Feature: Sit Black And Relax

Latasha Mercer
Latasha Mercer

Funny. Sharp. Witty. Acute. All adjectives I would use to describe Latasha Mercer’s trailer for her upcoming web series, “Sit Black and Relax.” I watched it about a month ago, and I instantly knew I wanted to know more about the woman behind the work. Tonight Latasha, better known as JustLatasha, will debut a screening of the series in NYC to a sold out audience. In this Q&A, she chronicles her creative journey and discusses the inspiration behind “Sit Black and Relax.”

Tell us a little more about your creative journey.
I began as an on-screen entertainment host for my brand Dope Files in 2010. I got to do really cool stuff like cover exclusive celebrity events and several seasons of NYFW, as well as provide a spotlight for underground talent in fashion and music. Three years later I found myself burnt out and empty: I no longer found purpose in the work I was doing. I was just chasing an image for myself while portraying false images on my platform. I decided I wanted to create something with meaning, especially with all of the attacks Black people were experiencing. So that’s the birth of JustLatasha: the name reminds me to always be myself and live in my truth, while also shedding light on racial issues.

What inspired Sit Black and Relax?
Black women have several types to play in Hollywood: slave, maid, “sassy homegirl”, or the strong woman who saves the world during the day, while secretly having breakdowns at night. I wanted to portray a shocking image: a Black woman being normal. I was inspired by both “Broad City” & “Louie” and I wanted to have a Black woman having fun in NYC while experiencing dark moments as well. I also wanted to show how color influences friendships involving different races, and what those perspectives may look like. Race debates don’t always have to be a head-butting of white vs. black, even though that’s a very real and valid experience.

How is your own coming-of-age story represented in Sit Black and Relax?
Easy! I had arguments with my white friends. I actually used exact sentences from texts they’ve sent me and put it in the script. I just kind of wondered, “I’ve been your friend all this time and somehow you’ve missed that I was Black and that I have experiences directly and specifically tied to that.” I needed to give us Black people with white friends a voice and show the slight tensions that can arise when our issues are overlooked, even though we care about our white companions.

What do you hope viewers gain from watching your series?
I hope Black women feel they were heard and something represents them, especially the awkward, introverted and sometimes passive Black women, because we’re here too. And I hope our white friends can acknowledge said differences, learn, and drop their defenses when discussing race.

What has been the most challenging part of creating a web series? The most rewarding?The most challenging part was putting all of it together; production is no joke! Putting a team together, casting actors and getting locations were difficult and put me through the mud. It definitely toughened my skin to be able to make quick decisions, keep the team in a positive place, and to not take anything personal. The most rewarding part is completing it and showing myself my own power. I saw a bit of my alchemy.

How did you highlight serious topics like race while maintaining the comedy and humor of the series?
I completely exaggerated whiteness and how white people deal with Black people. My lead character is a Black woman named Maya, and she passively deals with whiteness daily, like we all do. So we get to see her boss being extraordinarily white and being completely oblivious to his Black staff by being offensively loving toward them. We get to see her date a white man who goes about adoring her Blackness all wrong. We also get to see how “afraid” media and police are regarding Black people simply occupying space of any capacity and so much more.

Who are some black women creatives you would like to work with in the future?
Oooh good question! Is Beyoncé an option? If not, she can just glance at me and it will resonate the same. I would LOVE to work with Heben and Tracy of Buzzfeed, Chescaleigh, Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, and create Black superheroes with Ava Duvernay. Bree Newsome is a filmmaker too, so that would be dope.

What’s one piece of advice you’ve received as a creative that has stuck with you?
“It’s none of my business.” If people no longer want to be around, if something in the project falls through, if something was promised then it vanishes… Let it go. The “why’s” are a waste of time and it’s none of my business. Next.

Latasha is a Queens, NY native and cum laude graduate with a Bachelor’s of the Arts degree in Communication Arts. She started her first brand, Dope Files, in 2010, and was able to garner herself interviews with some of the most established names in Fashion & Music, such as Anna Sui, Pharrell Williams, Trey Songz, and much more. She ended Dope Files in 2014 in search of work with a purpose.  This birthed her current brand JustLatasha; she films and edits bi-weekly comedic vlogs about race issues to her 4,000+ subscribers. This also led to her highly anticipated upcoming comedy web series, Sit Black & Relax, debuting March 14, 2016. This is her first scripted work, and she is more than excited to share more of her talents with the world. Connect with Latasha on Youtube @JustLatasha and on Twitter @JustLatasha404.

Actor Unscripted: Sam B of “You’re So Talented”

Sam B
Photo by VAM Studios

If you’re talking to anyone in the film/television world, it’s hard not to ask the inevitable Lena Dunham question. Hell, if you’re talking to any other twenty-something, it’s hard not to ask that question. When I sat on the phone with actor and writer Sam B of the upcoming web series “You’re So Talented” and asked her opinion about Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, she sighed.

“Lena Dunham is doing her thing and she should be telling her story,” Sam said. “I just don’t watch her show because I’m sick of not seeing representations of color on the screen. It’s hard to see a show called ‘Girls’ and not see that [color] reflected.”

