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.

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

In ‘Jezebel,’ director Numa Perrier recalls the early days of internet sex work Co-founder of Black and Sexy TV premiered her first film at SXSW

When Jezebel writer-director Numa Perrier moved to Las Vegas in 1998, a young woman could make good money taking her clothes off and simulating sex on the internet — about $15 to $20 per hour at a time when the federally mandated minimum wage was $5.15.

It was also a time of incredible personal upheaval for her: Perrier’s adoptive mother died, and she and her siblings were left to figure out how to pay for the burial. Perrier had to grow up, and quick. But Perrier’s first foray into adult independence, and the relative financial success of online “camming,” allowed her to eventually move to Los Angeles and pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

Nearly 20 years later, Perrier was back in Las Vegas and once again juggling a big life transition. This time, though, she was in charge, as writer, director and producer of her own story.

Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Perrier had split from her romantic and business partner of eight years, Dennis Dortch. Together, they’d founded Black & Sexy TV, a production company and network that makes web series. Early collaborators included Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Ashley Blaine Featherson. (Rae acted in a series called The Couple; Waithe and Featherson co-created another series, Hello Cupid, which starred Featherson.) Dortch and Perrier enjoyed successes, including a development deal with HBO, collaborations with BET and the introduction of a paid streaming service model. They had a daughter, Rockwelle, who is now 7. But their personal relationship was disintegrating, and an opportunity emerged for both parties to try working on their own. In 2017, Dortch briefly went to South Africa to work with BET. Perrier headed to Las Vegas to shoot her feature directorial debut Jezebel, a semi-autobiographical film she wrote about her introduction to online sex work.

Jezebel director and actress Numa Perrier.

House of Numa

The film premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest, marking Perrier’s biggest solo accomplishment of her career. She and her crew were instantly identifiable around the festival: Perrier kitted everyone out in matching satin jackets like the Pink Ladies of Grease. Perrier is currently entertaining offers for distribution.

In Jezebel, Perrier plays Sabrina, a character based on Perrier’s older sister. She cast newcomer Tiffany Tenille to play herself at 19. The two sisters share a small one-bedroom weekly rental with Sabrina’s boyfriend, David (Bobby Field), their brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) and Sabrina’s daughter (played by Perrier’s real-life daughter). The film takes its name from the most luxurious item Sabrina owns: a wig of long, curly black hair that Tiffany nicknames “Jezebel.” Money is tight, no one has enough privacy and the siblings’ mother is dying of a chronic illness.

Facing pressure to find a job and get her own place, Tiffany takes the wig Sabrina has given her and, at Sabrina’s urging, answers an ad to be a “cam girl” for an internet company owned and operated by a white brother and sister. She names her online alter ego “Jezebel.” Tenille exists fluidly in the gray area between girl and woman in the role; the first time Jezebel appears on camera on the internet, she’s wearing a dowdy white bra. Her own hair, under her wig, is pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchie.

“I saw [Tenille] in a short film,” Perrier said. “She didn’t even have any lines, but I knew immediately — just the sensuality, her face, that mix of innocence and naughtiness — she just kind of lives in that intersection. I knew that’s what the role required, and she seemed brave.”

Jezebel never panders to its audience by glossing over the stress-inducing artifice of serving others that sex work so often requires. But it does take delight in exposing the naive silliness that often characterized the early days of internet porn. There were no high-def cameras, and the customers were connected via dial-up modem. The images were slow, silent and choppy, and cam girls had to type on a keyboard to talk to their clients. The word for the job, “cam girl,” wasn’t even a common part of the lexicon yet. Tiffany is the company’s only black employee, which later becomes an issue when a client begins spewing racist insults at her and her employer fails to see the need to meaningfully intervene.

The film’s portrayal of sex work doesn’t fall into overused tropes of exploitation or victimization, but it doesn’t make the world more glamorous than it is either. The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work. It’s one of the few cases where the story of a black woman engaged in sex work is shown with a frank, matter-of-fact quality without shame, titillation or unchallenged acceptance of race fetishes.

Perrier’s acuity for depicting the unadorned banalities of being broke is reminiscent of Sean Baker’s work in Tangerine or The Florida Project. But then, she was acutely close to the subject. Perrier shot Jezebel in the same Las Vegas weekly rental complex where she lived when she moved there as a teen. To save money on production costs, she and Rockwelle slept on set, and Perrier put the rest of the crew up in a hotel.

The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work.

The experience of leading a crew and calling the shots on her own was exhilarating but also painful. Revisiting the site of so much economic insecurity was like triggering post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories of the pressure of making weekly rent payments and bickering over meals of ramen and Pop-Tarts came right back. The location was so small, her camera crew wondered how they would compose shots without their equipment getting in the way. The place even smelled the same, she said.

“In Vegas, outside of the Strip, nothing really changes,” Perrier said. “It’s like entering a time warp.”

Still, the choice to revisit Las Vegas, where Perrier filmed most of the movie, paid off. The past year has been explosive for Perrier’s career. She raised the money to complete Jezebel with a successful crowdfunding campaign. She landed a role on Frankie Shaw’s Showtime comedy Smilf. (Showtime recently canceled the show when Shaw was accused of misconduct on set. Perrier said she could not elaborate on the circumstances.) And after enjoying a warm reception and critical notice at SXSW, Perrier headed to New Orleans, where’s she part of Ava DuVernay’s sorority of female directors filming the fourth season of Queen Sugar.

We spoke in Perrier’s hotel room in Austin, Texas, when Perrier blew off the after-party of the SXSW awards. Perrier was spent. The journey to SXSW, as a solo director, had tested her confidence. She was re-evaluating her sense of self and who she was without her longtime creative partner.

“That’s why I’m proud of this movie and not giving up on it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to work with me or be associated with me now that I’m not with Black & Sexy. I was really insecure about that. I know it sounds weird, but it became my identity too, and I thought it was going to be my legacy. I was like, Oh, we’re gonna build this thing forever and it’s going to grow into all these different — I had such big visions for Black & Sexy. And now I’m like, OK, I’m going to pivot that another way.”

Besides writing, acting and directing, Perrier is a visual artist. With the financial cushion provided by Smilf and Queen Sugar, Perrier is planning her next projects: another movie (a thriller inspired by the story of her adoption) and an art installation project of oversize, customized, black blowup dolls.

“I’m going to be able to provide for myself and my daughter and be creative,” Perrier said. “Do the things I love, tell the stories I want to tell. I can see it all. I’m OK. I’m OK.”