TV Series Focuses on Black Gay Men The co-executive producer and star of the LOGO Network dramedyNoah's Arc talk about the series that focuses exclusively on the lives of black gay men.

TV Series Focuses on Black Gay Men

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

And today, through the lens of hit television shows like Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word, millions of Americans have had a glimpse of the lives and loves of gay men and women. But there is another successful gay-themed show that you may not have heard of.

It's called Noah's Arc, and it runs on LOGO - a Viacom-owned cable network that is aimed at gay audiences. It's the first series to focus exclusively on the lives of black gay men, and tonight is the season finale of its second season. Much like the HBO hit Sex in the City, Noah's Arc is an ensemble dramedy centered on Noah, an aspiring screenwriter.

Throughout the series, Noah struggles to build a relationship with Wade, a fellow screenwriter who is conflicted about his own sexual identity.

(Soundbite of TV show, Noah's Arc)

Unidentified Man #1: So how do you feel now?

Unidentified Man #2: Funny, that's what I asked him.

Unidentified Man #3: What did he say?

Unidentified Man #1: I feel good and scared, but mostly good.

Unidentified Man #4: And what did you say?

Unidentified Man #2: Don't worry. I'll protect you.

MARTIN: Today, we are joined by Patrik-Ian Polk - the creator and co-executive producer of Noah's Arc - and Noah himself, or Darryl Stephens, the actor who portrays him. They join us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to you both.

Mr. DARRYL STEPHENS (Actor, Noah's Arc): Thank you.

Mr. PATRIK-IAN POLK (Creator, Noah's Ark): Thank you.

MARTIN: You're invited to join the discussion. If you've seen Noah's Arc or have questions about the depiction of the black gay experience on television, we'd like to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

First to Patrik, or do you prefer Patrik-Ian?

Mr. POLK: Patrik-Ian is fine.

MARTIN: Patrik-Ian, okay. Thank you, Patrik-Ian, or Sir Patrik-Ian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Very formal. Tell me about the title of the program.

Mr. POLK: Well, I liked the name Noah, and once I settled on the name Noah - in screenwriting terminology, arc means something very different from the ark, as in the traditional, biblical Noah's Ark. Arc, A-R-C in screenwriting terms means a character's story arc, where a story goes from beginning to end. Or where a character goes from the beginning of a script to the end. And since Noah was a screenwriter, it kind of made sense - as I was writing it, it kind of made sense to me to call the show Noah's Arc, because it's Noah's story. It's where this guy goes from beginning to end. And it just so happens that his three best friends are named Alex, Ricky, and Chance. So they also make up the arc.

MARTIN: But there is kind of a little sly twist on the two-by-two scenario of Noah's Ark, isn't there? I mean it is…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or did that just - was that just a happy accident?

Mr. POLK: That's a happy accident. I mean, the happy accident part really is that there's this other biblical reference to kind of titillate some and anger some. That's just kind of - you know, that's gravy. But I really was thinking about the screenwriting aspect of it.

MARTIN: Well, given that your production company is called Tall Skinny Black Boy Productions, this may be an obvious question, but is the premise of the program autobiographical?

Mr. POLK: No. It's really not. I wrote - I made him a screenwriter because that's a world and lifestyle that I know. I know the lifestyle of the struggling screenwriter because I've been that. And as we all know, the best writing is write what you know. So that was just - that's probably where the similarities end. Other people who know me may try to peg similarities between me and Noah or me - myself and some of the other characters. But I think - I like to say I don't see them.

MARTIN: You don't? Okay. Well, we'll call your friends and ask them.

Mr. POLK: Darryl's laughing at me.

MARTIN: Why did you want to create this show?

Mr. POLK: I came up the idea for the show because there was just such a lack of representation for gay characters of color. And the idea came to me at Black Gay Pride in L.A. in 2003. The July 4th weekend is Black Gay Pride, and thousands of black gay and lesbian people converge upon L.A. from all over. And I remember going to like the kick-off event and walking into this huge club full of people and just suddenly thinking nobody's making programming aimed at or about this group. And this is a group that's a viable, you know, viable consumer group. They've bought plane tickets. They're renting hotel rooms and cars. They're coming to L.A. from all over.

Why is no one, you know, aiming programming at this group? And I just struck with the idea on the spot. I'm going to make a show about these four black gay men and put it out there any way I can - on the Internet, selling it directly to the consumer - because I certainly didn't think any networks would want to do a show about four black gay men. So I just vowed that by that time next year, the show would be a reality in one form or another.

MARTIN: And I need to say here that you have had success in other - if this is an okay word to use - mainstream entertainment. You've already had some success at this point, so it wasn't like you were - the issue was not that you didn't have a track record in producing programming, but you thought perhaps that the content just would not attract the - would not be attractive to a network.

