OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

‘The Quad’s’ Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings himself to character Cecil Diamond ‘What I bring to each role I play is the best of myself’

Georgia A&M University band director Cecil Diamond may be one of the most polarizing characters on BET’s nighttime drama The Quad.

Diamond, who has led the prestigious 200-member Marching Mountain Cats since 1990, is one of the best band directors Atlanta has seen in this fictional historically black college setting. And once band members get past the sometimes cold exterior of their fearless leader, they learn to love him — for the most part.

There have been some traumatic experiences on Diamond’s watch. Whether the brutal beating of a band member, a betrayal within his band family or personal health scares, Diamond proves that though he can be bruised, he will not be broken. Approaching season two was no different.

“His frailties are much more prevalent now,” said Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the actor who portrays Diamond. “He’s able to expose a lot of that to people who are close to him, and I always look for those opportunities in my characters because they’re clearly signs of his humanity — when you’re not only powerful but you’re also vulnerable. This season gives him opportunities many times, or at least a few significant times, to show the dichotomy of the character and his personality.”

Santiago-Hudson knows the brazen, tough-love, no-nonsense character is exactly what he needed to be. And becoming Cecil Diamond wasn’t the toughest part, since Santiago-Hudson considers the character to be merely an extension of himself.

“Cecil Diamond is one of those guys, I don’t know if you can kill him,” Santiago-Hudson said. “His reserve and his energy and his will is so incredibly powerful that he’s used to fighting. He’ll fight any foe, and he feels he can win.

“We are one. I think there’s times I can be as firm or hard as Cecil, and there are times I can be as soft as Cecil, so all I can give you as an audience member is the best of me. Whatever you see of me, I’m giving it to you real. I’m not a method actor per se, but I am a seasoned actor. And what I bring to each role I play is the best of myself.”

With a career spanning more than four decades, Santiago-Hudson has challenged himself and displayed his acting abilities in several roles. But as he matured in his career, he desired new challenges and different types of roles. Starring as a detective here or a police officer there were great roles to add to the résumé, but Santiago-Hudson tired of fruitless parts that relied on his “black authority” yet omitted his vulnerability, sensitivity and intellect.

Once he received the call from Felicia D. Henderson, the show’s co-creator, Santiago-Hudson knew that this was one role he would not turn down.

“When I read the script and had a discussion with [Henderson], it was just where I wanted to be,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I didn’t want to go to L.A. I wanted to be closer to home, and I wanted to do something other than being a police officer. … I could show a lot more of who we are as a people.”

Santiago-Hudson knew he could be what the role required of him. He could be cold and calculating or caring and emotional. As far as Diamond’s musical career, Santiago-Hudson also had that covered. He is a self-taught harmonica player who also worked as a disc jockey for eight years. Music has always been a means of expression and integral part of his life, but transforming himself into a band director would present some unique challenges.

Santiago-Hudson did not attend a historically black college or university (HBCU), but he said he lived vicariously through his children, who received their college educations at Hampton University, Morris Brown College and Morehouse College. Immersing himself in the HBCU band culture to transform into Diamond was a learning experience for Santiago-Hudson.

“I’m a very studious actor,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I love dramaturgy. I love research. I had some wonderful people around that were provided to me to learn what it meant, what the tradition was, what the status was and what it really meant to be a band director. We brought band directors from high schools in Atlanta and we brought band directors from universities in the South. They all had a different take and something else to offer me, and everybody offered me gems, jewels, that I continue to build so that I can have a whole pocketful of gems and jewels.”

Once the basics were down, Santiago-Hudson made Diamond’s style his own. From facial expressions to commands, the actor took a small piece of everything he’d learned to form a complete character.

“If you watch RonReaco Lee [who plays the role of rival band director Clive Taylor] conduct and you watch me conduct, it’s two different styles,” Santiago-Hudson said. “The expressions on my face, the way I command, the way I look over my shoulder. Watch how I walk through my band and the respect they have for me and how a little look or a raised eyebrow says a lot to them. That marching band culture at black colleges, you can’t get more prestigious.”

Besides studying, learning and researching more about HBCU culture, Santiago-Hudson was even more impressed by the environment, and new family, around him. As long as Cecil Diamond has a place at GAMU, Santiago-Hudson will continue to give his all.

“The community of actors we’ve gathered, the collaborative process with our writers, directors and showrunner, Felicia D. Henderson, the sense of community [is my favorite part of being on the show],” Santiago-Hudson said. “And something that brings me tremendous joy is to look beyond the camera and see people of color pulling cables, adjusting lights, focusing cameras, catering, wardrobe. We have, I would say, 85 percent on the other side of the camera who look like me. I have not seen that, and it really brings me joy to tears. That’s how much that means to me.”