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This Door Didn't Just Open

Black dramas don't work on TV? Don't tell Felicia Henderson,the very determined creatorof Showtime's 'Soul Food,'now in its second season.

July 22, 2001|JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN | Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn in a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

TORONTO — It's a chilly springtime morning in late April on the "Soul Food" sound stages, which were once airplane hangars on the former Downsview Canadian Air Force base. Inside, heat from overhead lamps warms the set, or at the very least makes it a more bearable place as director Oz Scott oversees the day's rehearsal with co-star Nicole Ari Parker, her lithe frame bundled in a chenille sweater and black pants, and a cast of extras in the faux conference room of the Moore & Freeman law firm.

It's a typical day behind the scenes of an episodic drama, in which four scenes and nearly 14 pages of dialogue will be shot during the 12-hour day. Production assistants buzz around on scooters handing out the day's production sheets; union laborers tinker with the cameras and lighting; the crew moves set fixtures from one side of the room to the other; actors go over their lines.

Pretty ordinary indeed, until you look at the faces. A majority of them, including the story editor, the writers and producers, are, like Scott, Parker and her six co-stars, African American. Television doesn't look like this. Not in Toronto. Not in Hollywood. (Unless, of course, you're talking about a UPN Monday-night sitcom.) But "Soul Food," which began its second season in late June, is unique.

The cast and crew believed from the beginning the Showtime drama series was a different kind of show--one that had hit potential. It's not just because it's based on George Tillman's successful 1997 film about the volatile personalities and riveting family dynamic of the Joseph clan. Nor is it the predominantly African American cast, a refreshing addition to an ethnically sparse TV landscape. It's not the week-after-week drama among the sisters--Teri (Parker), Maxine (Vanessa Williams) and Bird (Malinda Williams), and the men in their lives. It's not the nudity or the passionate love scenes--although for many black viewers starved for African American romance on TV, those factors are definitely part of it. But they're not all of what makes this show click.

"It's just so well-written and truthful that you get hooked," says co-star Boris Kodjoe, the actor and model who plays Teri's hunky younger beau, Damon. "Everybody can relate to family issues. Every time you watch the show you can see yourself."

Anything less would not suffice for Felicia Henderson.

Henderson, the 36-year-old creator and executive producer of "Soul Food," has a stubborn unwillingness to settle for a watered-down version of the truth as she sees it and tells it with stories of a family bound by blood and love but at times torn apart by circumstance. Narratives are rich with a mix of triumphs and shattered dreams--a drama peppered with comedy. Henderson tells the everyday stories of men and women trying to co-exist in their Mars and Venus universe, the journey of the heart, and those little places through which we've all traveled.

"You've been the woman scorned who's ready to put sugar in his tank. You've been the woman who'll take whatever he gives because you just want to be with him; the woman who doesn't want to be with him but you know he's a good man. That's real," Henderson says. "And we try to go with what really happens in life. Not what's a good television story."

That said, it's good television that Henderson is striving to achieve with "Soul Food," she says, sitting on the sleigh-styled lounge in the middle of her office. Denim jeans, a tailored white cotton shirt and flat leather shoes are an understated counterpoint to her tall, athletic build. Her dark shoulder-length hair is pulled back in a ponytail to reveal quiet brown eyes and a smile stretching across her face as the conversation veers from the more technical and philosophical issues of "Soul Food" to plain old girl talk about those crazy things men and women do for love. She weaves into the struggle of trying to find free time. Then shifts to her brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, and the comical stories she derives for the show by watching them "doing the things that they shouldn't." She laughs, then returns to the matter at hand.

"Can you see Aaron's award over there?" she asks, pointing to the brass shelving unit in the corner where, prominent among her trinkets and plants, is the NAACP Image Award given to the drama's junior co-star, Aaron Meeks, for outstanding youth actor.

It was the only win for the series out of its five nominations.

In a whispery, motherly voice, Henderson says, "He brought it in this morning and said, 'This is for you and the show.' "

A month earlier, in March at the awards ceremony at the Universal Amphitheatre, Henderson was confident she would be taking home the award for outstanding drama series. "In terms of what the NAACP rewards," she says, "we are the best." Instead the ebony statuette went to Kevin Hooks and Steven Bochco, executive producers of CBS' "City of Angels."

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