AUP EP. 21 Black to the Future

Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

October 3, 2021

Cortney Wills [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our communities and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we are talking to the amazing, the fantastic Erika Alexander, award winning actress producer. We know her from so much work, from The Cosby Show to Run the World, of course, her beloved character of Maxine Shaw on Living Single, and she’s been in this business a long time, so she knows a thing or two about what it’s like to navigate Hollywood as a Black woman. We’re going to find out a little bit about her journey, as well as her latest project, which is to release some really cool stuff. I think some people will be surprised that Erika Alexander, a sci fi buff and that her art spans to that genre and a genre that we as a community have been largely locked out of for a long time, Erika actually created Concrete Park with her husband at the time Tony Puryear. They’ve since divorced, but they’re still partners, and their goal was really to spotlight diversity within the sci fi genre. Erika has partnered up with Curio to drop 7000 NFTs tied to Dark Horses Concrete Park, a science fiction graphic novel that tells the story of young human exiles on a desert planet who live, love, fight and die in a lawless town called Scare City. Before we get into the details of what’s going on in Scare City and what’s going on with this new release, I want to talk about the impetus for even, you know, going down this road.

Erika Alexander [00:01:49] So I’ve been in show biz for now, almost thirty six years since I was a teenager, and when I first got into showbiz, it was through a dramatic independent film in Philadelphia and I was discovered in the basement theater called Freedom Theater. And then after that I got a SAG card and, you know, agent in a way to go. But I saw very quickly that there were very few roles for women of color, especially girls of color or dark skinned girls of color, which I was checking all those boxes. So there were no Ingenue’s, frankly, there Jada Pinkett people like Jada Pinkett or Nia Long, they didn’t even exist yet, and there had been a few in television. You might think of Dee from What’s Happening!! or Thelma from Good Times, but very few. And if you were to play a role, you were playing either a slave, a prostitute or a foster child, which I actually played all those roles in slightly different order. But all three of my first roles were that. I was looking for a way to change that because I saw very quickly that I was limited. And although I didn’t really aspire to be an actress, I thought if I was going to be one, I wanted to play the roles that I saw other people playing at least. And I remember telling my agent that I wanted to be an Ingenue, and he said no one would ever mistake you for Ingenue. And I was 19, so I don’t know what she meant because Ingenue, that’s exactly when you play that if Scarlett Johansson was going to be the damsel in distress and or at least the damsel or the object of people’s desire, it was going to be in her younger years. But I think she was saying it was a backhanded compliment to say, Oh no, you’re much more mature and you, you have the chops and you can do these dramatic roles. But what she was also saying is that, you know, you don’t want to be that, well, what agent would say that to her client at 19? And so what you’re seeing is a person who was frustrated at the beginning, even though I was of a very fortunate crowd, like something like that never happens it off the street. Suddenly you’re discovered. But I also knew that I was limited, so I started seeing that the people who had the power were creators and creators at that time with the producers, the executive producers of the television shows I was on when most famously used Cosby Show. Once I saw the hierarchy of that. I realized that I had to become a creator in order to make a difference in my own career. So I did, but it took me years and years and years to actually gain the discipline and the skill set of being a writer. I married a writer’s things Tony Puryear. He was the first African-American to write a movie that made over 100 million dollars. He’s an excellent writer, his background in advertising and all this other stuff. And he taught me, he said, Erika, are you going to do something? You got to sit your button that chair and finish things. Because I didn’t go to college, I didn’t have any background in sort of these grand projects that weren’t in a structured space like school with an expectation of a deadline or grade. And then when I got hired for television show, they pulled you into a structure that told you what to do, when to eat, where to go, walked you back and forth and set is very regimented. So it took me a while to gain that discipline. And then we went out together with Concrete Park as a series, but we got so much pushback and famously we had a meeting with a studio head that told us when we started to pitch, Tony really would do visual representations of the art. He wasn’t drawing yet kind of books, but he was good at presenting. And when we started talking about Concrete Park, the studio had said, Let me stop you right there. He said Black people don’t like science fiction because they don’t see themselves in the future. We looked at him because it sounded odd. One thing we were two Black people pitching something from the future. So he was telling us you didn’t like it and that we didn’t know our audience. But he also was racist on two fronts because he was also saying that we were only talking to a Black audience, right? And his assumption was racist and biased assumption at that. And he had his reasons for it. But Tony stepped in and said, Let me tell you something for Black people, the past is painful, the present precarious. But the future is free. We always create the future because you took our past away from us. We don’t even own our own names. You don’t even know who we are and everything we created in America. Our culture comes through a present version of a future existence. And so we are the original futurists in America, and we are some of the best culture makers the world has ever seen 13 percent African-Americans. And if he didn’t know there was Octavia Butler, who was a fantastic science fiction writer and Samuel Delaney, and at the time Will Smith was the number one box office fiction star in the world.

