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Black Stars, Classic Sitcoms and a Serious Message: Vote

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Tracee Ellis Ross fluffed her wig, did a little shoulder shimmy and became a Florida retiree from the 1980s. Just below her on the screen, Alfre Woodard, in a gray hairpiece of her own, threw shade and spun tales from the old country — Sicily. Afterward, the two of them talked about the census. This was “The Golden Girls,” reimagined for the Zoom era and aiming to galvanize the citizenry in an unparalleled political season. You don’t even miss the laugh track.

Created by a who’s who of Black women in Hollywood, including Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, Issa Rae, Tessa Thompson, Rashida Jones, Regina King and Channing Dungey (the vice president of original content at Netflix), the series, called “Zoom Where It Happens,” produces a weekly live event, usually a script read of a throwback sitcom, with an all-Black cast, and hosts like Lena Waithe and Gabrielle Union-Wade. At the end of the show, they stick around to talk about making a voting plan or filling out government paperwork.

“Inside of escapism, I really love this idea — this call to action,” said Thompson, the “Creed” and Marvel star. It was about “finding a joyful way into really talking about and normalizing the idea of being civically engaged,” she added in a recent Zoom interview alongside a co-producer, the actress Ryan Michelle Bathe. “The performers are able to do that in a way that feels authentic — you can finish an episode of ‘Friends’ and then you hear Sterling and Ryan talk about their voting plan with Kendrick.” (Bathe and Sterling K. Brown, who are married, were Ross and Rachel on the “Friends” virtual watch party, and Kendrick Sampson played Joey.)

The producers expect episodes to appear regularly until the election. The next show, on Tuesday night, is “227,” the ’80s series set in a Washington apartment building, with Wanda Sykes, Keke Palmer and one of the original stars, Jackée Harry, as the host.

The idea came together this summer, as the nation convulsed in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Black artists, filmmakers and executives were texting, sorting through emotions and debating what they could do. It was DuVernay, the director and producer, who hit upon the need for a communal experience amid the isolation of the pandemic, with SMS technology as a tool, “to walk people up the ladder to the ballot,” as Thompson put it.

Karen Richardson, a political strategist and alumna of the Obama White House, serves as a consultant for the project. “I think a lot of people feel there are barriers to engaging in this process of voting and civic engagement,” she said. “How do we lift the veil to make it less mysterious?” Seeing the stars cop to dragging their heels on their census forms (as Sanaa Lathan did at the end of “The Golden Girls” episode), or contemplating voting by mail versus marching to the polls — “having conversations that you’re having at your home too,” she said — demystifies it.

The first few episodes also showcased the alternate reality where there was an all-Black “Golden Girls.” (If only!) “What would have happened if, in 1982, or 1992, or 2002, they had given as much weight to actresses or actors of color, that they were giving to the quote-unquote mainstream?” Bathe asked. “What if in the ’70s, the idea of ‘the mainstream’ had been completely obliterated. What if, what if?”

ImageThe “Friends” read-through featured some impressive Hollywood talent. Top row: Gabrielle Union-Wade, Kendrick Sampson. Middle row: Ryan Michelle Bathe and Sterling K. Brown, Jeremy Pope and Uzo Aduba. Bottom row: Aisha Hinds, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Stephanie Allain.
Credit…Zoom Where It Happens

The veteran producer Stephanie Allain jumped at the chance to be a part of the team. “This is really generated, run and inhabited by Black women,” she said. “That’s also just a statement in and of itself.”

Nostalgic script reads have become a pandemic staple, and many raise money for liberal political causes or candidates. (Zoom Where It Happens is officially nonpartisan: “It is not about any two white men,” Thompson said.) The “Golden Girls” table read, of a timely episode called “The Flu,” found the ladies getting increasingly ornery about staying home: King, playing Dorothy, did some Oscar-caliber sneezing; Lathan disappeared into a honeyed Southern drawl as Blanche; and Woodard was near-mesmerizing as the snippy Sophia — all she was missing was the handbag. They gave Dr. Fauci a shoutout, too.

That episode launched the series on just a few days’ notice in September, receiving over 100,000 RSVPs — more than double Zoom’s viewership capacity of 50,000. Viewers must register with their contact information and may then be connected to a variety of social justice and civic organizations like Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote.

For the creators, who are all donating their time and talent, it’s been a lesson in organization and hustle — and a deep dive into copyright law. Because of rights issues, each show only airs once (no restreams).

Even with the occasional snafu of timing or mute buttons, it all feels pretty seamless, if D.I.Y. “It’s become this lovely, sort of functional assembly line,” said Allain, who produced the 2020 Oscars but found herself transcribing scripts for this project. “Ryan and Tessa are the programming architects,” picking the shows and episodes for broad appeal, she said, tweaking scripts in tiny ways — adding a Jordan Peele reference, say — and choosing directors from among their networks (they started with Gina Prince-Blythewood). Dungey, the Netflix executive, helps secure the intellectual property — also donated — while Allain works on music rights.

Credit…Embassy Pictures/Fotos International, via Getty Images

Each episode features a reimagined theme song: Cynthia Erivo blasted an a cappella rendition of “I’ll Be There For You” and the Pittsburgh music teacher and viral star Aaron Scott did his signature gospel version of “Thank You for Being a Friend” for “The Golden Girls.”

They’ve been experimenting with the medium of Zoom, to make it seem more theatrical — throwing an object from one person’s frame into another, for example. Prep starts a week out, with young actors as stand-ins for blocking. The performers get one run-through, and a speed-read. “Everybody was, with the exception of my husband, in the same state of nervousness,” said Bathe, a self-described Jennifer Aniston superfan. (“My husband never gets nervous,” she added with an eyeroll.)

The staging is minimal, but the actors take what they can get. “I was definitely prop-acting my buns off,” Bathe said.

The next episodes are still being cleared, but fans of “A Different World” should be happy. The series is all sitcoms, though “we had ambitions,” Thompson said. “We were going to do ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Sopranos.’” There was buy-in from those showrunners, too. “So maybe in some other context you will get to see a Black woman play Tony Soprano, who knows?”

Attracting a cross-section of viewers was the point. Nobody involved expects their work to be finished — as citizens and artists — after Nov. 3. “We have been here, particularly as Black people, in the past, and we will be here again, in terms of having to show up in real ways to protect the value and dignity of our lives,” Thompson said.

The gravity of this moment is reminiscent of the Civil Rights era, she said, but the sense of common purpose could be too. “If you really sort of drill down, most of the Civil Rights movement was about gathering together in the name of hope,” Bathe said. By reframing and re-airing some cultural touchstones, “we wanted to remind people that you cannot get through the tough times without a sense of hope, a sense of joy, a sense that something better is coming.”

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