With its new series, The Kings of Napa, OWN is betting the time is now for a soapy drama about a Black family-owned winery. Created by Claws showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, the series explores the familial tensions created by major decisions from its patriarch Reginald King as they run House of Kings, their family winery. It’s a story born out of both Sherman Barrois’ deepest wishes and a fantastic personal experience.
“I’ve written on a lot of shows like ER, crime shows like Criminal Minds, Claws and I have always wanted to write about the Black family and put them in a setting that you hadn’t seen before,” explains the series’ showrunner. To make that setting a winery only hit her after visiting one she later learned was Black-owned.
“I didn’t know the people that owned it personally, so I just made characters up,” shares the Sherman Barrois. Instead of drawing on a particular family, she tapped into all families, including her own.
“What are the dynamics that I’ve grown up watching in my own family that I wanted to see get played out?” she asked herself. “When you go to family reunions, there’s going to be good food, but there’s also going to be some tea that happened from way back in the day,” she further explains. “Someone’s still going to be angry at someone else because of something that happened two years ago at a funeral. There is always layered drama with family, and I think, through The Kings show, you will see that kind of complexity.”
“We all have skeletons in our closet,” Isiah Whitlock Jr., who plays Reginald King, chimes in. Whitlock Jr’s skeletons force his only daughter August King, the middle child of three that he has with wife Vanessa, to the helm. As she tries to steer the family winery ahead with her innovative and visionary ideas, she must contend with betrayal, challenges for her spot from older brother Dana, collateral sabotage from her mother, and more. For Ebonée Noel, who most recently played Special Agent Kristen Chazal on the CBS series FBI, it’s a dream she still can’t quite believe came true.
“You always imagine yourself in the center of the story,” Chazal tells EBONY. “But until you get to be in the center of the story, it’s just a concept that lives in your head.”
“It meant a lot to me to get this opportunity in this much of an affirming, supportive environment where I don’t have to translate so much, where the people I’m working with understand where I’m coming from, how I’m saying what I’m saying, what I need, what I’m asking for, and are just this excited for me.”
For Rance Nix, his casting as older brother Dana King, who is the chief financial officer of the family winery, goes even deeper. “When I started acting, it was a little difficult at first just getting auditions for just people who just happened to have a physical challenge,” he shares. The Atlanta native gives Sherman Barrois, who “rewrote Dana King as a little person with me in mind” after seeing him years ago in a play, so much credit for this incredible opportunity to play a serious character with a full family, wife, ambition, and flaws.
“Throughout the season,” ays Nix, “Dana is in pursuit of the throne, and, in that pursuit, he has to deal with the opportunity costs of his laser-sharp focus and decision-making when it comes to pursuing success at all costs.”
Ashlee Brian, who can also be seen as the sexy student in hot pursuit of Megan Good’s character Camille in Harlem, takes on the role of Christian, the youngest King. “After some unexpected events take place, Christian is forced to grab the reins and figure out how to survive,” Brian explains. Before life got real and forced him to step up in business, Christian enjoyed life as a full-out playboy, indulging in the finest fashion, cars, and women. “Playing Christian was one of the fun-est characters I’ve ever explored because he’s literally who I wanted to be: He has sophistication, swag, ladies, and a lot of wealth to draw from so it was a dream.”
As Christian tries to land his footing in the family business, his mother, Vanessa, is at a scandalous crossroads with her sister Melanie Pierce. The strained relationship, says Karen LeBlanc, who plays Vanessa, goes beyond a particular moment. “I get the sense we were really close when we were younger, and then there was a break and I think it was hard to find our way back and we’re still trying to find our way back,” shares LeBlanc. “But I think these sisters love each other. I just think there’s a lot of conflict and jealousy.”
It also doesn’t help that Melanie has been out of the country for a long time and only recently returned. So that tension only piles on to the tragedy. So, while she’s been aware of certain family dynamics for years, Vanessa is only learning of them. That dynamic, admits the actress Devika Parikh, who plays Vanessa, is “really difficult and very challenging [but] makes for really good storytelling and very juicy conflict.”
Caught in the middle is Melanie’s daughter and Vanessa’s niece Bridgette Pierce who is an integral part of the family winery, which is now struggling. In the face of all of this, Yaani King Mondschein, who plays the character, feels that “Bridgette’s arc is finding her authenticity within the family and what’s real and worthy of holding on to.”
For Heather Simms, who plays Reginald’s sister, Yvette, being part of The Kings of Napa is both a privilege and a pleasure. “It is wonderful to be positioned in a story where you’re talking about aspiration and legacy and family wealth. And it’s just what it is,” she says.
Bringing Black wealth to the screen was important to Sherman Barrois. “I wanted [Black] art on the walls. I wanted us to walk into their living room and their dining room and feel as if they traveled the world,” she explains. “There are all these travel companies that are highlighting how we live, how we travel, how we dine. I wanted us to watch them in their clothes and see that everything was impeccable, and they all had style.”
And being on OWN just raised the ante. “There’s no way you could do a show about wealth and success for the Oprah Winfrey Network and not get it right,” she says. “We have all watched and aspired to and have been moved by Miss Winfrey herself. So, I think it was important to make this show real.”
The Kings of Napa can be found on OWN Tuesday nights at 8 ET/7 CT.