This Door Didn't Just Open

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn in a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

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."

"I felt like, why does 'City of Angels' have my award?" she says, laughing softly, although her tone is serious. "When Kevin Hooks [was talking] to me at the after-party, I finally said, 'How long are you gonna just stand in front of me holding my award?' "

After all, Henderson had accomplished something Hooks had not. By then, his CBS show had already been unceremoniously canceled, while the critically praised "Soul Food" received a green light for a 20-episode second season. A noteworthy milestone, particularly because there has never been a predominantly black hourlong drama in the history of television that has made it past its first season. (The only close contender arguably would be Lifetime's "Any Day Now," whose cast, including its leads, and writing staff is evenly divided between white and African American actors.)

Certainly, "Soul Food" has a comfortable position on a premium cable network. Although the show is among Showtime's highest-rated original series, particularly with its African American audience, the show's numbers don't come close to those needed to be considered a hit on a major broadcast network.

"People can find excuses for the show's success," says a peeved Henderson. " 'It's a success because it's on Showtime' or 'It's a success because they can use language or nudity.' I'd be glad to take those things out if I got this show on a network."

"They would say, 'It'll never work because black dramas don't make money,' " says "Soul Food" co-star Malinda Williams, of some of the early doomsday predictions she heard from executives in the industry. But when it debuted on June 28, 2000, "we proved all of that wrong," Williams says with a cheeky grin, "and I'm proud that this is the little show that could."Although "Soul Food" started off as Tillman's story about his Midwestern clan, the series has quickly adopted some characteristics of Henderson's family tree. Growing up in Pasadena, the fifth of eight children to Ella, a homemaker, and Edward, a retired Army officer, the show runner is "always drawing on stuff from my family for the show."

But even outside her familial connection, Henderson's passion for the series is instinctively personal--and "Soul Food's" longevity will be the trophy in a place no one else can see. "I feel the burden of being the only black show on television," Henderson says as she discusses her grueling 20-hour daily regime.

"I don't have a special 'Soul Food' work ethic. This is my work ethic. But I don't ever let anything slide because I'm always aware that we are an anomaly. We're leading the way. I want to see black dramas come on the air every year, but I have to show that this is what success looks like. I feel that burden, but it's also the beauty of being in this position--because if not us, then who? I feel challenged, and I'm ready to meet that challenge. I won't shy away from it."

Assertiveness and determination surround Henderson. An MBA graduate from the University of Georgia, Henderson began her television career on the corporate side. She received a two-year educational grant from NBC to explore broadcast management, but she soon found herself more intrigued by the creative side of the business.

A spec script for "Roc" won Henderson a place in the noted Warner Bros. Writing Workshop. For the next five years, she climbed the sitcom ladder, writing for ABC's "Family Matters" and NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" before rising to producer on UPN's "Moesha" and the WB's "Sister, Sister." Then she was ready to try something different.

"My agent tried to get me meetings at 'Seinfeld' and 'Frasier,' and they weren't interested," she remembers. "'We don't need that voice,' is what we would hear over and over again. But yet you've got white folks writing black shows. When I was on 'Fresh Prince,' at one point, I was the only black writer on the show. It was all Jewish men. You mean to tell me that you need that voice to tell a story of a hip-hop kid living in Bel-Air?"

So she decided to re-create herself.

"Felicia is so incredibly driven and focused and really does not take no for an answer," says her best friend, director Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Disappearing Acts"). The two, along with their "sister colleague," "Girlfriends" creator Mara Brock Akil, have all seen their Hollywood careers burgeon this past year. "She's really like a bull, but in a good way."

"I'm not one of those people who believes that the man is holding me back. Nobody can hold me back but me. They don't need that voice? It doesn't matter to me. I'll go through a different door, a different window. I'll knock down the door and make my own door if I have to. That's why I decided to go back to school," Henderson says.

At UCLA, where she recently received her master's of fine arts in screenwriting, Henderson penned "Life in Samsonite Blue," a semi-autobiographical tale of a woman who risks everything to help keep her younger brother from a life of crime. It won the university's screenwriting contest last year--and it was the door that led Henderson to "Soul Food."

"One day a copy of her script, a feature spec script, got into our hands," says Pearlina Igbokwe, vice president of original programming for Showtime. "It was exactly the tone that we wanted 'Soul Food' to be. Once we read it, we knew she could do it, and we had no concerns about the fact that she came from the half-hour world.

