OutWrite 2016 Co-Chair

Honored to be asked to co-chair the 2016 OutWrite LGBT Book Fair with my good friend Dave Ring. We’ve already got our wheels turning. Can’t wait to start planning.

OutWrite collage

OutWrite DC Book Fair 2015

Had a blast this past weekend at the OutWrite DC Book Fair. I had an opportunity to moderate the keynote panel with one my heroes, Mr. James Earl Hardy. I also enjoyed listening to some amazing creative writers, academics, publishers etc., talk about their work.

.PB Outwrite2015 - Coming Out BookHardy flier OutWrite2015 hardy panel 3 Hardy Panel OutWrite 2015

When Your Life Was Low

Those out of the blue calls, are the best; like little gifts that fall from the sky. Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 5.41.17 PM

A few months ago, one of those gifts came from my good friend and business partner. She called to tell me that XYZ producer liked our web series and wanted to have a discussion.

For brief second there was joy. It’s always nice when someone acknowledges and appreciates your work. That joy was followed by the reality that I knew nothing would come out of XYZ’s interest. I’m not a pessimist. It’s just that I could forecast the conversation that would happen eventually.

Just this past week I asked if there was any word on any further discussions about about our web series and she said, disappointedly,  “XYZ said, ‘123 Network has a show just like yours.’”

I knew that was coming, but it still stung.

Years ago, I attended a NATPE conference in Los Angeles. They had awarded me a Diversity Fellowship for producers. One of the workshops I made sure to attend was about how to protect content you post online. At the time, it was still the Wild West. People were exploring nontraditional options to create and distribute content. I was in the process of developing ideas for the web. I, along with the other 100 people crammed into the room, wanted to know if independent digital content creators were not just setting themselves up to be ripped off. The feedback from lawyers was that publishing content online was safe. It established authorship. That authorship, along with other normal protections any producer would take, was supposed to be enough.

With that, my team set out on our journey. Without any guides, or idea of how an audience would find us. We started to create. We felt free. We took chances. It took us some time to unlearn some of the “rules” we’d absorbed from our various training and experiences. We learned to adapt. Episodes got shorter. We looked at targeting audiences. We changed delivery methods. We learned how to do more with less. Most importantly, ten episodes and later, if nothing else, we learned to take control of our own voices.

We didn’t do this on our own. It took a small army of people to get our show done. We couldn’t pay much (or at all in some cases), but folks loved our vision and came on board. We had professional stylists, make-up, sound, DPs, composers, editors, etc., who showed up again and again to be part of what we were doing. Our whole point was to create a platform for other people like us, where we could all contribute our talents and walk away something meaningful.

Our star Benita Nall, out of 7,000 submissions, was a finalist in this year’s ABC Discovers: Digital Talent Competition.  We found our composer, Kris Johnson,  on mandy.com. We had nothing to show him really, but he got it and believed in us. It was his first opportunity to score a project and he wrote some beautiful music for the project. We’re proud to see him soar as an artist and the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Utah. One of our directors, Yolanda Buggs just wrapped shooting on film that stars one of our series guest stars, Dorian Missick. Yolonda Brinkley, who came on board with some production assistance, started  Beyond Borders: Diversity in Cannes and has been giving indie filmmakers around the world a chance to be exposed on a higher platform. The list goes on.

After we debuted, it was slow-going, but eventually blogs started to pick up on our work and listed our show as one to watch. Requests for screenings and festivals came in. The first was with the Organization of Black Screenwriters. That was then followed by a chance to be featured at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. One of my favorite opportunities was being featured on a independent producers panel at the inaugural BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. At that festival I had the opportunity to speak with Ava DuVernay. Her words about getting off the sidelines and taking control were in line with where we were as storytellers. Pretty soon, the awards started to come in and we couldn’t have been prouder. Most notably, we won multiple awards from “Best Score” to “Best Dramedy” at the Los Angeles WebFest, one of the premiere festivals for web series content. From where I sit, I see a job well done, but there’s still work to do.

