Set in modern-day Harlem, Girls Trip scribe Tracy Oliver’s newest comedy series Harlem is an ode to Black women’s humanity. The series follows four thirty-something Black women who have been thick as thieves since their days as undergrads at NYU. Camille (Meagan Good) is an anthropologist with a Ph.D. who teaches about sex, love, and relationships at Columbia University. However, her aspirations for a tenured position and finding her mister right continue to evade her.
Quinn (Grace Byers) is a fashion designer whose boutique and romantic life are constantly on the verge of implosion, much to the disdain of her wealthy mother (portrayed by A Different World legend Jasmine Guy). Though her finances are strained, Quinn opens her home to her bestie Angie (Shoniqua Shandai) when she has nowhere else to turn.
No-nonsense and bold, aspiring singer Angie has never quite recovered from losing her record deal some years ago. Desperate for a fresh start, she reluctantly takes a chorus role in the musical version of Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Rounding out the foursome is Tye (Jerrie Johnson), an entrepreneur who has created the mega-popular dating app Q for the Black LGBTQ+ community. Though Tye seems to have uncovered what other people are searching for when it comes to love, she hasn’t quite figured out what she wants for herself.
Ahead of the debut of the Prime Video series, EBONY spoke with Oliver and the female cast members, as well as Tyler Lepley, who portrays Camille’s ex Ian, about Harlem and the many faces of Black women.
“My experiences in Harlem really shaped [the show],” Oliver explained. “I remember it being such a culturally rich place and so much fun and a lot of drunken late nights strolls on the streets, getting on the train and going to brunch, and also pursuing dreams. It just felt really magical to me when I was there. When I was looking at TV, at the time, there was Girls and Broad City, and that was it. I thought to myself,’ I like these shows and I appreciate them, but I don’t see my experience and who I am represented on screen.’ I’ve always decided to write the thing that’s missing or write the thing that I want to see. I wrote it before Girls Trip came out. So it was a different landscape for it, and it didn’t find a home back then.”
Once Harlem finally did get the green light, Oliver knew that she had to nail down the perfect cast to ensure the success of the series. “Casting pretty much is something that I’m always super hands-on with,” she explained. “I’ve found white execs cast characters differently than a Black creator. What I mean by that is that sometimes the nuances of complexion are lost, or there’s a tendency to prefer biracial actors or lighter skin actors or skinny actors, and I’ve done this long enough now where I’ve seen the bias. So, I’m always hands-on, and I’m always there because I want to protect the women. I know I’m deeply entrenched in Black women, and I know what we want to see. I know that we want to see a variety of complexions. We want to see different body types. We don’t want to look at really perfect-looking people. We want to see a spectrum, and we want it to feel real. I think you don’t necessarily get that mix without being deliberate about it and telling people like you can’t have four light skin people on a show.”
For Good, who has been in Hollywood for decades, discovering who Camille was in the script was like a breath of fresh air. “I’ve seen a lot of different things and a lot of great shows, and I see myself in some of them,” she reflected. “But this is the first time I was like, ‘Oh, I know her. I understand her.’ So much of that is exactly me. I am very quirky and goofy, and nerdy. And as an actress, I haven’t had a chance to show that side of myself, and I didn’t know what might come out—and I was excited to explore that. It’s been really fun, getting to live and breathe Camille. It has allowed me to fall in love with myself again in a totally different way.”
Like Good, Johnson had never seen anything like Harlem before, which further enamored her with the role of Tye. “I hadn’t read a script that was so authentically Black—definitely not for television. The last time I read an authentically Black script was when I read For Colored Girls, and I was like, ‘oh, this is raw.’ That’s how I felt about Harlem when I was reading it, and the writing was good. I immediately in my mind knew who Tye was.”
When writing for Tye, Oliver says she and Johnson collaborated to ensure that the character was as authentic as possible. “There’s so many nuances and specifics to being a queer woman of color who’s dating that I had to hire queer women of color to help school me on it,” the First Wives Club creator explained. “And also to write specific scenes and give insights because I’m not that person that is so arrogant to think that all Black women have the same experiences and that I can write and speak for every character. The easiest one for me to write was Camille because she’s the most like my personality. Tye was the most challenging just because I needed help with nailing it. I would lean on Jerrie as well to help give me insight on how to craft that character. But it was definitely a collaboration.”
Like Good, Byers was able to infuse some elements of herself into Quinn. Having the iconic Jasmine Guy portraying her mother also aided in Byers’ experience. “It was a dream come true working with Jasmine Guy,” Byers said. “She is just so giving and generous and wonderful, just a beautiful person to work with. And we had a lot of fun. We talked about the Caribbean culture. I’m from the Cayman Islands, but we’re right around in the same area, Jamaica and Cayman. Tracy said, ‘Well, your mom is Jamaican, but what do you want your dad to be?’ I was like, ‘Can he be Caymanian?’ I’m proud to say that I am the first Caymanian American to play a Caymanian American on-screen. That kind of representation is just really important to me, and I hope that it just helps other young Caribbean people, women of color, Black girls grow up and say, ‘I can do that, too.'”
While the roles of Camille, Quinn, and Tye are more reserved, Angie is bold and fearless. The way that she uses her voice is something we can all aspire to. “Angie does so many things that shock me constantly, including her sex life,” Shandai laughed. “But honestly, it’s Angie’s commitment to see herself exactly as she desires to see herself. That’s what’s so shocking because it’s a world that tells Black women that if you are not an asset to me if you are not entertaining me, if you’re not of service to me, then you’re not valuable at all. And Angie is so committed to her identity to being this whole fabulous, vivacious, full human being. She’s still committed to being herself. I think being someone who is curvy, Black, dark skin, using her voice is just so empowering.”
Though Harlem is a series that centers on women, Oliver has also included a smart, thoughtful, and emotionally intelligent man in Camille’s ex Ian, portrayed by P-Valley’s Tyler Leply. “There are definitely differences between Diamond and Ian,” Leply explained. “I think one of their similarities is their strength, their ability to protect people around them, whether it be physically or emotionally. But Ian’s going to leave everything he knows to be strong and go chase that passion. He’s going to pick himself up by his bootstrap to do what it takes, but he’s going to come back. He cares about what his people in the community think about him gentrifying the place by bringing this piece of Paris back to Harlem. So again, that’s probably the foundation of where I started in terms of building this character.”
When Ian comes back into Camille’s life, they’ve been split for five years. However, Lepley and Good’s chemistry as the ex-couple is palpable. “One thing I love about Meagan is that she’s an artist first,” Lepley explained. “She’s a hard worker, just like I am. I enjoy running lines until we can feel it and flesh it out. So, we ran lines often. We would run lines over dinner or have a drink, turn up a little bit because we’re one and the same. We’re similar energies. So that chemistry is there in real life, which I think helps the dynamic of seeing us on screen.”
As Camille, Tye, Quinn, and Angie navigate their friends, love lives, and careers in Harlem, they are allowed to be imperfect. Moreover, the show doesn’t reward the women for adjusting or compromising their true desires to put others first. Instead, it reminds Black women to choose themselves and that any perceived imperfections they might have won’t deter them from being in charge of their destinies.
Harlem debuts Dec. 3 on Prime Video