"It was a gamble, certainly," admits Tracey Edmonds, co-CEO of Edmonds Entertainment. Edmonds, along with husband Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, executive produces the series with Tillman's State Street Pictures. "We were fortunate that everything worked out and that her talent proved that we had all made the right decision."

"The difficulty, believe it or not, came from my writing staff," a laughing Henderson says of the nickname, "sitcom girl," that colleagues have given her. "I've started to wear it like a badge." But, says co-executive producer Charles Holland, her moniker is more of a nod to her achievement than a snide put-down.

"People know how hard it is to make a switch across," he says, "and usually you have to prove that you can do something in our industry before they'll let you do it, particularly if you're a woman--and particularly if you're a minority. Usually you have to jump through a whole lot of hurdles and, generally speaking, when you switch from sitcoms to drama, you have to pay a price--maybe drop down a few pegs in terms of the hierarchy of television staff writers. And Felicia didn't have to do any of that. And it's interesting now, because she's closely identified with this show, that she's thought more as a drama person now."

It's the fourth day of a seven-day shoot for episode eight. For much of the day, Parker, Kodjoe and Kenneth Edmonds, who's making a special guest appearance, have been filming scenes on the converted sound stage. Meanwhile Henderson has been off-set, going over post-production edits from an earlier episode. She's juggling this between meetings, conference calls and script rewrites, which will take up much of her day. Her second-floor office, an ethnic-fusion suite right out of a Thomasville showroom is an otherwise calm, comforting setting. But as the midafternoon Metro Rail rolls past her open window, Henderson confides that she's been away from the set much too long today.

"I really need to clone myself," says Henderson, who directed the second-season opener, which aired June 27. "It's a hard adjustment for me, because I like being on the set to give my notes--and I don't want any surprises when I look at the dailies," she says, laughing. "Nobody knows those characters like I do, but when Mama's there, the actors are just more comfortable."

"Felicia's the mother, the sister, the aunt, the cousin, the next-door neighbor," Parker says, and adds, laughing, "She's the therapist, the doctor, and then there's the producer, the show runner, the writer, the executive decision maker, the 'take off that outfit it looks terrible' person." Says director Jeff Byrd: "I almost thought it was just show at first, but seeing it happen day in and day out, it's more than just a show for Felicia, in regards to the fact that she has a whole lot resting on her shoulder--especially being a black woman and having a successful show."

Henderson doesn't talk much about being a trailblazer. Although as the only African American female show runner of an episodic ethnic series, or of any hourlong series this season, she realizes she's a rarity. The importance of that is not lost on those around her. "It is a breakthrough," says Henderson's mentor, Sara Finney, producer of "The Parkers" and UPN's recently canceled "Moesha." "What she's done is not only historical, but psychologically it lets people know African Americans can do this, women can do this. Felicia said, 'I've done comedy, now I want to try something else,' and she did it."

Says Holland: "Felicia has a sense of destiny, that this is something she's supposed to do."

Where some might see arrogance and conceit, Holland says, "I don't see it that way at all. There are people you meet, like people in public service, who've dedicated their lives to something. That it's something they were put here to do."

For co-star Vanessa Williams, Henderson's success is a validation of what African American and other minorities can accomplish in Hollywood, where the glass ceiling is mobile, rising higher and higher. "Felicia believes in creating your own destiny. That's not to be naive or idealistic, but perseverance and tenacity goes a long way. Whoopi Goldberg wasn't supposed to be a movie star. It's all about having the vision and the stick-to-itiveness to stay with something long enough to outlast any kind of notion that you're less than [anyone else]."

Later this year, Henderson will direct her feature project, "Life in Samsonite Blue." She also plans to start focusing her attention on other projects to fulfill her recently signed three-year deal with Paramount for sitcom and dramatic productions. But before that, there's still a little issue of awards.

"I want 'Soul Food' to win Emmys. I need this show to be recognized for its excellence. I need the actors to be recognized for their excellence. Those are two big doors I've got to kick down," she says. "I've got to get this kind of a show on a network and show them that it can work there. That's another a door. I've got to make sure I'm not the only one doing this--that it's a regular thing that an African American is running a drama. That's another door. And I've got big giant combat boots."

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* "Soul Food" can be seen Wednesday nights at 10 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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