We enjoyed the freedom and found our voices over the last few years as we created online content. Still, some months ago, instead of feeling pride about what we accomplished, I felt defeated. We’d gotten word from a friend who was applying for a job on a show on 123 Network, that the script looked eerily close to our web series. It took a few weeks for all of the dots to connect, but some of the people who we considered part of our web series’ journey, are now players in this new show.

I went through all of the stages of grief. In denial, I tried to tell myself that it was all coincidence. It was coincidence that we published our content and discussed it with people who somehow all got together and came up with an idea just like ours. Then, I got angry. I’ve pretty much been there most of the last five months. I think that stage lasted so long because I tried to ignore the feeling. I felt like being angry was weak. I’d reasoned if I allowed myself to be angry, I’d lost control. As it turns out, being angry just made me human.  I bargained. I made deals with myself to thrust myself into other projects and that somehow, my progress, would neutralize my feelings of being violated.

At the point where it became tangible, when XYZ Productions is not giving us a meeting because of the upcoming show on 123 Network, I felt sadness. I won’t say depression. I felt the loss of goal that I’d hung on to for some years; but that was also the turning point. I realized that this situation was just the possible closing of ONE door, not EVERY door.

My life is full.

I recently reflected on some of the communication I had with a couple of the people involved with the 123 Network show, back when they needed my help, or support at one time. One of my favorite songs by Joe Sample, “When Your Life Was Low,” came to mind and I heard Lalah Hathaway crooning:

“Always remember my friend,

The world will change again.

And you may have to come back

Through everywhere you’ve been.”

Now, here I am at acceptance. The universe will right itself. There’s nothing else to be done. Going back to that meeting some years ago about protecting content, none of it matters. Integrity has to come before the legalities. I’m glad we moved with no fear and have no regrets. There is still fruit to be harvested from that tree in its appointed time. For now, I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with friends to create something that had an impact.  I am also grateful for everything that lies ahead.

Story District in Atlanta

The Story District team made a road trip to Atlanta and I was one of the lucky storytellers who had a chance to perform. It was an amazing show and my Hampton family and other friends showed much love.   pb atl speakeasy atl cast speakeasy 2 2015

She is

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On Saturdays she’d go downtown Newark to run errands and shop. We’d hit Hahne’s and Woolworth’s. She’d buy me a hot dog and an orange drink in the basement of Bamberger’s for lunch. On the way home, she’d sometimes stop at the fish place, to get a little something to fry up later on for dinner.

She made me go to bed at my normal bedtime the night Motown 25 was on, but screamed out “The Jacksons!” because she knew I was still awake in my room, mad about not getting to see Michael. I remember when she sent us to our rooms when they all watched Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. We quietly listened, pressed against the door, trying to figure out what it was we weren’t supposed to hear.

My brother was six years younger than me, I got bored a lot. She played Boggle and Atari with me. She would wipe the floor with me in Ms. Pac-Man. She had me entertain her sometimes, too. I thought she really was amazed by my Michael Jackson dance moves, but now, I know she was mostly tickled. She was also tickled when I sang Silver Bells. My “soprano” amused her. I wasn’t always in on the joke, but her laugher made me happy.

She took me to the library, often. I developed my addiction for Encyclopedia Brown sitting in the Orange Main Street branch. There were always books around. When I ran out of stories, I read one of the many dictionaries around the house. When I got bored memorizing words, I read the Encyclopedias that she spent a mint on. She’d even bought some type of audio-version, a million-tapes, that I was supposed to listen to and memorize; but I don’t think those cassettes ever made into my boom box.

When she took me coat shopping my freshman year of high school, she refused to buy the hooded red and black checked lumberjack jacket, with the fur collar. She pointed to the beige, leather goose, just like one Run-D.M.C. wore and said, “Trust me.” I always did, except for when she begged me not to wear the suit I designed to my senior prom. I should shave listened. The prom photos never made it to her wall.

I went to a Catholic high school. It wasn’t free…but somehow, she managed to keep me enrolled after my father faded away. Disappeared is more accurate. She watched as the acceptance letters rolled in for college – Rutgers, Morehouse, Hampton, and while there wasn’t much, she never let me feel like I couldn’t go. She figured it out how to make it happen.

