Power Showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh Talks Season Two, Genre and the Myth Of “Masculine” TV

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One of the most interesting things about this particular time in America is that there is a collective questioning of labels and binary oppositions. However, as some of us learned from Derrida and Foucault, just because everyone’s talking, it doesn’t mean we have free and open discourse. And in the end, we are still very much defined by our labels in society, and, in arts and entertainment, by genres.

So let’s clear up a few mis-labels. Power is not a black show. Power is not a “masculine show” and, just because a woman is the showrunner, Power is not a show specifically for women. Similarly, just because Curtis Jackson AKA 50 Cent is a producer, Power is not a show geared towards fans of rap. Of course, like most rumors, each of these things that Power is not, is also a reflection of something that Power is. The main cast is made up of many characters of color; there is a violent, drug world at the center of much of the narrative; there are scenes and characters that many women will connect with; and yes, Drake, Lil Wayne and Pusha T were all heard via tracks in the Season Two opener. But there’s a little thing called “nuance” and Courtney Kemp Agboh handles it beautifully, all while dismantling your pre-conceived notions of genre, audience and TV storytelling. Paste caught up with the journalist-turned TV writer-turned showrunner to talk about the new season, so-called feminine TV vs. masculine TV and pulling from personal experience as a creative approach.

Paste Magazine: First off, congratulations on those premiere numbers.
Courtney Kemp Agboh: Yes, thank you. It’s really exciting!

Paste: I was on your Facebook page earlier and one commenter said something about the Season Two premiere that really struck me: “It is pregnant with so many possibilities.” That’s how I felt about the show from the first few episodes—like it could really go in a number of directions, and it didn’t want to be pinned down as any one thing. Was this your intention when you first started imagining and creating Power?
Agboh: Absolutely. My intention was that it was never going to fit into just one genre. We were always going to have the crime elements, and the romantic elements and the soapier elements—you’d have the family elements and the cops and robbers. I always wanted to make a show that had everything I wanted to watch, as opposed to just one or two things.

Paste: You’ve talked about your background in literature and growing up as an avid reader—these are usually the beginning signs of a good writer. Can you talk about one of the first scenes you wrote for the show, and what that experience was like getting into the story?
Agboh: One of my favorite scenes from the beginning was the one in the pilot with Ghost, Tommy, Miguel and Maria in the basement of [the club] Truth. There was just something about Ghost interrogating someone and offering them the opportunity to get out of a bad situation. It allowed you to see the differences between Ghost and Tommy. They were both willing to use deadly force, but Ghost’s version was more logical. It was fun to write, like when Ghost says, “They had you steal from the wrong motherfuckers tonight,” there’s a musicality there that I always loved about his language.

Writing Ghost now is easier, because there’ve been 18 episodes. But prior to that I wrote several drafts of an outline, so it really is a process of getting to know the character. And after a while Omari Hardwick’s voice also brought out part of it.

Paste: You and 50 Cent make a strong team, and it’s interesting to see how you both represent different aspects of Ghost’s character—and not necessarily in the obvious ways people might think. One of the biggest draws to Ghost is that he’s straddling two worlds—it’s very Don Draper-like, where he wants to shed his past, but can’t. How did some of that mirror your own personal experience, growing up in Westport, Connecticut and wanting to get to New York to be—as you’ve said—”where all the black people were.”
Agboh: (laughs) Yes, that experience of having to straddle an identity definitely comes from being one of the only black people around. It was a really difficult struggle and it wasn’t one that I could really talk about with anyone. My parents were 30 years older than I was, and my parents had my brother and I ten years apart. My parents grew up in segregation, and they both lived in all-black neighborhoods and grew up with large black families. I didn’t have any of that, and I didn’t understand feeling so differently and being treated so differently. I really felt isolated, and some of that isolation is definitely in Ghost’s character. And it’s also in Tommy’s character—he talks about being the only white kid in his neighborhood.

Paste: It’s interesting because by the time you got around some majority black communities, you probably didn’t quite fit in there either.
Agboh: Oh, I didn’t fit in at all. At all! My parents raised me on Earth, Wind & Fire, and Teddy Pendergrass and Stevie Wonder so I had all of that music—but the current music of the time I was completely separated from. So it was really hard to adjust, and that didn’t change until I was in college.

In college I didn’t know whether to hang out with the black kids or the white kids, and then I found the theatre kids and I was like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” We were all weird, and listening to Morrissey and wearing Doc Martens, so that was my tribe. Instead of finding my tribe within race, I found it within other storytellers, poets, actors, other singers—because I was a singer. I found it within art. I had to figure out that finding my place was not about race, but about creativity, and connecting with other artists helped me find my voice. And then I started dating my now-husband who was a wide receiver on the football team, and after a while you fall into the black community that way (laughs).

