Do the Write Thing 3: Where Community and Creativity Meet

The room at the Aster hotel buzzed with entertainment creatives celebrating the end of the WGA strike after five challenging months. Some of the guests were already writers who were reuniting with colleagues, while others were there to simply mix and mingle and perhaps move toward getting their first job.

It was the third event in a series of gatherings, held Oct. 5 by Hollywood, Health & Society, that focused on the creative BIPOC community. This one featured a conversation with Anthony Sparks, executive producer/writer of Bel-Air (Peacock) and showrunner of Queen Bee (OWN), who shared his insights and experiences in navigating the challenges they might face working in entertainment.

In opening remarks, Kate Folb, director of HH&S, welcomed Eric Haywood, whose credits include Law & Order: Organized Crime, Manifest and Empire, and serves on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America West. One of the 20-plus members on the union’s negotiating committee, Haywood offered a rousing summary of how they arrived at a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), offering insider perspectives and a big-picture view.

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“Nobody goes on strike because it’s cool, or fashionable, or fun, or because you want to be on the picket line,” he said about making no money for half a year.

Haywood acknowledged the power created with SAG-AFTRA’s strike and support from Teamsters and IATSE unions rallying to the cause. The two primary issues were money and working conditions, but everything was on the table from A.I. to health insurance, he explained, acknowledging that with streaming services, it’s become more difficult for writers to make a living. “These strikes are avoidable,” he said. “What we were asking for amounts to about 2 percent of these companies’ net profits.”

“We couldn’t come back to the membership with some magic beans, it had to be worth the sacrifice,” he said.

Haywood referred everyone to the WGA website for the many complicated details and different timelines of the agreement. “There’s something in the air, in the culture,” he suggested about the momentum for workers’ rights the strike may have inspired for unions outside Hollywood, from auto to hotel to medical workers.

“The real heroes are the 11,500 members of the writers’ union.”  

Marty Kaplan, founding director of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, followed, speaking about the center’s 101-year-old namesake, Norman Lear, who led the way with shows in the 1970s that proved that stories matter.

“Stories tell us who we are and who we want to be,” Kaplan said. “Stories tell us how we fall short and how we keep going.” His introduction to the featured guest touched on Sparks’ own story.

”He’s actually Dr. Sparks with a Ph.D. in American Studies & Ethnicity from USC; a distinguished scholar in the areas of race, racism and African American politics as well as performance studies and culture,” Lear said.

Sparks is also a playwright and an actor, who co-starred in the Off-Broadway production of Stomp. He and his wife, Anita Dashiell, are the founding inspiration for the Sparks Center for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, a hub for its diverse artistic community to connect, collaborate and support each other. 

Many of us are committed—individually and collectively—to passing the baton, and not losing the next generation of BIPOC writers, and those who represent diversity, ability and sexuality.”

Serving as moderator, Variety reporter Selome Hailu asked Sparks about his path to Queen Sugar and Bel-Air.

Originally from Chicago’s South Side (via Mississippi), his first exposure to the arts was based in the Black church community through Easter and Christmas plays. He received early encouragement from a Sunday school teacher, who encouraged his writing. 

Sparks described moving from theater to television as a self-taught experience, reading books on the how to write and watching a lot of television. Then his spec scripts opened doors to the Warner Brothers and Disney writing programs. At a crossroads, he took a huge step and moved across the country to Los Angeles.

It took a couple years before he landed a job on a CBS cop show, The District. “It was a great experience. I would not be a showrunner if I hadn’t gotten a very key piece of advice from one of those people: ‘Put your head down and keep doing the work!’ ”

When Selome asked about finding mentors in his life and work, Sparks singled out Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, the executive producer of the ABC Family show Lincoln Heights (for which Sparks won a Sentinel Award), crediting her with showing him how to be a producer.

“She believed in me; saw I really cared about my work and was trying to say things others weren’t,” he said.

McGhee-Anderson, he said, gave him plenty of tough love. 

A mentor doesn’t always say what feels good,” Sparks told the mixer audience. “Sometimes a mentor is not the person you wish it was.”

He cautioned against running after those who happen to be in the spotlight at the moment. “It could be someone else in the writers room,” Sparks said. It was an idea that he would repeat.

He addressed how to deal with working in a difficult situation. “Sometimes you find yourself on a project that isn’t encouraging to your hopes and dreams,” he said.

“Just keep doing your job really well, with the best attitudes you can, and make fans of other people in the office,” Sparks added. “What will be remembered is that you survived. [Learn how to] cultivate your art while not cutting off opportunities.”

In addressing the issue of race, Sparks said that he doesn’t consider himself a writer who just happens to be Black. “I am Black. I’ve been Black a while. That matters to my work. I found myself in some racist environments and I thought I could try to out-charm [the racists]. You can’t.”

When Selome asked how Sparks runs a room differently, he spoke of inclusion, noting that a teacher-student culture is part of the television community.

“Many of us are committed—individually and collectively—to passing the baton, and not losing the next generation of BIPOC writers, and those who represent diversity, ability and sexuality,” he told the group. “We want to make sure that the minimum does not become the maximum.” He takes the role of continuing a rich tradition of diversified artistry seriously, adding a quote from Toni Morrison: “Your real job is actually to hold the door open for someone else.”

When a member of the audience asked about making mistakes, Sparks replied: “You just don’t want them to be fatal mistakes—blatant disrespect or incompetence. Be curious about how to do it right. People will help if you ask. It’s not hard to be a human being and an artist at the same time.”

Having worked hard, he finds that experience and skill also provides the clues to knowing when to seize the right moment and grab the right opportunities.

He recognized that earning a living and getting a job in the industry is the goal, if possible. “But you don’t have to do and say everything that you want to say in life in one script,” he said.

“One of the things I love about being a writer is that all I need is a paper and pen,” Sparks said. “As somebody who grew up kind of poor working class, that means a lot to me. You can do your art without permission.”

As the evening drew to a close, Sparks was joined by his wife, Anita, who is an associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and a professor of theater practice at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. There were photo opps and more questions, and the guests continued to mingle, making new connections and taking his guidance to heart.