After my conversation with writer-director and playwright Keith Josef Adkins about his new sci-fi webseries “The Abandon,” I ask him how much creative freedom he was granted during his tenure as a staff writer on the CW show “Girlfriends.” “Freedom? TV?” he laughs. “The two don’t go together!”
It’s surprising, given Adkins’ unapologetic embrace of his own creative instincts, that he’s waited this long to write and direct his own series for the web, with no studio to give him notes. But it’s also surprising that “The Abandon” had to wait for the web’s freedom to come to be. With its solid sci-fi premise, sharp dialogue, and cliffhanger first episode, it’s got mass appeal–unless you’re a studio exec who claims that black people and sci-fi don’t get along.
“The Abandon” is the story of five men who leave the city on a weekend camping retreat, only to find out via Twitter that aliens have landed back home, and they’re not friendly. The friends have limited time and information to reassess their priorities, and their friendship. In many ways, it’s not a show about the Black Experience; clever shifts in context (the lack of non-black characters and the looming presence of a non-human threat) place the story squarely upon the individuals and their interactions. But, as one fan said on Twitter, it’s also that rare sci-fi show in which a character declares that “this is some bullshit!”
The pilot episode of “The Abandon” launched around Christmas, fueled by an $8000 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and filmed in upstate New York with a skeleton crew. I spoke with Adkins by phone about the recurring themes that creep into his work, the joys and challenges of working outside the whiteness-obsessed studio system, and what we can look forward to in forthcoming episodes.
So, first question: when’s the next episode coming out? We want to know what happens!
We’re hoping it’ll be ready by mid-February. We’re in the production stage of, ah, raising more funds [laughs]. The good thing is that this week I have a couple of meetings with three different potential funders, so it may take off a little sooner than we anticipated, which is great. There’s going to be six episodes in the first season.
How much do you love writing for Kendall? He seems like a really juicy character to dig into.
Oh, I love him! My thing was, I wanted to have the main character be a bad boy. For me, that’s interesting. A lot of people like to distance themselves from the bad person or so-called bad person, the complicated person, but ultimately we’re rooting for them because we all see ourselves being complicated people privately, though publicly we try to put on this other mask. There’s something about apocalypse that forces people – for me, in storytelling, it allows the characters to break down the things that we carry around, as far as masks are concerned, and we just have to deal with what is real, and there’s not a lot of time for judgement, and there’s not a lot of time for projecting anxiety and intolerance.
So when you’re writing a scene like that, how does race play into it? How important is it that you’re writing for five black male professionals instead of for any other group of people, when the world is on the line?
It’s a two-part answer. One, there’s so little representation of black people on TV, period. But even when you think about thrillers and sci-fi and horror, the black person – particularly the black guy – is usually killed off first. So for me, the part of me wanting to put black people central to this story, it’s just to allow, you know, black characters to be central to the story!
The second part of the answer is that it’s the world that I know. I’m putting myself and the people that I know on-screen. It’s not like I’m literally sitting down and saying ‘I want black people,’ because I don’t always wake up and say ‘Oh, I’m black!’ I’m writing, and that’s the voice I’m writing from.
And for me, because the central characters are all black, it takes race away. When everyone’s black, you’re not worried about who’s black or not. You’re invested in who they are, and in what’s happening to them. That’s my attempt with the series.
How is it different writing for an ensemble of men versus an ensemble of women, like on Girlfriends?
Well, so you’re clear about it, there’s going to be at least one major female character, Asha Jones, the ex-wife of Kendall. In the first episode, he’s following her on Twitter and she’s giving out information about what she’s observing in the city, and we’re actually going to see her in her apartment in the city in concurrent time.
But for the pilot itself, it was great writing for those guys. It allows for me to paint a picture of the diversity in the black male community. I mean, it goes back to what I was saying earlier about how I’m not thinking of them as black guys, I’m thinking of them as people, and I know that people have varying degrees of personality and issues. I wanted to make sure that I represented as much as I could within that group, and that everyone is in their own transitions. Kendall’s in a transition, he’s unemployed and recently divorced from his wife; Dennis is transitioning from being an alcoholic and being off the wagon; Craig was once with a woman and has decided, proudly, to now be with a man. Everyone’s being forced to remake themselves. For me, that was important, because that’s how I see people – that’s how I see my family, my brothers, my friends who are black.
