The name Karin Gist may not ring immediate bells but do trust that you know her work. As a writer, producer, and showrunner, she’s had a hand in some of your favorite shows like Girlfriends (where she got her start), One Tree Hill, Revenge, as well as House of Lies, Grey’s Anatomy, Star, and, most recently, Mixed-ish. Now she is shaking up TV with the FOX series Our Kind of People inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name by Lawrence Otis Graham, which exposed the history and lives of the Black upper class.
Creating Our Kind of People, the latest series in Lee Daniels’ expanding television portfolio, was an experience that hit close to home for the Spelman and Georgetown Law alum. “I read the book years ago [and] loved the book. My parents are Greek. I went to an HBCU and so did they. I am around that world,” Gist shares in an exclusive conversation with EBONY. “When 20th Century Fox, the studio, gave me the opportunity to develop the book almost three years ago now, I jumped at the chance because it has all the things that I love. It’s a nonfiction book so I was able to create a world out of it and talk about class, talk about race and talk about family and pull from my own family.”
Our Kind of People, the book, and the series, are not just about the Black elite, Gist enlightens. “This book is really about a different world that we don’t really get to see or hasn’t been quite explored on TV in a way that humanizes these people in this community and world. To me, it’s all about family and all about sameness. When you’re Black in America, you’re Black in America, it doesn’t matter what’s in your bank account,” explains Gist, who even spoke to Graham about the show prior to his death in February at age 59.
Gist says that her approach to bringing the series to life is simple. “It’s just a family drama about secrets and relationships that I think are universal to everyone,” she explains. “It's about sisters and daughters, and fathers and family and all of this stuff that we all deal with. It's really about relationships more than just money.”
Angela Vaughn, the show's female protagonist, embodies that and so much more. She is a young woman, a mother herself, who recently lost her mother, Eve, who had a complicated relationship with the Vineyard (Martha's Vineyard, of course). Angela has come from her native Boston to the community known for Black excellence and wealth—a community basically next door to her but that might as well be a million miles away—to set things right for her late mother as well as give her teenage daughter Nikki the kind of boost in life she, herself, never had. Angela is also there to build her own natural hair care business, Eve’s Crown, which named after her mama. And she does it all with the aid of her mother’s older sister Peggy by her side. Newcomers, however, are never welcomed. And Leah Franklin-Dupont, the daughter of one of the Vineyard’s most powerful families is not exactly rolling out the red carpet.
Guiding audiences through Angela's journey is Yaya DaCosta whom many people have been rooting for since America’s Next Top Model and All My Children (where she worked with the legendary Debbi Morgan who now plays her aunt in the series). When Angela learns her mother left her a building on Martha’s Vineyard, she heads there for the summer with her aunt and daughter to grow the hair business.
Gist and her team use Black hair in ways we have never seen on TV. Angela actually speaks to her IG community built around hair, sharing hair care tips or just reveling in the beauty and the power of our hair. “Her mother kind of passed down this tradition of making this homemade conditioner. And it’s like a legacy. It's a love language between mother and daughter, that she's then passing down, and she's building for the next generation. So, it's a conversation that keeps happening between our characters, that is about more than ‘this is how you do your hair,’” Gist expounds.
Empowerment is really the heart of Angela’s hair story with her mother, Gist shares. “This is how you can have control over your identity, control over potentially your business and your wealth and your opportunity. It's like it's a gift,” she says.
Television dramas aren’t known for exploring the richness of Black women’s bonds and splinters. In Our Kind of People, they are thankfully abundant, particularly through the relationship between Angela and her aunt Peggy, as well as Angela and her daughter Nikki. “There's a real genuine friendship between her and Angela,” Gist says of the bond between auntie and niece. “And then you have Nikki (played by newcomer Alana Bright) and Angela, who are very close in age, and we haven't really explored that a lot on TV. Because Angela had her so young, there's a lot for them to kind of work out and figure out. . . And I personally think with the Vaughn women on our show, the chemistry is so identifiable to me, like I know that family. I know those three women and they can fight and love hard. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
“And even with the DuPont-Franklin family, you have Olivia (the mother-in-law played by L. Scott Caldwell) and you have Leah (Nadine Ellis), and you have Lauren (played by Rhyon Nicole Brown),” she continues. “And even though they have way more money, there’s still that generational divide, and they need to learn from each other. . . . I like having a lot going on because that is what happens at Thanksgiving dinner or at a Christmas dinner. You get into some of those conversations and it's all very messy, but rich, and there's like a quilt happening in families. And I love exploring all of that.”
Joe Morton or Daddy Pope, as he’s best known, as Leah’s egomaniacal father Teddy Franklin, keeps the pot stirred. He and Leah’s relationship is, at best, a power struggle. It’s not all angst though. Love and lust also factor into Our Kind of People. Leah and her husband Raymond, played by Morris Chestnut, are working to get their marriage back on track so there is some delicious banter. Angela, to that end, has steamy exchanges with Tyrique, a wealthy contractor from Martha’s Vineyard played by Lance Gross. These elements are also key to representing us, Gist shares.
“I think it's important for us to see ourselves as beautiful and sexy and free,” says Gist. “And I think that's important to put on TV. I enjoy writing it, watching it and shooting it, and just kind of exposing the world in any way to every piece of our experience on this earth.”
Our Kind of People airs Tuesday nights on FOX