Mr. POLK: Well, I had - at that time and even today, I had worked in Hollywood long enough to know what would sell and what would not sell - and in jobs that were fairly mainstream, like you say. I worked at MTV Films. I was an executive at MTV Films where we developed major movies like Beavis and Butthead and Varsity Blues and Election. And I worked with Kenny Babyface Edmonds and Tracey Edmonds, where we did mainstream movies like Soul Food and Josie and the Pussycats.

So I knew, really, that is was just such an uphill battle to shop around a TV show about four black gay men. It just could not get more niche than that pitch.

MARTIN: Right. Some would argue it's hard enough to get show with a predominately African-American cast, let alone - I mean, predominately African-American casts, there have been successful show about, you know gay-themed shows. But putting together - oh, not so much.

Mr. POLK: Exactly. It's like a double-edged sword. And now, you know, you see -I think we're one of maybe two, now, predominately African-American cast-shows. There's Girlfriends and our show.

MARTIN: Darryl, how about you? Why were you attracted to this character?

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, I'd seen Patrik's film. He did a film called Punks, and I thought the perspective that he was showing with that work was really interesting and original. And also, as an actor, it's always interesting to do something that no one's ever seen before. And I thought that in bringing these characters to the television, it would be an opportunity for me as a, you know, as a fairly new actor, a young actor, to really show something new.

MARTIN: Some people worry that - and I mean, I think this is changing, because there have been a number of gay characters on television who've gone on to do other things. I'm thinking of Six Feet Under, for example. There were a couple of prominent lead characters who were gay.

But there are actors who worry about taking these roles because they're worried that it would be career-limiting. Was that a concern?

Mr. STEPHENS: Oh absolutely, absolutely. There's a big issue with taking roles, particularly - I think if I were to play someone who was just kind of a stereotype as a supporting character, it would be different. But playing the lead on a gay show, with all these sort of real, human emotions, and then attaching that to a guy I feel is even riskier, to be honest. I think if we were playing this on the surface, people would recognize that we were just acting. But a lot of people mistake this for us, you know, playing ourselves because I think that we're so committed to making these characters real.

MARTIN: And complex. In fact, I want to just say - it would've been helpful if I'd said it earlier, that the clip that we played is where Darryl - your character, Noah - Noah is pursuing or is interested in Wade, and Wade isn't very clear about his sexual identity. And he's describing to his friends, you know, what - their encounter where they became intimate, and you can feel kind of the emotion there. So hold on, let me go to a caller. Let's go to Eric in Columbus, Ohio. Eric.

ERIC (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

MARTIN: Very well.

Mr. STEPHENS: Hey.

ERIC: Yeah. I just wanted to say, I think it's just great that the whole base of it being black men, that's great. But I think that it just says how different this world is that it, you know, black gay men who have the same problems that white men, women, heterosexual couples, single parents - you know, it shows, like - I just think it's so wonderful to come that far, you know, that we can - that there's enough substance behind it that's not a shock - you know, shocking on its surface, and maybe that's titillating. But the bottom line is that if you watch it for a while that hey, these are the same problems that everybody has. And I think it just puts a different face on it that people need to see. So I think it's great.

MARTIN: Eric, thanks for calling.

Mr. POLK: Thank you.

ERIC: All right, thanks.

Mr. POLK: Yeah, it's interesting. We're on our second season now - the finale is tonight - and it's been interesting to see because LOGO, the network, is very new. You know, the network launched last year, and it wasn't in as many homes. It's in more homes now, but it still has more to grow. So the availability hasn't been as great. But now that the first season's out on DVD, our episodes go to iTunes, like, immediately after they air so people have other ways of seeing the show. The fan base is growing quite a bit, and the biggest group that's growing, I find, is straight women.

I would say the majority of the fan mail I get now is from heterosexual women who have fallen in love with this show and relate to it. It's very interesting.

MARTIN: Let's go to Edward in Mesa, Arizona. Edward, what's your question?

EDWARD (Caller): Oh, hi. How are you guys doing? I love your show. I just wanted to find out - you already kind of touched on it - but a little bit about the popularity of the show, if that's been growing, if it's - you know, I guess maybe one of the highest, if not the highest-rated shows on LOGO and it's really, you know, gaining quite a following?

Mr. POLK: The highest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEPHENS: Thank you. Yeah. We're getting a lot of good response about this season. I don't know if there's any specific rating system that LOGO is using, but I think this season is definitely getting a better response than the first season, which was also a good response, also.

MARTIN: Edward, thank you for your call.

EDWARD: Sure, definitely.

MARTIN: The - actually, let's - I have an e-mail here I'd like to read, if I may. It's from a listener in Madison, Wisconsin, and she says I'm a lesbian woman living in the Midwest, who is white. I and many of my friends look forward to every episode of the gentle, comic and poignant program. It's a refreshing and enjoyable look at a segment of folks whom I consider to be part of my community, and yet who have never been allowed to grace the screen with such well-rounded authenticity and completeness of character. And thank you for bringing Noah's Arc to us.