Cortney Wills [00:06:23] Chasing aliens.

Erika Alexander [00:06:24] Yeah, Independence Day, Men In Black, all these things. So he was racist, but he was also ignorant. We walked out of there because we pitched this around a lot of places and thought we’d come close, but never really. So Tony said, Oh, forget it, I’ll draw it. And he drew a few panels and sent this these few panels to Mike Richardson of Darkhorse. Mike Richardson is known for being a creator’s supporter. And that’s how he built his whole model in his in his business model to compete with DC and Marvel. And he’s got the Sin City, Three Hundred, Hellboy, all of that. And he said, I’d like to publish this and suddenly we were in the comic books business so we could prove a proof of concept so we could go back to Hollywood and say, See, it works. By the end of the year, we published our first comic, which was in 2013, and we became a best American comic out of the gate. And then later on, Forbes said, We want the best graphic novels in America, so you can see Cortney. We were trying to find a way around this big mountain and ended up going to a whole other industry because it was about engagement, but also DIY. It was do it yourself. It was inexpensive enough that we could actually make something. And then time you need time, some time to catch up with you. And that’s what happened. The internet happened. Diversity happen. You hear a lot of people paying lip service to diversity, hiring and development. But to actually address it in Hollywood, you have to reckon with the ongoing systemic bias. Is it racism right? And executives who anticipated this huge audience change that was coming, whether they liked it or not, the global collaborations, all these things. They’re thrilled because they were on it. It’s multiracial. It’s not homogenous. It’s a grassroots movement. All of that. And they were demanding change and we were already in that flow. So why do we do this? We did this because there was no room at the end for our baby Jesus. And there you go.

Cortney Wills [00:08:21] Now that we’ve had this, you know, supposed renaissance, right? This demand for not only diversity in the studio heads and as the decision makers, but diversity on screen diversity of the kinds and colors and shapes and sizes and backgrounds of the Black people that we see and the stories that we’re telling. There’s a lot of lip service, but what is it actually shaking out to and what did it take to get here? It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen because of Black Panther. It didn’t happen because of George Floyd. It’s been a slow burn for a long time, and I absolutely think that you as an artist and this project is a prime example of what doing the work actually looks like and what it took. And like you said, there was no room at the inn, but you kind of like went off the map and found another way in here. And you did it before it was cool, before it was trendy, before we had Lovecraft getting 18 nominations. Still not enough wins. And I think that it’s important to highlight where we’ve been in order to see where we’re going. There have been people chipping away at those barriers to entry for a long time. Do you ever reach a point where it feels like, OK, like I’ve made enough progress to where these things aren’t so hard people are listening to me now? Or is it always kind of feel like an uphill battle, no matter what?

Erika Alexander [00:09:47] Oh, it’s uphill and a battle. I mean, you need new platforms to be born. You need new executives to have vision. You need people to take chances and know that it’s not a chance that it’s not risky business, that it should be a business model. It should be the way to go. It’s the way to to to break ground and be pioneers, to do things that other people aren’t doing not be where everybody is. And although I appreciate that I am, I guess, having, you know, resurrection of some sort, it’s because the business had closed down to Black faces. It wasn’t just me, it was everybody. It’s famous that Kerry Washington was the first Black woman since Diahann Carroll to have a show with a Black woman, and I got to give props to Jada Pinkett, who was on cable with her show, The Nurse Show. But for other than that, it had not happened, and they segregated television after the huge success of The Cosby Show, Living Single, Fresh Prince. All these shows that came different world and family matters. They did it against their own interests, and that’s how insidious racism and bias and prejudice is. It will absolutely destroy your own successful business model. And after 2000, all of those things went away, and we had not just a shift in entertainment in the industry, but a shift in politics shift in everything. And then by the time Obama came back, you know, there was a feeling that there would be a new day, but there still weren’t the people there that we needed, like people needed to grow older. Some of the young people who are there now, people like Rikin and wanted even been they were in college, you know, they they needed to be in a position to make the change. And so here I am, working all these years, you know, from teenage to young adult to all these things waiting for these people to have the the vision in the power, also foresight to to do it. So I’m appreciative and I love, by the way, I want to say something real quick about Watchmen and Lovecraft. Fantastic. Amazing stuff. I’m a fan and a friend of Regina and really loved the new creators that are getting the breakthrough careers for this. But both of those IPs are not owned by Black people. That’s real, neither is Black Panther but Concrete Park is Concrete Park is creator owned, and we’re having a totally different engagement with our audience.

