? Two. And those two, “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game”, have been relegated to Friday nights. Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” and “Meet The Browns” (which are highly popular but critically panned) are basic cable offerings. This drought isn’t just restricted to sitcoms; if you look at television drama, the scene gets more sordid (unless your name is Lawrence Fishburne and Dennis Haysbert). The recession has hit black television actors long before it hit the rest of the nation.
Not only does this detract from actors’ livelihood, this affects Black writers and directors as well. Network executives argue that ethnic writers write material that is too trendy and focused, which tends to bring in a trendy and niched audience. The best television shows of all time, they argue, is wide-ranging in its subject matter. While “Moesha” and “Girlfriends” may have brought in the young, cosmopolitan black female demographic, “Seinfeld” and “Friends” brought in everybody.
“I hate to say it’s our own fault,” creator of “Soul Food” Felicia D. Henderson told the Los Angeles Times last December. “As black producers and writers got their own shows, the visions and premises became hipper and cooler. It became more specific. There was nothing left for general audiences.”
That makes a world of difference when it comes to profitability, network execs assert. But one would be hardpressed to say that black sitcoms isn’t a remedy to low viewership. If networks want to improve their floundering sitcom ratings (see TBS and House of Payne), it would serve well to heed the examples of recent history. “The Cosby Show” rejuvenated NBC in the 80’s. “In Living Color” and “Martin” led the wave of sitcoms that elevated Fox in the 90’s. The aforementioned TBS has received second life in sitcom land because of a formerly derelict African-American playwright. Black actors and writers and directors getting an opportunity in television isn’t the issue per se; it’s the sustaining of opportunities that is the cause for concern. You are good enough to launch or revitalize our networks, but not enough to stick around on the come-up.
In the meantime, however, Terri Vaughn will continue to dote on her two boys and husband. She’ll kick it with the Malinda Williams’ and Regina Kings of the world, and hit the town together with their accessories in full tow. They’ll laugh and thank God for their prior blessings and those to come. Sometime during that outing, Vaughn will even reach into her clutch and pull out that ever-constant lip-gloss resting next to her American Express Card, ID and $40 cash. Then she’ll come home to a computer and blast Mary J. Blige before addressing her Facebook faithful, who tune in to see an actress who is funny, intelligent, frustrated and buoyant, all at once.
“I’m always hopeful,” she said. “Why? God. That’s just the way it works. I always believe that I’m a part of a plan, my destiny is a part of something bigger and better. This is just a part of my journey.”