Mr. POLK: Yeah, that's nice.

MARTIN: I mean, how does it make you feel to hear that?

Mr. STEPHENS: Thank you to you. That was very nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Good.

Mr. POLK: I mean, I hear that and I get those stories all the time. You know, I've had like young, 20-something, you know, white girls, you know, from the city - e-mails saying, you know, we used to have Sex and the City cosmopolitan parties, and now we have Noah's Arc apple-martini parties. You know, it's that kind of show. Once you're in, if you can give it a chance, it really hooks you because it has that soapy element, but we try to ground it in real issues and real relationship dramas and friendship dramas and work dramas. And it's the kind of thing that everybody can relate to it if you just get over that issue of it being about four black gay men.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Darryl and Ian - Ian, you may want to pick up on this, that sometimes there's a line - and it's not always a bright line - between making characters recognizable archetypes and making them stereotypes. And I wonder whether you ever worry that you've crossed it, you know, playing into stereotypes - the effeminate - or Ian, even with the characters, you know, people who have - who are somewhat feminine in their affect, or one of the characters is struggling with a - how can we put it? A sex addiction. Is that fair to say? You know, one of the characters is…

Mr. POLK: I think that's fair to say.

MARTIN: And a couple of the characters are, you know, very kind of hyper-masculine. And now, do you ever worry that you're walking up to the line of stereotyping?

Mr. POLK: Well, when I did the show, we were kind of at an interesting time -we still are, where, you know - before, in television and film, I think you used to always see the stereotype of the overly effeminate, queeny gay character that was there strictly for comedic effect that was very one-dimensional. You never knew very much more about that character. They were just there to kind of twist across the screen and say a funny line.

And then it evolved into the politically-correct era, where it was suddenly like these hyper-masculine, you know - if they didn't say they were gay, you would never know that these characters were gay. And I think that's just as damaging as the one-dimensional, queeny stereotype.

What I tried to do with this show is show the wide breadth of the gay experience so that you have - I think it's okay to embrace a stereotype because they do exist. We do have flamboyant, flashy, queeny gay man - feminine gay men - as long as they are multi-dimensional characters. As long as, you know, you can really get to know who they are. And because the trend now has been this sort or - towards this sort of straight-acting hyper-masculine ideal, I purposely wanted to go in the other direction. I wanted Noah to be a character who was very feminine naturally, and he just embraced that in the way he dressed and the way he talked.

MARTIN: But he's not a hairdresser or one of those sort of traditional…

Mr. POLK: But he's not a hairdresser or a traditional profession. He's a writer, you know?

MARTIN: But Darryl, what do you think about that?

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, it was interesting. When I first started reading blogs -which is a bad thing to do, when the show first started airing - I was hearing a lot of people saying that they thought that the four main guys, Noah in particular, were basically stereotypes. And I thought, you know, my feeling was that I was playing a very specific character. And Patrik had directed me that he wanted the character to be, you know, soft and effeminate. And those were things that I took to heart. You know, I tried to make that as real as possible.

And it was hurtful to think that those people were limiting the work that I was doing to just a stereotype. But at the same time, I do understand that people -some people, because not everybody had negative things to say. Some people really loved the character and thought that that was the first time that they had seen themselves, which was great - which is what I was hoping, you know, to do.

MARTIN: Darryl, I'm sorry to cut you off, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask Patrik-Ian one last question about - there has been some opposition from elements within the black community. It hasn't all been kind of roses, right? At one point, as I understand it, some members of the Nation of Islam hosted a demonstration and shut down production for a day. Have you encountered this, and is this a factor in whether you think the show will go forward in the future? And I need you to answer very quickly, if you would.

Mr. POLK: You know, there has - it's not all sunshine and roses. You know, we bear the burden of being the first and the only, and so you know, everyone expects the show to be something for them personally. And we can't do that, unfortunately. It's one show about very specific characters, and we do the best that we can. And if people can accept that, I think it's cool.

The Nation of Islam thing, it really wasn't about us being a gay show. It was about what they saw as white productions coming into black neighborhoods and not hiring as many black people as we should. That was their perception. I think that, you know, we're one show, and unfortunately we're the only one. But hopefully we can encourage, and people will be encouraged to do more shows about other black gay characters.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Okay, thank you so much. We have to leave it there. The season finale is tonight. You can whisper us the ending. We promise we won't say anything.

Mr. POLK: Ten p.m. on LOGO, iTunes, DVD, everywhere.

MARTIN: Okay, my thanks to our guests. Patrik-Ian Polk is the creator and co-executive producer of Noah's Arc. Darryl Stephens is the actor who plays Noah. They joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Thank you, gentlemen.

Mr. STEPHENS: Thank you.

MARTIN: For more information about Noah's Arc, visit the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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