May 12th is the premiere of Netflix’s latest Black family sitcom: The Upshaws. Unfortunately, most COVID restrictions mean that we’re unable to have the watch parties that this show deserves. Although Zoom parties could be a good stand in.
It’s 2021 and although some parts of the world are beginning to recover from COVID-19. We’re all still largely struggling to process the new “normal” that we now live in. One of the bright sides of this year for me has been the ability to catch up on several shows both old and new. The Upshaws is one I’m glad I didn’t miss.
The Upshaws features a wildly talented cast of actors, in a show about a working-class family living in Indianapolis. Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps are both the executive producers and two of the stars of the show. But the reason The Upshaws feels like watching your family is not just their work. It’s also Kim Fields’s nuanced portrayal of Regina, a working mom and wife who wants it all. It’s Jermelle Simon as Bernard Jr., Bennie and Regina’s adult son. Whose anger at his father might be masking a more serious fear. It’s Page Kennedy’s Duck an ex-felon who commit his life to God in the pen. He definitely still has some work to do and many more amazingly iconic performances.
To find out what it’s like to be a part of the show, I spoke with Sykes, Epps and Fields, virtually of course. They discussed the importance of this show at this moment. How they fleshed out their characters and what they hope the audience takes away from it all. Each was open, funny and warm about being on The Upshaws.
So, you all have experience with shows that portray the “Black experience”, let’s say. Mike you with BlackAF recently and Wanda you’re on Black-ish. Then Kim obviously Living Single so given that what has inspired you to create The Upshaws? And how does it feel different from your previous experiences?
Mike Epps: Well, you know I think that, to create a black show in this day and time that we live in is so important you know, us as a race we been through a lot and we’ve conquered so much and we’re a resilient race and I think it’s time for people to see Black people enjoying ourselves as who we are, and accepting it and enjoying it and embracing our characters.
Wanda Sykes: And also to me it’s like to see, you know it’s like you said, you don’t, you don’t see this family on TV, you know, just a working class family. It’s either we all have arrived. You know, we’re well off or you know, or we’re struggling, you know, slaves and there’s some black pain going on. But we wanted to do a show that represented how the majority of not just black people but just how all people in America are living, you know, it’s like families, just doing their best just, you know, trying to have a good life and loving each other. So
that that was like, really key to us. And also to talk about what’s going on today. When I watched sitcoms as a kid, it’s like the conversations that The Evans family (of Good Times fame) was having, we were having those conversations in our home, so that’s that’s what we wanted to do to be relatable.
This one is for Wanda and Mike. In The Upshaws Lucretia and Benny have this very, Fred and Esther vibe from Sanford and Son and I was in love with it and so I wonder if you drew inspiration from them or if it was just a natural vibe?
WS: You got it, Aprille. You nailed it. That’s exactly what the conversation Mike and I had when we first met. He said “Look”, he said “Man” and then he said something that-that pissed me off. He said “ Well,I know you, I’ve known you for a long time and you know, you mean and I want everyone to see how mean you are.” And I was like “Oh my God, I’m mean?”
ME: In a funny way, though. In the greatest funniest way, though.
WS: But that was a huge you know, compliment as far as a comic telling you that. So, you know we definitely bit off that Fred and Esther relationship.
Well it paid off really well, you can tell how it comes through in The Upshaws.
Kim, Bennie is a mess, he is a hilarious mess, but he is a mess. Why do you think that Regina has stayed with him through it all? What is the draw? What is the pull?
Kim Fields: Yeah. I think that that will consistently be a mystery that will be explored over the seasons of The Upshaw’s. But, but that’s also life, you know, when you talk about the show and how relevant it is, you do have those couples that it’s just like, hey, you know, we’ve been to Hell and back but I ain’t going to make that trip with anybody, but you, even if you the one in the damn driver’s seat taking us there. And so I feel like, you know, for all that they’ve been through and even when Benny tells her, you know, “you’re a mess and I’m a mess and this is- that’s part of what makes it work”, you know. And some stuff is just, you can’t really define it, you know?
But I love how they really went there and let these characters explore what happens when there’s, there’s that Tipping Point. When there’s only so much that the head of the family or anybody, a human being, there’s only so much that you can take. Someone earlier said that I absorb, I’m like a sponge. I absorbed so much of Bennie’s you know “stuff” before you just have that Tipping Point. And so I love that that is explored as well and how you get to the other side and back to the middle and even if you at the middle for 10 seconds, they’re ten good seconds before something pops off again.
Perfect. Thank you. I really like the decision, Wanda, to show Lucretia, who is a disabled person living a full life. Because a lot of the time, when we get disabled people on screen and they’re shut off to the side. No one’s paying them attention, but she’s out here living her best life, she’s got Captain Cam, you know, she’s doing what she wants to do. So what was like the drive for that character in The Upshaws, specifically?
WS: You know, it’s from the beginning. I said I would like Lucretia to have some type of disability, you know. I want her to use like a cane or crutch and also it spoke to how a lot of families, especially, you know, the working-class families. Everybody has a family member who was in like, a work accident or car accident, got hit by public transportation or something. You know that that’s that, that was the come up through and I wanted to touch on that, but also, like you said, to represent, you know, and let disabled people see themselves also.
And I think all of that is important. I truly believe in representation and like you said, to be able to see yourself and be able to see themselves living a full life and loving. And, you know, you’re getting everything you can out of life.
What do you guys think will really surprise people about this show?
ME: I think, what’s going to surprise people is how real it is and how on point the writing is. How on point the characters are because like Wanda said, we haven’t seen this before. So this is going to be refreshing.
What do you guys hope that the audience takes away from The Upshaws? How do you want them to feel when they’ve watched all 10 episodes. When they’re at the end thinking “What’s next?” What do you want them to feel?
KF: One thing I always loved about when Wanda talks about creating the show, is that the first point of entry is funny. They wanted to make a show that was absolutely blisteringly funny-
KF: Exactly. Exactly. You know messages, and you know feel good and checking boxes and all of that it’s cool and all that. But at the end of the day, they set out to make a show that was funny. And then they got all these wonderful tools to make sure that that happened. So I’m sure that for us, one of the big takeaways is “Did people laugh? Did people have a good time?” looking at the Upshaws and jumping in and dropping into our lives for these moments. And then beyond that, of course, there are all sorts of touchpoints and, you know, how to navigate through this and don’t do that, because Bennie did that and, you know, those types of moments.
But I feel like overall you get to see as an artist. Now I can say that I would love for people to see, just remember how beautifully complex we are as human beings and as families.