Diarra Kilpatrick is using humor and wit to tackle America’s alarming race problem. The 33-year old has worked in the entertainment industry for over a decade, but now she’s using her voice and talent for her own hysterical series, American Koko.
Partnering with Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions for ABC Digital, American Koko demands that we think critically about solutions to racism and prejudice.
In the series, Koko is an investigator in post-post racial America that solves issues related to race at Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist Agency. The series, which won the American Black Film Festival’s Best Web Series Award in 2015, was also therapeutic for Kilpatrick.
“I was really uncomfortable. I had done a lot of theater, and I love theater, but I was like, ‘I think I need a new challenge,'” the Tisch School of the Arts alum said of the web series creation.
Whip-smart and quirky, Kilpatrick speaks longingly with EBONY.com of her hometown, Detroit, and why Scandal’s Olivia Pope inspired her character, Akosua “Koko” Millard.
EBONY.com: American Koko puts such a brilliant spin on racial issues. What sparked the idea for the series?
Diarra Kilpatrick: It was a lot of things going on that all just kind of crystallized into the idea. I was watching a lot of Scandal at the time; that was a big influence. I just thought [it] would be cool to play on solving these deep problems, the kind of problems that Olivia Pope solves [but] with race. I thought that would be a funny idea. Then, I really just wanted to be artistic with my friends and create something on my own terms. I was really actively thinking about ideas that I knew I could self-produce.
EBONY.com: Why was it important for you to do this series with your friends and on your own terms?
DK: Sometimes, you just get so uncomfortable, that it’s kind of God pushing you towards your destiny. It’s like, everything kind of comes to a screeching halt. I wasn’t really going out for the things that I wanted to go out for that I felt like were worthy of the gift that I had to bring. That’s the best way I can put it. I was really uncomfortable. I had done a lot of theater, and I love theater, but I was like, “I think I need a new challenge.” It wasn’t really that well thought out, to be honest. It was just like a feeling of like, “You need to do something different, and you need to do it now.” I remember telling my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, “I want to make something. I don’t care if we shoot it on an iPhone.” He was like, “Okay, slow down, let’s not shoot it on an iPhone. But let’s talk about how we can make it happen.” So it was just a gut feeling honestly.
EBONY.com: How did JuVee Productions and ABC Digital get involved? American Koko was originally on your YouTube channel. How did you move into an even bigger space reaching a wider audience?
DK: I’ve done a ton of theater, and that’s actually how I met Julius. We did a production of The Piano Lesson together. At that time, I remember him going on and on about his wife and how great she was, and I remember seeing her. We had some kind of party or something, and I see her, and I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s Antwone Fisher’s mother!” Like, wow, she’s great. I had seen her in that when I was growing up in Detroit. I used to watch her in City of Angels and stuff. I had so much respect for her and so much respect for him because he’s a great actor in his own right too. We kept in touch through the years, so when we finished making American Koko, we sent it to everybody. It’s so funny where blessings come from. He called me … I’ll say like maybe we had 100 hits; I don’t even know. It was very early on. [Julius] was just like, “I want to be involved. We loved it; we were cracking up, we really want to be involved.”
So initially, they were just going to self-fund the second season. They were just gonna give us the money so that we could do it again and actually pay people, because the first time around, we made it for like $3,000. It was a friends and family discount all around, and we had like one light. [Julius] was like, “We can help you fund this second season so that you can up the production value,” and stuff like that. Then, when all the networks started doing digital content, I had a meeting at ABC Digital, and they were just kind of like, “We hear that you’re doing American Koko with Viola. Maybe we can all do it here.” It just seemed like a perfect fit, because she was already part of the family. They wanted to work with me, and we really did want to give the show the widest audience possible without compromising on content.
EBONY.com: You couldn’t be as raunchy and explicit if the show were on prime-time network TV.
DK: Exactly. I had already started writing the second season, which goes even further into the old days. It goes more into how we sexualize people by race, so it goes into some territory that is not ABC prime-time for sure. We felt like being on the digital platform, they really allowed me to be authentic to my voice, and it still gave us that platform and the support from the network.
EBONY.com: Why is it important for you to continue to talk about ideas surrounding race, especially in our current political climate?
DK: You know what? I get it. I just saw a comment on Twitter like, “Oh my God, do we have to talk about race again?” It’s not necessarily that fun to talk about. It’s one of the most painful topics in the history of our country and in our country now. We actually make it fun. It’s sexy; we make it interesting … Why is it important to talk about social issues, to discuss where we are as a country, to talk about the blatant, unhealed aspects of our interpersonal relationships, about interracial relationships? It’s important. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it’s important. So, my thing is, I understand that feeling of like, “Eh, I don’t really want to deal with this today.” I think we make it more of an entertaining ride. So I hope people will come in.
EBONY.com: You’re an actress, creator, producer and writer. Why is it important for you, as a Black woman to remain so versatile in today’s entertainment space?
DK: It’s sort of instinctual … coming to this point. When I was talking about how I was feeling very uncomfortable before I started creating, I think that was just trying to scrunch myself into something that was too small for me. The label of just actor was too small for me. So, acting, writing and producing allowed me to use more aspects of who I am. I do love to act, but I do feel like I’ve got to rise to more parts within myself.
EBONY: American Koko discusses the different multi-faceted parts of people of color, what do you hope that your audiences take away from it?
DK: I think we’re at this place where everyone acknowledges that there is a problem, and every single day there’s a new think piece being like, “The problem with this, and the problem with that …” And, “What’s wrong with Sofia Coppola erasing the black woman from The Beguiled?” These are all legitimate articles, but I think focusing entirely on the problem magnifies it. I think we have to start being more solution-oriented. This is something that most people have resigned themselves to thinking. “We are always gonna have a race problem in this country.” Not necessarily true. How can we start to change that on a very individual level? So, to me, it’s just thinking that these are problems, there aren’t easy solutions. We don’t even know what they might look like. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but to look at problems that are race problems from the point of view that they are fixable, I think, is important to all of us to change the way we’re thinking about race and class in America.
Seasons One and Two of American Koko are now streaming on ABC Digital.