She couldn’t quite understand how I was moving to Los Angeles without a job, after I graduated Hampton. She seemed upset, but looking back, it was mostly fear. Still, she had my back.  She paid rent (a few times). She bought food (often). She paid electric bills (once, or twice). This was when I asked HER to trust ME. I was on to something. I needed to be there. She trusted me (mostly). She was there when I graduated from the American Film Institute and spoke as the salutatorian. She was proud. Then, shortly after, she said, “Cut up the credit cards and figure out how to live.” She was doing exactly what she needed to do for me at that time. It was rocky, but I’ve figured it out (kinda).

My wit, quick remarks, world view and shade have roots in her. She gets to the point like no one else I’ve ever met. She’s descriptive. She’s funny. All of this shows up in how I move through the world. When I would say “I want…” about something she’d already told me no, she’d reply, “People in hell want ice water.” That would be it. Hated it then, but now I get it. She wanted me to know that you don’t always get what you want; a lesson that too few people learn.

 

For a couple of years recently, she had two full-time jobs. The first was the job that paid her, the other was caring for my grandmother who had fallen ill with dementia. She did all of things that needed to be done; the caring for, the money management, the legal matters, etc., all while watching herself slip from her mother’s memory. She almost broke. Almost.

When things were rough, she seemed unflappable, maybe too much so. She seemed superhuman. I wish that I’d seen her as human…earlier. I would have noticed that she had ups and downs. I would have noticed when things were tight. I would have noticed how much work went into making our family machine run. Maybe I could have done more to give something to her. The truth is, she wouldn’t have let us see, or feel, any of that, because she was doing her job in the only way she knew how – providing, protecting, shielding and loving.

She’s still doing that.

She’s been my “day one,” since day one.

She is everything.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Love and Loss

I was on my way to Trader Joe’s. It was just another day.  Nothing special about it. Then… “Mr. Branch, we have two little girls 4 and 6 who need a placement, do you have space?”

The sentence itself couldn’t have sounded less warm and was uttered with a casual ease that undermined the gravity of the consequences of my response.

My husband and I had decided to adopt through foster care. After months of contemplating the theoretical impact of having children, it was all suddenly real. Too real.

We’d been warned. If we were to receive a call about aplacement, we had to make an on the spot decision. They told us all of the questions to ask. How long have they been in  foster care? Any medical issues? Any dangerous behavior?  I asked all of the questions, but I still didn’t feel any clearer about what to do. We hadn’t expected girls. The age range wasn’t in keeping with what we’d discussed, but for some reason, it felt necessary to do.  These girls needed someplace to sleep that night. Any larger decisions could be made at another time, I felt.

Still, I took a chance. I asked for a minute to call my husband.  The social worker spoke with both of us and then we decided to say yes. Just like that, my trip to Trader Joe’s turned into something else. What do kids eat? Do we need peanut butter?

Years, I spent thinking about the day that I would meet the tiny human who be my child. What he/she would look like? Where would I be? What would I be doing? All of these ruminations were filled with starry-eyed mushiness. I’d smile. My little person would smile back at me and know that I would love and protect them forever.

Instead…

I heard screams; blood-curdling screams from a 4 year old with matted hair, in dirty clothes.  She had a black eye and we were given no information about how she’d gotten it.

The six year old immediately roamed the house as if she owned the place, checking every room, making sure nothing was going to pop out and surprise her. The social worker handed us a heavy bag filled with much of nothing, had us sign a paper, wished us good luck, and left.

None of this was part of my imagined first day of fatherhood.

It was rough for about two weeks, trying to figure out the basics. Then, one day, the screamer, my 4 year old looked at me and asked, “Can I call you daddy?”

And while it didn’t look what I’d imagined, her choosing me, when the whole time, I thought I was the one doing the choosing, changed my life.

Now, almost a year later, I am preparing myself for more screams as we draw closer to a court date that increasingly appears to be moving towards the girls being placed back with their mother.  This time, it might be me crying uncontrollably. It isn’t just because of the loss of these two little girls that I love, but because the system that controls their fate is as detached as that first “Mr. Branch, we have two little girls 4 and 6 who need a placement, do you have space?”