Paste: And after all that, once again, you’re in a unique position as a black woman showrunner. Do you see Starz as a network that—in addition to just making great shows— is actively trying to address the diversity problem in Hollywood?
Agboh: If Power had not been a good show, they wouldn’t have bought it. Whether or not I was attached, or 50 was attached didn’t matter. [Starz CEO Chris Albrecht] admits freely that when I came in there and pitched the show, that he knew this was an underserved audience and also that he knew how to serve the audience. He’d already done that several times over. So he was especially attracted to the project because it would bring in this demographic.

I also created a show that has such universal themes, that hopefully it’s for everyone. You have to sell a traditional group of executives on a show that feels different, and it has to have universal themes for you to do that. It can’t be so specific.

People are finding over and over again that when they serve a diverse community, they build numbers. But a lot of times, then the agenda changes. FOX did that, UPN did, the WB. They use those underserved audiences to open up the network, extract those numbers and then they move on to other content. I don’t think Starz is doing that. Starz isn’t trying to put up a flag, to then move on. They’re committed to trying to tell these stories.

Paste: Yes, I see that too.
Agboh: But that said, the relevant color is never black or white—the relevant color is always green. No one is doing this out of the goodness of their hearts (laughs). No one is putting this show on the air because they feel that people should be more represented. They feel like there’s an audience, and that audience will come.

Paste: Omari Hardwick is so great to watch for a lot of reasons, some of which might make for uncomfortable viewing with a significant other. But really, he’s incredibly talented and in addition to those hotter scenes, I love seeing how he plays those quieter moments. Watching him bring Ghost to life, have there been any times where he really surprised you, or did something with the role that you weren’t expecting?
Agboh: He’s so good. He’s so versatile. In the first episode of Season Two, in that scene where Tommy tells him he has to kill Angela, he has to communicate to Tommy just with his face that he didn’t know. He didn’t know about Angela. The writing required these two actors to really go in this space of real family and real brotherhood. There’s nothing that Ghost can cay to make Tommy believe him. So there’s this extreme close-up on Omari’s face and when Tommy says, “You didn’t know,” you believe that Tommy believes him. It’s an incredibly important moment for the two of them as actors.

Paste: Speaking of quieter moments, I have to say that one of my favorite scenes of the entire series so far has to be the cooking scene in Season One’s “Loyalty”—where Angela and Paz are making dinner for James. It’s such a great moment of intimacy between the two sisters and it makes the disappointment for Angela all the more palpable. In addition to the darkness and grittiness of the show, there’s some real romance here. How do you and the writers work to actively deliver both aspects of this narrative?
Agboh: This was a really interesting thing, because while were developing the show there were some people who asked, “Well, why does Angela need a sister?” I said that women need to see women [characters] bond with other women. We understand female characters on television through their relationships with other women. The first season of Grey’s Anatomy was so brilliant because the relationships between those women—Christina, Meredith and Izzie—really worked. And the relationships were among people who were competitive. While working on The Good Wife, the relationship between Alicia and Kalinda—that really grew in the first seasons, and it was really powerful. So I had to fight for Paz to be in the show because some people did not understand why she was so important. About that scene I’ll also add that the only thing worse than being stood up is having a witness to your being stood up.

Now some people say the show is very masculine. And I always laugh because the show is not masculine—the show has men in it.

Paste: There’s a difference!
Agboh: There’s a huge difference. You don’t have to be a soap or a crime show. You can be both. And it doesn’t become a “female show” because there are two women in a scene talking together. Overall there’s this very sexist idea that men cannot abide by just watching a woman on television. I think we should give men more credit.

Paste: In the premiere I love that Kanan is out and that we get to see what a live wire he is. I’m very curious to know if we’ll get to see him and Tommy in the same room together, because I see those characters operating on similarly wild playing fields. 
Agboh: Yes, a big element of the season moving forward is the three-way relationship between Ghost, Kanan and Tommy.

Paste: I know you can’t reveal too much, but what do you think audiences will be most surprised by with this new season?
Agboh: The intensity. I mean, the show just never lets up. It might even be one of those shows that eventually becomes uncomfortable to watch. And whatever you thought was coming—if it shows up—it’s going to be a harder hit than anticipated.

Paste: The first season had a nice slow burn to it, and by the end I felt like things were going to get really explosive. So, I’m excited! Thanks so much for this.
Agboh: Thank you.

Power airs Saturday nights at 9PM on Starz.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.