Cortney Wills [00:12:18] What influenced you as you create this world of Concrete Park? Like what in the sci fi genre throughout your life? Were you consuming that made you such a fan and that made you want to create something in that space?

Erika Alexander [00:12:30] I live in a world of imagination. I want to go places that are new. I’m known as the maverick because that’s like an old cow that keeps getting away from its herd.

Cortney Wills [00:12:41] Not old cow Erika. Can you pick something else.

Erika Alexander [00:12:45] I like cow. I mean, you know, I just want to be a part of something that’s new where you can be new. When we first started to do Concrete Park. We were stuck in a space where everybody had to be hip hop out and you couldn’t even re-imagine what that type of individual could be. It was stuck in a misogynistic world, stuck in a homophobic world. All these sort of things sort of applied to that world. I thought, these people are so much more. My generation is so much more. I grew up with people who are on their shows now, Reza and know Latifa, and they weren’t Reza and Latifa. He was Bobby and she was Dana. And, you know, we were all coming up in and finding ourselves. And yet every time you went out, somebody had the stereotypical vision of what our futures looked like, which were, you know, again riddled with all the crime and the melodrama. And this is this all the all the things that go go with being Black or of color. And that was too limiting. But in space in the future, in science fiction especially, it’s a way to talk about the now. Science fiction is just a replacement for all the things we’re dealing with in the now, but in the future, we can be a shapeshifter. We can be an alien. We can be multi gendered. We can be, can be other than we are. So if Gene Roddenberry was onto anything, he wanted to solve the race problem by putting together a multicultural ship to go boldly to new worlds and new civilizations where no man had gone before. But he was talking about the now the sixties and all the pain and frustration that he must have felt. Looking at the fact that we couldn’t get ourselves together around something as simple as a tone change in our skin. It’s absurd are cultural differences, which were very closely linked to each other. If we look, you know, whether we’re looking at the eastern traditions and or the Asian traditions or African traditions, they’re all closely aligned. I mean, because we all from one person, eventually we’re just human. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do is to tell a human story and make it human sized. And I think whatever gets us that engagement in those conversations will do it.

Cortney Wills [00:14:52] What do you think makes us feel so powerful when we are able to see ourselves and identify with heroes and people with supernatural abilities and things that stretch our imagination? Why do you think that we crave that so much?

Erika Alexander [00:15:06] It’s often done in the dark. There are tons of people who have been working inside of this space in speculative fiction and science fiction for ever, and it’s just a matter of having the powerful platform to amplify. And that’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing again, new platforms and new companies emerge in order to tell a different story. But we do seem to be in a moment. And there’s a greater awareness in Hollywood about many of the things you’re talking about and issues that we deal with in Concrete Park. You talk about race, mass incarceration, you talk about gender differences, tribalism, all these things. And the discussion is not. Who would want to see a show about that, it’s we hear you have a show about that and that’s a big welcome change and we’re glad to be here to see it. A lot of people died and they did not see it, but they worked toward it. And we always tip our hat to those people Black, white and otherwise who worked to see this moment. And we talk a lot about Black again. But there’s brown people out there of different faiths and genders, and again, cultures that need to be seen and have powerful stories and visions. And I keep every, every time I see something new like that come out, I get goose bumps and want to cry because that changes everything. If we can see the Haitians being whipped back into a nasty, watery gorge, clutching food and being screamed at, that’s because we told horrible stories up to this point. We said that you could do that. You could get on horseback and whip people, you know, away from you who are looking for help and comfort. And that’s unacceptable. But that’s where we’re at now. So this generation, which is part of the third reconstruction, hang out with Reverend Barber, who talks about the first reconstruction, second reconstruction after the Martin Luther Kings death and the third reconstruction. Then we are the architects of it, and we should take this very seriously and know that there’s going to be some sacrifice. We’re going to have late nights and early mornings that we’re going to miss our families, that we’ve got to get it right. These are the new channels we’ll talk about ABC and CBS and all these places. They could be gone soon. They won’t exist. You know, the things that are online are what will exist. It’s a place to go and find culture and creative stuff and have the engagement directly with the consumer. That’s frickin huge. And you can own some of it, too. That’s not like a bad deal. So not only do we need to see ourselves in the future, we need to make the future. And we need to own it.