This system, for years, has been letting these girls slide down a Plinko board hitting hard pegs, obstacles, changing courses frequently towards an outcome that can either lead them to all of the riches of life, or nothing. Zero.

Today has been rough, dealing with several disheartening phone calls, meetings and decisions. I was reminded of how little control I have to really keep them safe in the way that they deserve. They belong to Baltimore, not me. But, that final court date is still weeks away.

In the meantime, we have hair to detangle, lunches to pack and bedtime stories to read.

 

ShondaLand Black Moment Wish List

When Shonda Rhimes had Papa Pope tell Olivia that she had to be “twice as good as ‘them’ to get half of what ‘they’ have,” I wanted to stand and start a slow-clap. That moment was both very real and very black. I loved it. I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t see anything that authentic on TV again anytime soon, but then Annalise snatched off her wig on How to Get Away With Murder.

Time stopped.

When I came to, I realized that I had apparently been rewinding that scene in some sort of cultural-overload induced trance for 20 minutes. The next day, I went in to teach my Freshman Comp class at Howard and threw out the syllabus. I knew my students needed me to help them process their wig-snatch emotions. One student eloquently summed it all up, “It was the blackest thing I’ve ever seen on TV.”

I was pretty certain that Shonda was done giving us black history moments this season, but then Cicely Tyson popped up out of nowhere, grabbed a comb and got up in Viola/Annalise/Anna Mae’s “kitchen.”  The sight of Annalise sitting betwixt  her mama’s knees, while I listened to the crackling sound of ungreased black hair was more than I could handle.  I was overwhelmed with the realization that despite the growing numbers of black people on screen, very few moments artfully and realistically capture cultural nuances. It got me to thinking. Now that Shonda has snatched wigs, combed kitchens and shown the speech that almost err’black parent gives their child, what’s coming next?

My ShondaLand Black Moment Wish List:

rah16-91. Step Practice

It doesn’t have to be a major part of the plot, but I need Annalise or Olivia to be at step practice when a client calls with an emergency. Their phones would ring, because, well, they never turn them off. They’d step out of practice to take the call, “Sorry sorors.” Hell, it can even be the young lady who’s a law student on HTGAWM, whose character’s name I’ve yet to remember. You KNOW what she pledged 😉

macys-one-day-sale-480x330-710x300-crop2. Go to Macy’s

Let’s be clear. Neither Olivia or Annalise would regularly (ever) shop at Macy’s, but keeping it 100, they have family and friends. Sure they make a considerable amount of money now, but they’re both only one generation removed from a “One Day Sale.”  Let one of them begrudgingly buy a cousin a Nine West bag.

s-MELISSA-HARRIS-PERRY-large3. Watch Melissa Harris Perry

Olivia and Annalise work in law and politics, are black, and own televisions. No brainer.

03-Office-Potluck-20114. Refuse to eat office potluck 

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to eat at new friends’ houses, because “you don’t know if they’re clean.” I was NEVER allowed to at someone’s house who had cats, because “they be up on everything.” Am I alone? No? I didn’t think so. You know Annalise, back when she was Anna Mae, wasn’t eating all over at people’s houses. I’d like to see her politely decline to eat somebody’s homemade lasagna with a “You can’t be eating everybody’s food.”

5. Do “The Wobble”

Last fall I attended my class reunion at Hampton. We packed the local convention center for a party with about 800 people who range from soccer moms, lawyers, TV network executives, surgeons, professors, elected officials, etc. They eat kale, summer in Martha’s Vineyard, are on boards for renowned organizations, drink fine wine, but you know what they did when The Wobble came on? They wobbled. If Shonda has Olivia do The Wobble, black America will collectively throw their shoes at their TVs.  – and then get up and wobble.

Bonus: I’d fully expect one of Shonda’s shows to automatically win the NAACP Image Award for Best Drama if she has one of her characters utter,  “Black don’t crack.”

@phillbranch is an  &  grad – Producer of  and  – Teaching Artist  –  prof – 2013 Writing Fellow