When I learned I would have the opportunity to interview actress Essence Atkins, the first thing I did was head over to her Twitter page hoping to find out what the Brooklyn-born beauty has been up to these days. What initially caught my eye was a retweet from a fan, which read: “Essence Atkins is having morning sex. This is the first scene. I’m sold.”
It was obvious that the tweeter had gotten his first taste of “Ambitions,” the latest drama to be added to the OWN line-up, which Atkins stars alongside Robin Givens and Brian White. In its premiere episode, Amara, played by Atkins, and Titus, played by Kendrick Cross, engage in a sensual love scene filled with rear-end kisses and other things that you’ll have to watch to witness for yourself. However, in cringe-worthy fashion, the foreplay comes to an abrupt end as a highly uncomfortable exchange between the lovers ensues. The lingering discomfort that is thrust onto viewers during this opening scene offers a snapshot into the complex and sometimes emotionally exhausting relationship shared by Titus and Amara following her adulterous affair.
“It’s just complicated times,” Atkins told MadameNoire of her character’s relationship. “They love each other and have been married for over 20 years. It’s really about where do we go from here? They’re trying to rebuild their marriage. Their daughter is off at boarding school, which sort of gives them the time and space to work things out.”
Interestingly, recovering from the U.S. attorney’s infidelity is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to complications in Amara and Titus’ relationship. There are also a host of other skeletons that threaten the couple’s pursuit of restoration and marital bliss.
“Brian White plays a fictitious mayor of Atlanta, Evan Lancaster. He is married to Robin Given’s character Stephanie Lancaster,” Atkins explained. “The show begins with my character, Amara, who just moved back to Atlanta. She’s a former Spelmanite and a sorority sister of Stephanie. We have a falling out and rich history. My husband, Titus, was Stephanie’s first love. Our worlds collide and intertwine because now I am a United States attorney investigating his office, which is accused of corruption.”
This wouldn’t be the first time the “Are We There Yet?” actress has helped to bring the complexities of love and marriage to the small screen. In 2017, she starred in the sitcom “Marlon,” which tackled the topic of co-parenting after divorce. Sadly, the series was not picked up for a third season.
“Sometimes you find out about cancellations in the most bizarre ways. For example, when I found out that ‘Half & Half’ was canceled because the network went away – it was bought. We were flourishing, number two in the network, and had just finished our fourth season,” Essence confessed. “My financial advisor was the one that said, ‘Wall Street is going crazy over news that your network is going away.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ So thankfully, we found out from the people who love us. Marlon and his producing partner, Rick Alvarez, called us and told us that the network had decided not to pick us up for another season. It was devastating.”
Though she admits the cancellation was heartbreaking, Atkins shared that she’s also immensely proud of the work she and Wayans — her friend of nearly 25 years — were able to create. The series holds a special place in her heart because she credits the role with helping her heal from during her divorce.
“I love and adore him [Wayans] and respect and admire him so much. He has been instrumental in helping me heal and helping me restart my life. Literally, I filed for divorce in January of 2016 and February — three weeks later — I was playing his ex-wife on a show that was going to deal with divorce and how you remain a family without being together.”
Both Atkins and Wayans, who is also a co-parent, felt it was especially important to tell a story that accurately portrayed the realities of parenting post-divorce.
“Telling that story through the lens of love and the lens of humor, I felt that we have kind of taken on this mission. He also has two children and he is successfully co-parenting with his ex and so we both felt really passionate and committed to telling this story of the complications and what can be very and funny awkward moments of having this rich, long-term history with someone and you’re not together anymore but you don’t really know how to not be together and how lines get blurred,” said Essence, who earned an NAACP Image Awards nod for her role in the series.
As for co-parenting in her personal life, Atkins says that she and ex-husband, Jaime Mendez, have managed to navigate the complexities of co-parenting by prioritizing providing a stable, consistent environment for their son above all else.
“We share a son and for us, it’s been paramount to give him as much peace and consistency as possible, which isn’t easy. I’m an actress,” she went on, “my schedule changes at a moment’s notice. But I have an ex-husband, who is such a devoted father, and understands to an extent the nature of what my schedule can sometimes look like and is responsive and helpful in making adjustments to accommodate and make sure that our son is taken care of and not too much wavers for him and that he has consistency.”
In addition to working together to ensure that their son has stability as far as scheduling and routines are concerned, Atkins said they’re also committed to shielding their son from the toxicity that often comes with break-ups and divorce.
“That has really been the mindset that we’ve both taken on and that’s been incredibly helpful for everyone involved, but I think the main objective has to be creating the least toxic environment for the child,” she added
For this reason, the actress advised that despite the emotional turmoil that often follows divorce and break-ups, co-parents should take special care not to undermine or speak poorly of their child’s other parent as this will only damage the child in the long run.
“In you, they see themselves. In their mother, they see themselves. In their father, they see themselves. I will be the first woman my son has ever loved. His father will be the first man and example of who he has ever loved. It’s important not to undermine that because it’s ultimately detrimental to the child,” said the 47-year-old. “You’re undermining their own self-confidence, their own self-worth, their own love of themselves. I think it’s really important – unless it’s an abusive situation – to remain cooperative and continue to put that needs, health, and well-being of that child or children first.”
Of course, parents are human and divorce hurts. So you should you definitely vent your frustrations to someone. However, she advised that this someone be a therapist or a trusted friend.
“Vent to a therapist. Vent to a trusted ally. It’s no longer about and it never can be about being right. It has to be about being partners in making sure that the child or children are being looked after and taken care of. Winning the argument – you guys lost. You’ve both lost the thing that you thought you were going to have, which was your marriage. You’ve already failed at something. In divorce, you have a chance to succeed in a way that you didn’t succeed as partners. You can still succeed as parents and I think you commit to that with your whole heart.”
Catch “Ambitions” on OWN Tuesdays at 10 p.m.