Where Sam B does see that color reflected is in her upcoming web series, “You’re So Talented.” 
“You’re So Talented” (premiering January 2015) follows Bea, an out-of-work Chicago actress as she navigates her twenties and the drama (no pun intended) that ensues. In this Q&A, Sam reflects on her inspiration for the series, the close-knit Chicago theatre community and why it’s not enough to just be “so talented.” Meet Sam B.

Age: (optional) 25
Current Project: You’re So Talented: a new web series
Current Location: Chicago, IL

Tell us a little more about “You’re So Talented.” How did you come up with the concept and what message do you hope viewers receive from the series?
You’re So Talented is a series I wrote following Bea, an out-of-work Chicago actor, as she navigates her twenties and all its inevitable dramas. I had been toying with the idea of writing a web series for the past year and a half but finally decided to start generating some material this past February. I was only certain about a few things: I knew I wanted to highlight young artists in an urban setting. I knew I wanted Ashleigh Lathrop(Devin), Gabe Franken(Jesse) and I to play best friends. I knew I wanted to showcase the Chicago that I know and love. Those were my only launching points and from there I just started writing.

You were born and raised in Chicago and have been heavily involved in the theater community there for years. How is the Chicago theater community? How does it differ from New York or Los Angeles?
I love the Chicago theatre community. I only lived in New York for a bit but I know I didn’t feel that same sense of camaraderie that I do here. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what the theatre scene is like in Los Angeles. Chicago’s scene is very much the foundation of who I am as an artist. I think what differentiates the Chicago community from the coasts is that everyone is super committed to making the work-for close to nothing. The amount of work that gets done in this city and the caliber of art and talents that’s been cultivated here-I think is unparalleled. Having said that, because I love it so much I can also be hyper critical of the community: I know we have huge strides to make when it comes to representation of different lives and stories on stage. We’re just not where we need to be in that aspect.

Sam B on the set of "You're So Talented"
Sam B on the set of “You’re So Talented”

How have you infused your own life and stories into “You’re So Talented”?
Obviously, the character of Bea is loosely based on some of my own experiences. What it’s like to be a young woman in the art scene in Chicago is part of my story so it was easy to write some of that into the series. But as far as the way Bea behaves-she’s a lot more reactive then I am. Which was fun to write. Here’s a girl who will say things or do things that I normally would be way too ashamed to say or do.

A fraction of “You’re So Talented” deals with twenty-somethings who are, well, talented, but may not have the drive or means to really pursue that talent. How do you make sense of talent vs. drive vs. life’s realities?
I think that talent is only a small factor when it comes to dreams coming into fruition. At some point you’re actually going to have to do the thing you set out to do if it’s going to become real.

What is the best advice you’ve received as an actor? A twenty-something? A woman?
I’ll give the same advice one of my mentors, Sheldon Patinkin, gave me in college (and a host of other artists in Chicago): “Better an asshole than a chickenshit.”

What advice would you offer to other up-and-coming actors?
Find your voice, don’t expect anyone else to want to tell your story, and it’s totally ok to say ‘no’ to projects you aren’t passionate about.

How did you build a community around “You’re So Talented”?
The team behind You’re So Talented is, by far, the best group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to create with. Chris (director/editor), Mateo (DP), Morgan(Sound), and Dakota(AD/Shawn) came on at a time when I really needed a production team and they were immediately jazzed about the project. The same goes for Samantha Lee, Alistair Slaughter and Vince Martell. Getting a group of people together that believe in the project is the foundation to building a community. Their excitement is infectious and I think people on the outside feed off of that and want to be a part of it.

Sam Bailey is an actor and writer from Chicago. She attended Columbia College and is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf. She has worked with many theater companies around the city including The Gift, ATC, and Strawdog Theatre. Her written work has been seen on live lit stages like The Paper Machete, 2nd Story and Guts & Glory. 

Check out “You’re So Talented” via Facebook and Twitter. Here’s a link to the trailer: http://vimeo.com/110619586

Twenties Unscripted Takeover: Chaédria LaBouvier

Twenties Unscripted Takeover is a special week-long feature series highlighting twenty-somethings who are “taking over the world” in music, art, film, social activism and business. Today’s feature chronicles Chaédria LaBouvier’s journey through the world of film. When I mentioned Twenties Unscripted Takeover a few weeks ago on Twitter, Chaédria expressed interest in participating. I had the chance to chat with her on the phone and learn about the extensive history, thought and passion she brings to her projects, including a pilot presentation she’s working on. Meet Chaédria.

Tell us a bit more about what attracted you to the world of film.
Well, I really wanted to be a novelist. I read a Tale of Two Cities when I was eight and knew that telling stories was what I wanted to do. And I loved movies. I was the kid that could re-watch a movie over and over again. I spent a lot of time as a child writing plays for my cousins, directing neighborhood kids, that sort of thing. When I got to college, traditional publishing was dying and journalism options weren’t there, but film was. And if you grow up never feeling that you fit in, you’re fiercely loyal to the things that help you pull through and that give you inspiration.