Cortney Wills [00:17:45] NFT is tied to Dark Horses Concrete Park. There are 7000 of them. They actually just launched this week, and they’re the first of their kind. It marks the first generative art project, NFTs to date. They’re from Curio. That’s the NFT platform where you can get them. Also joining me today is the COO of Curio Rikin Mantri, who’s going to help us understand what exactly NFTs are, why we should want them, why they’re valuable. I needed someone to break it down for me, and they are going to do just that.

Rikin Mantri [00:18:22] An NFT, and it stands for non-fungible token, which is a weird word. Fungibility is one of those things. Where can you replace one for one? So if you have a dollar and I have a dollar, they’re fungible because everyone knows that that has the same value. Right? When is nonfungible? That means that if I have one piece of art and another owns a piece of art, they are actually not the same premise. If you take a step back, even from that in the digital world, all it is really is a digital certificate of authenticity that digital certificate of authenticity. We know this if you have like a physical art piece, you’re like, Oh, I have a paper that says this is the actual authentic. It’s done by the art is done by the painter or the artist and so forth. And in the digital world, it’s really hard to track that because it lives in ones and zeroes. And so one of these things that the NFT provides is that certificate of authenticity. And it’s tracked, it’s tracked on a what’s called a blockchain. All of this is kind of a directory. It’s like, Co  rtney, you own this, right? It’s just a tracking mechanism to keep track of ownership across digital channels. And so when we think about NFTs in the entertainment space, we think about it in terms of digital connections. So connections between the creator, artist and the fan. And so because you have those digital connections and they’re tracked, you actually have a fixed supply of those. For example, if I’m releasing 7000 NFTs, that means that I have 7000 people that have digital connections with my piece of art. And so there’s no like, Oh, but you can take a picture of it and put on a camera. But there’s no certificate of authenticity to that. Right? Another really good example that I like to use is the Mona Lisa. So the Mona Lisa has, you know, there’s one Mona Lisa lives in the louver. I have poster art. You know, I can go to the museum, shop and buy one. I can also take a picture of my camera. And if I take a picture of my camera and I put it up and I blow it up and I put it on my wall. People get to be like, You don’t own the Mona Lisa. I know where the Mona Lisa lives. And you know that because of that certificate of authenticity. Similarly, in digital, in these digital connections, people. And check who owns what? On blockchain or on the ledger. And so that those 7000 avatars at any given point, I can actually see the ownership of that.

Cortney Wills [00:20:56] Thank you for that explanation. I have a couple of follow ups. So Mona Lisa, great example. And in my research, that’s kind of what I came up with. It’s like art. You know, you can replicate art. You can have copies of art, but there are only so many originals. What is the value of having the original of a piece of content, a book, a movie, a song? If indeed, you know, even I think to the masses, what is the value of paying the money to have the real original if you just want to look at it, if you just want to listen to it? You know you can get it. And it’s not authentic, but it delivers everything you need of the art. So what is the value of an NFT as a consumer why? If I’m the biggest Erika Alexander fan in the world, why do I want the NFT of this and not the rip off that I’m sure is coming?

Rikin Mantri [00:21:51] Yeah. So that’s a really important part of why we work with entertainment properties to create these digital connections. Because you have the digital connection, you have the NFT of it. There’s a sense of community, right? So that community aspect and that fan community, now you can actually because you have those connections, you can actually have a dialog between your fans directly. And so that’s different than being like, Oh, well, I just have a picture of something because I don’t have that dialog with the artist or the creator. And so that’s where it becomes interesting, particularly for Concrete Park, you know, I’ll let Erika, speak to this, you know, with graphic novels now that we’re creating avatars of those graphic novels. Not only do you self-identify with the avatar and you can showcase and what we call flex, you know, show them our social media and all of that. You also have this connection to the artists. So then when the new version of the graphic novel comes out, who am I going to pre-rerelease it to? I’m going to give it to the 7000 houlders that I have. I’m going to do things for that community to invite them into my world and have that ability. I don’t have to go through Instagram. I don’t have to go through Facebook. I can go directly to them, to the holders of the NFTs to actually get that dialog going. And so that’s what’s super interesting about this technology.

Cortney Wills [00:23:12] It’s like a fan club, like an old school when you were like a member of somebody’s actual fan club and you get the posters first and the calendar’s first and the, you know, the first edition of the T-shirts for, you know, new kids on the block, right? Right?

Rikin Mantri [00:23:27] Yeah. It’s like a fan club. It’s like who you identify with, like now, you know, other members of the community because they also have the NFTs. So you feel like you’re special. You also are to get prerelease content, access to certain events, and it carries over not only just in the digital world, but you can also use the NFT as kind of a passport to access physical events. And so we’re on the cusp. This is the very beginning of where this is going to evolve.

