Yvette Lee Bowser Talks 'Dear White People' Outrage, 'Living Single,' + Being A Showrunner [Interview]
A storyteller’s job is to make sure that the audience is captivated by the tale being woven, and no one does that quite like Yvette Lee Bowser.
An industry veteran with 20-plus-years under her belt, Yvette is beloved by black Hollywood, black Twitter and lovers of anything black because she was writer, creator and producer behind the classic sitcom series, Living Single. Before that, she earned her stripes alongside the staff of another legendary show, A Different World, and has developed or sold over 25 pilots for television over the past 15 years, making her an advocate for creatives of color.
Over the course of that time, she has had her fair share of ups and downs, yet when an opportunity came to be a mentor to the next generation of creatives, she was more than ready to pick up the charge. With that in mind, Yvette Lee Bowser joined the team behind Netflix’s original show, Dear White People, as a showrunner and executive producer alongside Stephanie Allain and Julia Lebedev. The Justin Simien-created show, based on his film of the same name, took theaters by storm in 2014, and looks to do the same now that it is available for streaming today (Apr. 28).
The half-hour dramedy, which stars Logan Browning as Sam White (previously played by Tessa Thompson), DeRon Horton as Lionel and Brandon P. Bell, who reprises his role as Troy Fairbanks, is looking to cultivate the same hype as the film. In fact, you already heard about the show thanks to white people who were upset about a show coming to Netflix called Dear White People. So much so that they even canceled their Netflix subscriptions and called for a boycott of the popular streaming service. All of that was mere noise to the veteran Yvette Lee Bowser, who, as you’ll read in our interview, had some pretty solid thoughts behind why the outrage was so faux pas.
Even if you had plans for today (isn’t the weather so nice?) — you should put whatever that is on hold to watch Dear White People and read our interview with Yvette Lee Bowser. The first African American woman to develop her own primetime series talks with us @Okayplayer about what a showrunner actually does, answers the white people who had issues with Dear White People, and shares details on Living Single‘s possible return to TV. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: It is such a pleasure to talk with you, Ms. Bowser. Huge supporter of your past work. After watching Dear White People, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised with how deep you all get with the subject matter and content. With that said, how did you and the show’s creator Justin Simien hook up to produce this show?
Yvette Lee Bowser: Our agents actually brought us together, which is usually how these things happen. I was familiar with his film (Dear White People) and he was familiar with my work. When I met with him, I found him to be a very delightful human being. He was in need of a mentor, I was looking for a new challenge and I felt his vision was so clear that I wanted to help him. I decided to sign on as Dear White People‘s showrunner.
OKP: For those who might be unfamiliar with what a showrunner does — can you describe the position for us. In particular, how were you able to use that position to help influence the direction of the show?
YLB: As a showrunner, my job is basically to manage everything from the page—meaning the script—to the stage. It all starts with quality scripts on-time. So, we had to get together and have a clarity of the vision, have a plan, and sit in a room with some very talented writers and hash things out.
My job is to oversee all of that. My job in particular for Dear White People is to really mentor Justin and also to help enhance his vision, but not get in the way. To enhance it, but not impede it. I think I was fairly successful in doing that. We got along really well.
Things that we didn’t see eye-to-eye on, we had really healthy, rigorous conversations about. Ultimately, it is his vision, but it wasn’t like he had moments where he was putting his foot down. There were moments where we decided that the conclusion that we came to was really in the best interest of the series and what we ultimately, jointly wanted to say.
OKP: Can you describe any obstacles that you and Justin faced in either discussing the show or in attempting to elevate the show from a movie into a series?
YLB: There weren’t a ton of obstacles quite frankly. We had kind of an instant connection, creatively. Again, there were small differences, whether we’re going to do this story or take this turn. Those are things that naturally you has out in the writer’s room.
We also made some significant changes along the way because of the times we’re living in. As you’ve seen on the show, we deal with some things that get pretty heavy, I’ll say, in the middle of the series. We felt it was a moral imperative to deal with that subject matter and we couldn’t ignore it. But, when we initially laid out the first 10 episodes, we hadn’t intended to do that.
Quite frankly, when I came on-board, Justin, who had worked out a pre-plan, had something altogether different in mind. It’s hard to say without giving anything away, but there is a very different, big event in the middle of the season. I basically appealed to him about not taking that particular turn and we came to a different turn which we all thought to be much more satisfying and we think the audience will be really engaged by.
OKP: TV nerds and obsessives like myself will be really familiar with your name from your time on A Different World. There are some strong tie-ins to Dear White People. In fact, I believe that this show feels like A Different World for adults, basically. Given your past experiences — what do you think you brought to Dear White People that others could take away from or learn after working with you?