Film got me through an, at times, very difficult college experience. That’s how I knew. My first job out of college was working on the set of Law and Order and working in downtown theaters across New York. Film was still viable and you could get opportunities and I had dreams of being the female Francis Ford Coppola. (laughs.) Then the Golden Age of Television happened and I  knew that I had to get to the West Coast. That’s how I ended up at UCLA’s film school, from which I just graduated. It had the best screenwriting program, it was in LA and Coppola had gone there. Done and done.

Chaédria on set of The Maroon Colony
Chaédria on set of the Maroon Colony

You recently finished shooting The Maroon Colony and have opted to make it a pilot presentation instead of a web series. What sparked your change of heart?
No one tells you how ridiculously difficult and grueling it is to write and produce a web series. And you have to have a lot of stamina. I’ve written two at this point and just to get the script right, it takes months. Coordinating shoots, talent, favors all takes months. And the web world is become increasingly more crowded. I had to get back to what was important to me – which was to tell this story of this mixed race family of former child prodigies – and hopefully sell it to a network so that we can tell it fully. I feel that a pilot would accomplish that the most efficiently, leaving me more energy and resources to focus on shooting the pilot, releasing the short stories the family is based on and really creating a community around the Maroon family.

What are some of the messages you hope to portray in The Maroon Colony? How has your own family influenced those messages?
I draw a huge amount of inspiration from my family. My family is mixed; my parents are biracial and multiracial and I have family everywhere from the Cuban communities in Coral Gables, the Creole communities in Dallas and South Texas to the native reservations in East Tennessee. I have family that has never gone to college to graduates of the Ivy League, the Catholics to the Baptists, the snobs, etc. and I wanted to create something that looked like me and reflected what it’s like to have that many influences to process through.

I would sometimes just leave parts out. It was a lot, even for me, to understand. It wasn’t until recently that I felt that I knew how to express that or talk about it all in a cohesive way that didn’t take away from my identification and pride in being Black. Visually, I had to make one parent Black and one parent White (Jewish), because it’s easier than writing parents that are Black/Cuban Jew/Creole/Native American. Last year for Hanukkah, my mother called me while she was driving around Dallas to ask, “Where in the hell can I find some Hanukkah candles?” I died laughing. She was serious; my grandfather was a Cuban Jew and we celebrate some of the high Holy days (heavy emphasis on some). I felt like I had to create something that made that kind of experience “normal”.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with many film giants, including Tracy Oliver, the

The family living room on the set of The Maroon Colony
The family living room on the set of The Maroon Colony

producer of Awkward Black Girl. What role are web series playing in the overall trajectory of what we consider television? What is the biggest misconception people have about producing a web series?
Tracy is a great writer and I think she’d say that ABG helped launch her current career as a television writer. I know a lot of great writers, including my friend and classmate Amy Aniobi who created a web series and is now a writer on Silicon Valley. For a television writer, it’s a great way to get started, in addition to being a good writer and networking.

A lot of execs are looking at the web world to inform what people want to see and what people are watching. There are a lot of shows being bought or pitched that came from the web. The same goes for pilot presentations.

The biggest misconception about producing a web series is that it’s easy or “cheap”. Cheap for a web series with six episodes is still going to be about $5,000 – and that’s with a lot of favors. No, you can’t produce it all on your own. Find a friend who is the savviest, most capable and organized person that you know to produce for you.

You mentioned that there is a “YouTube culture”, particularly when it comes to web series. How would you describe that culture? People have a tendency to be absolutely savage online. Internet trolls made Robin Williams’s daughter walk away indefinitely from social media. People forget that there’s a human being on the other side of that content, no matter how bad the production quality is. Someone’s putting their dream out there, which is far more than you, the anonymous commenter, are doing. It’s almost as if people expect that they need to be ruthless to have an opinion or to be thought of as intelligent. I think it’s far more sophisticated and more of a challenge to give constructive yet compassionate feedback, if there’s any to give.

What advice would you offer to up-and-coming filmmakers?
Am I the right person for this question? I’d say network, write – the power is really in the script – and read. Do anything that you can to really sharpen your tastes. A lot of filmmaking and writing is about taste. The technical and the heart of the craft. Read Lolita. Read White Teeth. Watch The Godfather with director’s commentary. Be able to talk about the intellectual brilliance of Clueless. Practice looking at paintings and imagine that it’s a scene in a movie and create what’s next for the subjects. Try your hand at theatre – writing, acting, stage managing, directing. Disconnect the Internet when writing at all costs.

What is coming up next for you?
Well, first, we’re going to edit what we’ve shot so far for the web series, so that it can be a reference and a playbook.  I’m working with my team on our next shoot, which will hopefully be late October, early November for Maroon Colony and working on resurrecting a t-shirt line that I had when I lived in New York. I also work a lot with my mother’s organization, Mothers Against Police Brutality and a lot of the coalition building there, especially in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I’ll be busy telling stories, to say the very least.

Chaédria LaBouvier is a recent Screenwriting MFA graduate of UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is re-writing the Maroon family’s chronicles, launching her t-shirt line, Roebexar LaBouvier and contesting parking tickets. She previously co-created the YouTube webseries, The Valley. You can find her closely following the situation in Ferguson @chaedria.