Erika Alexander [00:23:52] You know, I’m going to go back again to Curio. And why it matters its because out of the three founders, two of them are of color. There’s Rikin, and there’s also Juan who’s Mexican. And so when we’re having these conversations, they are invested in their invest in seeing this success because they want to tell their cultural story as cultural Americans, you know, inside of that. And then Ben, who is Jewish, understands being an outsider and an outsisider because of the way the Jewish people have had to basically be like gypsies and be persecuted. So there’s a lot of real investment from the creators and founders of the place that came to us and said, Hey, we feel like this could be successful. And so a lot of props and people should know that. I think that it really matters. Provenance and the provenance here in the pedigree is real. We did this because NFTs are unique, as Rikin and said, digital collectibles, you can invest and trade in them and it is cool to be part of community. But each one of them has value. And if you ask what’s the difference between, you know, having a picture of a Basquiat picture and owning a Basquiat picture, then you don’t know who Basquiat is. It’s always better to have the original. And so that’s what you get. You get a piece of the original and you get a dialog and a conversation with the community and the creators. As long as you hold that piece of art and that’s what the digital engagement is about, it’s a transformation. It’s a pixelated experience where you can own your world in your pocket. The whole place could fall apart. You could be in Texas and everything be flooded out, but you still have those. So I think that that’s a powerful place to be.

Cortney Wills [00:25:28] It feels like a bit of a new frontier in art and in entertainment to be able to invite the community in to be a part of something and to kind of treat art like art, TVs streaming. Now things are so fast things are on your. Own things are not tangible, and I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that, like this work comes from somewhere. This work that we’re talking about now, Concrete Park came from your brain. You know, you created this like you said, and that absolutely has a lot of value that now it seems like there might be a way for us to get in on. And that’s really cool.

Rikin Mantri [00:26:07] Yeah, and we think about NFTs even just early on as a new storytelling vehicle. That’s when we were looking for folks to partner with who he met with Erika and Tony. They’re like, they had this universe that they had already built. But this is a new storytelling vehicle, and having those digital connections I mentioned is really exciting. You know, I mentioned all three of the founders are sons of immigrants. We aren’t creating our own American story. The artists and the creators continue on every kind of transaction. They continue to get a payment. So it’s in perpetuity. So when I pass it down to my kids and say my kids are like, Hey, I want to sell it, and it’s worth a lot of money, it would still go to Erikas foundation or trust or however she wants to go to it.

Erika Alexander [00:26:47] Cortney that where you’ve seen the rubber meets the road. Now artists have a way to remain in the cash flow of their art. When Basquiat sold a piece of art going back to him, if it sold for $10000 or whatever, that’s what he got. When it went to two million, he didn’t get anything. It was already out there in art market. Not with this. You’re always on that ledger. Remember how he said. You can find it. Well, it’s linking up a certain amount of those moneys back to the creators. You know how interesting that is and fascinating and groundbreaking that now people who were outside of those cars, they were starving in poverty, yet their art was doing well, are now able to say, I have a way to to not only have an engagement directly with a buyer and or, you know, a person who’s but also to get paid. That’s groundbreaking, and I can’t wait to see what happens because all these middle people kind of fall away and you have more of a pure sort of interaction and nothing’s perfect. But I think I’ll take it where you you know what you are. And I think that that’s huge. That’s huge. You talk about generational wealth, you talk about wealth that’s ongoing. You talk about when you’re not doing so well, what’s paying the bills? That’s the difference. And that’s why NFTs are the future.

Cortney Wills [00:28:00] Awesome. And how much do they cost?

Rikin Mantri [00:28:02] They’re going to be at a price point that’s relatively accessible. We’re actually measuring it in ETH, which is .2. So it’s around sixty dollars, $60.

Erika Alexander [00:28:12] This Curious Launch of Concrete Park Bangers Bangers is the world’s first officially licensed generative art enough to project. So it’s a world first, too. And so we’re really excited about that, and we are partnered alongside Black Girls Code, and they’re going to be helping us create a unique character and also have a contest within the organization. And 10 percent of the proceeds goes to the organization. So it’s a really good thing.

Cortney Wills [00:28:37] Thank you both for taking so much time to fill me in on this. Educate me on this. Truly, this has been just such such a pleasure. So thank you all.

Erika Alexander [00:28:44] Thank you for taking Cortney and keep doing where you are. It’s important that you’re out there to support, and I appreciate it. We don’t take it for granted. Thank you.

Cortney Wills [00:28:55] Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to podcasts@theGrio.com. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up, check us out on Instagram @actingup.pod.