I just read an essay in an old issue of Colorlines [Libero Della Piana, “Under Strange Stars,” Colorlines, Winter 2002/03] about black people and sci-fi, and that there is this long history of black sci-fi which nobody acknowledges. And it mentions, specifically, the theme of mass alien abduction as resonant for African-Americans within the history of slavery. Now, at the same time, I read an interview with you from last year where you talk about growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio when the Born Again Christian movement came through town, and you make it sound like Invasion of the Body Snatchers – everyone had this glazed look in their eyes, the people you knew weren’t the people you used to know. So: why write a sci-fi story about mass abduction? What is that tapping into?
In truth, I’m not sitting down and making a decision to write about mass abduction in connection to the religious craziness that I experienced growing up – it’s not that deliberate. But obviously, I’ve absorbed all those things. And in the midst of all this conservatism, my mother was so different from everyone else that she was also deemed ‘alien.’ So I grew up under this, with everyone watching everything she did and said; whether it was about marriage, whether it was about travel outside of Ohio, everything was suspect for her. And as an extension of her, I saw myself as being alien. When I grew up and got a little older and wiser, I started thinking that they were actually the aliens and they were trying to fuck up our lives!
Those two things, married with the fact that I’m a black man working and living and navigating through a white institutionalized country, all those things together, I think it’s a perfect formula for a story about some other entity trying to take over. How does one survive that? Whether it’s religious, political, social, ideological… sci-fi allows for me to give voice to that without spending a lot of time talking about it didactically or being preachy about it. You understand what I’m saying? It’s all there, being channeled into this series. And there’s more to come in the next episodes.
Lately in sci-fi, there’s a lot of mocking of aliens, laughing at them, but I was so much more interested in aggressive alien invasion. Because, in my opinion, it’s reflective of how the world is shapeshifting – one, because of the economy, obviously, how that’s aggressively disrupting how people thought their way of life would be, and the aggressive honesty or ignorance of people around ideas of race, gender, representation. I feel like there’s so much aggression happening, and I wanted to make sure the aliens were not, uh sweet. [laughs] That they’re here to eat us and spit us out, and those who survive, well, that’s great, and if you don’t, too bad. I really like the idea of people being isolated and forced, aggressively, to rethink themselves and change.
So you’re writing and directing this series, which you’ve got plenty of experience doing. But the technology is changing every day. How much of this is new, and how much is in your comfort zone? What’s challenging you in new ways?
That’s a good question. Well, when I started talking about it, I was talking about The Abandon as a television series. And then, when I was pitching the idea around to a couple of industry people, one in particular told me that they loved the idea but there was ‘no reliable demographic’ for a black sci-fi series. When I heard that, I was like, hey, you know something? I’m pulling out of this pitching game and I’m doing this baby myself. This is ridiculous! I’ll be waiting for the rest of my life for someone to say yes, what a great idea!
And it actually made the process much more stress-free and enjoyable. There’s something about the internet that gives you the license to say ‘fuck it.’ [laughs] Why do I need some institutional approval? Who needs that anymore? That doesn’t even work, on any level, particularly for storytelling.
So from where you stand, what’s the state of the union for black people in the entertainment industry in 2013?
Hoo boy! Sounds like a simple question but it isn’t.
The challenge is that because of this aggressive movement towards so many different things in our society is happening… Well, one example is Django Unchained. It’s a fantastical tale about the horrors of slavery – I guess – written by a white man doesn’t have any direct connection to slavery, from what I understand and from what he’s said. So it’s a filtered, imagined, romanticized, fetishized version of slavery, which I think is very dangerous. I mean, it can be very entertaining for some people, but for people who are really invested in authenticity and in providing truth, in society as we move into the year 2013, it’s challenging. And then we have seven other films about slavery coming out soon, for the most part written by white screenwriters, though a few of them are written by black directors. That, to me, is challenging. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we need more narratives from black perspectives, and to trust that the black perspective can be layered and not monolithic, that it’s not one story.
And one of the great things that’s happening for 2013 is the web, providing opportunities for folks to create their own original content. I’m also in theater, and I know there’s a huge movement in theater in which black artists are breaking ties with these old institutions and doing their own things and creating their own collectives. I’m hoping that that same energy and passion will happen within film and TV, that we’ll keep creating our own content until everything’s available for everybody, that nobody’s mad because something’s missing or inaccurate or fantastical. That it’s all out there, and it’s all legit and it’s all quality. I’m hopeful. We’ve got some challenges, but I’m hopeful.