To call Emmy nominee Diarra Kilpatrick (Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama) a self-motivated innovator would be merely scraping the surface of her many accomplishments.
After getting her start on stage, creating a one-woman show (“The Devil is Beating His Wife”), and parlaying that into a successful TV and film career with hits including “The Last O.G.,” Kilpatrick carved a space on the web to tell her own story and confront some of the issues she sees and experiences every day as a black woman living in a society filled with racial quandaries.
On “American Koko,” which streams exclusively on ABC Digital, Kilpatrick brings humor, vulnerability, romance, and thought-provoking storylines as a “Law & Order”-esque detective at an agency called on to solve racial problems — both big and small.
With producer (and narrator) Viola Davis in her corner, Kilpatrick, who’s also the creator of the series, has not only given herself agency to get some of the more “anti-social thoughts” out of her head, but she’s reflecting the experiences of a demographic that has long gone unheard.
She sat down with amNewYork to talk about the inspiration behind the show, working with Viola Davis and more.
Congrats on the Emmy nomination! How does it feel to be a nominee?
It feels really good! It’s really exciting because I decided to make this show with my boyfriend at the time [co-star and now husband Miles Orion Feldsott] and his sister — very few people for very little money. And now that I’m nominated for an Emmy it’s crazy. That’s kind of the dream. I never thought it would happen. The fact that the show is actually nominated represents a lot of hard work from a lot of people. This show and this story were really self-generated.
What inspired you to write it?
To be honest, I was an actor and was like, “I want to be in a show. I want to do a show.” They say if things aren’t happening [for you], you can only be victimized for so long. You have to take the reins on your own destiny. So, I was like, “I want to make something.” So, I just sat down to write it. It was surprising how much I had to say. As I started writing it, I realized that I had a lot of feelings that weren’t being expressed, things that I wanted to put out in the world, and questions I wanted to ask — things I wanted to say about the time that I was in.
What were some of those things and how are they represented on the show?
Like, the storyline about a Latina Harriet Tubman. At the time, I was working with kids and it was something that you couldn’t really say out loud to other staff members, so I was chuckling to myself. I taught the theater class and the dance class, and the kids were [also] in a choir. They would come back and show me what they had been working on and I see a little black girl, kinda chubby, come to the mic and I’m like, “Oh, she’s about to blow.” And she was horrendous. All the vocal stars were these Latina girls, and they could sing their faces off. I was like, “What is going on here?” The universe had been tipped on its side. Some of the other stuff comes from reading and watching the news. A lot of the articles I was reading were about black women being less desired on dating apps and Asian men being less desired on dating apps, conversations with girlfriends who were trying to date black men. I have been in the same relationship for 13 years, but people would tell me a lot about their adventures in dating. So, I pulled a lot of stuff [from those conversations].
The storyline where Akosua is dating a black guy who’s only with her to please his mother was interesting — and one we don’t often see addressed on screen.
When my husband and I first started dating, my mom started doing this thing where her friend had a black friend and she’d be like, “Oh, I’ll have Donovan stop by.” And she kept on trying to hook me up with these black guys. And I was like, “Mom, I have a boyfriend.” I could tell there was a piece of her that was dying inside. She’s over it now, but it is very interesting how there’s a generation that really would want to see their kids with black spouses. I think at the end of the day, many of us are still wired to want to make our parents happy.
You also talk about trauma from racism and how Akosua confronts her Angry Black Woman Syndrome. She’s even in a support group for it. Why was that important for you to add that to her story?
Part of that is because black women are afraid of that label. We’re always defending [ourselves] against it. I was at drinks one night with a group of black girls and we got into a conversation about the perception that black women are angry. One of the women was like, “I am not angry!” But she was yelling this really loudly. That moment always stuck with me because, [Viola Davis talked about this], it has been a label attached to us to diminish how we feel. Labeling all black women angry negates the emotion that we have. So, I wanted to dissect that because sometimes we have a right to be angry, when you look at the history of this country. I wanted to explore that and not run away from it or deny it. [I wanted to] flip it on its head because there is some value in anger sometimes. That’s how you get things to change. I want us to be able to own it, have control of it and not be victimized by it or afraid of it.
Akosua’s white girlfriend, Sarah (McGhee Monteith), also tries to talk to her about her Angry Black Woman Syndrome, which presents an example of racial microaggressions Akosua must confront because they of course have very different perspectives on it.
That’s something that we have to navigate. People are [often] unaware of their privileges. But if you’re going to work and live in society, you’re going to have to learn to live and get along with all kinds of people. I love their relationship because it’s so complicated. She’s able to still be friends with her and love her and trust her, but they do come from very different points of view.
Has writing the show been therapeutic for you, in terms of getting these thoughts out?
Yes, 100 percent. It’s actually made me a little calmer. Because playing a character that can say whatever she needs to say is like, “Well now, I don’t have to say it.” It’s a really nice container for my more anti-social thoughts. Now I get a lot of people who come to me with [stuff] like, “This girl I work with did this to me. Now what do you think about that?” or “I’m dating this guy of a different race and he said this to me. What do you think that means?” It’s really funny that people think that I have all the answers when it comes to racism. I don’t. I, Diarra Kilpatrick, am not going to solve racism in this show. I hope to talk about it enough to plant seeds in other people to keep an eye out and make sure they’re doing the best that they can and they’re being as responsible as they can.
How did you come to work with producer Viola Davis?
I did a play called “The Piano Lesson” and Julius Tennon, Viola Davis’ husband, was in it with me. He was this guy who loved his wife, talked about her nonstop. Like, “You’ve got to meet my wife. You’ve got to meet my wife!” Then I go, “Oh my God, that’s your wife?” They were very sweet to us, would invite us over for holidays and stuff. So, we kept in touch with them. When I put a version of the show on YouTube in 2014, they called and were like, “What’s up? This is great! How can we be a part of it?” So, when I had a meeting at ABC Digital about doing something with them, they were like … “We can do it all together, if you want.” [Viola and Julius] had offered to just fund the second season again for YouTube. So, when ABC came on board, we were able to remake the first season and keep the second season with a bigger budget. Viola is incredibly supportive and really kind and smart about the material. I really love her. She has gone above and beyond to help promote the show and help me feel supported. I’m really grateful for her.
It’s also a testament to your talent.
Thank you. Yeah, when Viola says, “You’re cool.” I’m like, “OK, I guess I have some talent.”
Streaming: The first two seasons of “American Koko” are available now on abc.go.com.