“Work Your Way Up”: ‘Power’ Showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh Talks Making It In The TV Industry
Meet Courtney Kemp Agboh, co-creator, Executive Producer and showrunner for the Starz hit crime drama Power. Agboh, a Brown University graduate whose early days started in journalism, built her career in the writing chair with gigs working on shows like The Bernie Mac Show and The Good Wife. Power, which stars Omari Hardwick, Naturi Naughton, Joseph Sikora, and Lela Loren, was recently renewed for a 10-episode third season and airs in more than 175 countries and territories worldwide. (50 Cent is a producer on the show.)
We chatted with Agohb about her experience as a woman of color in the TV industry, advice she has for aspiring writers, why she’s tired of people comparing the show to Empire, and her hopes for the show’s larger impact.
MadameNoire (MN): What has been your experience as a woman of color in the TV industry?
Courtney Kemp Agboh (CKA): Obviously I am Black and female all the time. You can’t really separate the two. I was recently quoted in Entertainment Weekly saying it was harder to be a woman than it was to be Black. They cut off the part where I meant as showrunner for Power. When people watch Power and they find out the showrunner is Black, it’s not surprising. What is surprising is that I am a woman and my background is not particularly urban. We use the word “urban” to mean Black or Latino but that’s not what the word means. It actually means “from the city.” I’m not from the city. I’m from the suburbs of Connecticut. I grew up with mostly all White people.
My experience as a Black woman in the industry is simply that often I was the only one in the room. Often I would be the only woman AND the only person of color. Sometimes I would be one of several women but the only person of color. Sometimes I would be one of several people of color, but the only woman.
I really wanted to do one-hour drama. I did not want to write specifically stories about people of color. I was interested in making a long career that looks (on paper) like anyone else’s career. If you look at my resume, it does not indicate my race at all. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go the other route (and there will be more opportunities to go the other route now), but I think playing it safe and being around people who are like you is not going to give you the career you want. You have to get comfortable really quickly with being places alone.
MN: How did you hone your ability to create stories and characters that appeal?
CKA: It’s a tough thing. There’s a difference between talent and skill. You might have writing talent, but skill is learned. You have to practice. I remain teachable. I was sure that I didn’t know everything. People who work with me will tell you I don’t think I know everything. I watch people sink around me thinking that they knew everything. Or, that they showed up and thought their talent was enough.
You have to learn skills. I was fortunate and worked for great showrunners like Greg Berlanti, Michelle King, Jeff Melvin, and Yvette Lee Bowser (who created Living SIngle and is one of my mentors.) All of them taught me different skills. Some of those are writing skills. John Eisendrath (who runs The Black List) and I worked together briefly on My Own Worst Enemy. John knows more about story structure and reversals and where you need them in a story. He is so great at that. I really learned. It’s important to be open to different styles and to recognize that the medium and the message are not the same thing. Sometimes someone who may not be like you or may not agree with your point of view has a lot to teach you.
I think people (especially younger people) are vested in the instant gratification culture. If I write something, it’s good and it’s fast. I can just put it up. It’s [the world] of self-publishing. You press “tweet” and it’s there. It takes a long time to get to be good. I still have a long way until I think that I am good. I would also say any comparison between me and Shonda Rhimes is wrathful. Shonda is the Dick Wolfe of our generation. Shonda is an industry. I am one Black woman with one little show. Whenever people bring it up, I feel like I have to say don’t. I’m so irrelevant to her in what I’m doing and what she’s able to accomplish on a grand scale.
MN: Are people quick to compare you with Shonda Rhimes because the industry for Black showrunners is so small?
CKA: Yeah, that’s why people bring it up. I had one person say to me, “Has Shonda Rhimes opened any doors?” I’ve been asked that multiple times. Shonda and I have never met. She never opened the door for me at all, but Greg Berlanti and Robert and Michelle King did. They don’t look like me. They helped me get where I am.
In order to survive, human beings (like any other animal group)… we identify our own and then we go and are safe with them. Sometimes people think because people look like each other, that’s what engenders community. It doesn’t always.
I try to go out of my way to help young women, young women of color, and young people of color in general because I feel that is my responsibility. My parents raised me as “each one teach one.” As you go up the ladder, reach behind for those behind you. You can’t expect people to help you because they look like you.
MN: What is a good path to get on if you want to eventually be a showrunner on a hit show like Power?
CKA: My answer is not popular because it’s not about instant gratification. The path to get on is to get somebody’s coffee. You’ve got to go and start at the bottom. Work in the mailroom at an agency. If you really want to be a writer, the best thing to do is get that writer’s PA job where you are going to get everyone’s lunch every day and you are answering the phone. That’s how you get exposed to writers. In the industry, there are two ways to get a television writing job. You either get an agent and the agent sends you out for writing gigs. Or, you meet other writers and they go, “Hey, you know who I know…” and they make a phone call for you. You get the interview that way.
Write constantly. You have to always be writing. There’s no excuse for not having multiple scripts. Not just pilots. You have to have that but you need to have specs for it. I won’t hire you off of your pilot. I’m not interested in whether or not you can write a great piece of material that is about characters you created. That’s not what I’m hiring you for. I’m hiring you to write Power. Most of the job that television writers do is writing someone else’s show. I have eight writers. They are writing my show. When I was on The Good Wife, I was writing Robert and Michelle’s show. You have to go in and have that humility and skill set.
My assistant, the woman who worked for me the last three years… I promoted her to writer’s assistant now. She’s in the writer’s room on Power doing the notes. In time, I’ll promote her to staff writer and she will be a television writer. I promote from within. Some people don’t. Find out who those people are. To me, there’s no way to do it from outside.
I say 15 percent of people are so talented they can cold-send their script to an agent and somehow it will get read. With the other 85 percent (which includes me), you’ve got to work your way up. I didn’t do my coffee getting in the television industry. I was an editorial assistant at Mademoiselle. After that, I was a editorial assistant, then assistant editor at GQ. I worked my way up.
Here’s why this is important: If lightning struck and you were able to write a script that someone wanted to buy and make into a TV show today and you had no television writing experience up until that point, they would give you a showrunner who would run the show. You wouldn’t be the boss of your show. That’s why you have to work your way up. People don’t see that. I had 10 years of television experience before they let me run my own show.
MN: Some people have compared Power to Empire. How has the show Power pushed you as a writer to remain authentic?
CKA: It’s hard. That Empire comparison is frustrating. I find that we (as people of color) are doing this thing to ourselves that we always say we resist, which is the ghettoization. If you continue to compare Power and Empire, what is that conversation about? That conversation is about two shows that are completely different but have Black people in them. Instead of comparing Empire to great long-standing soaps like Dynasty or Grey’s Anatomy… any of these that are so awesome and delicious, people are comparing it to Power, which is not fair to that show because we have sex and violence that they can’t show. Our show is dark.
Instead of talking about our show and talking about The Sopranos and Breaking Bad… now the conversation is about Empire, which is a soap. I am more frustrated when Blacks say it. As long as we are trying to compete against each other, we are never going to get out of the box. It’s like a bunch of rats crawling over each other. Get out of that! Think about it as you’re trying to tell a great story and so are they.
MN: How is Power contributing to the larger conversation regarding diversity in media internationally and overseas?
CKA: When the show was being developed, there was some concern (not from Starz) that there would be no foreign market for the show because the lead of the show was African American. It was this thing that people were sadly, unashamed to say. They said shows with African American leads don’t sell overseas.
When I heard this I said what the hell has Will Smith been doing all this time? I keep seeing him opening movies overseas. Do people really care that much? Hip hop, rap, and R&B sales around the world are huge. Isn’t Beyonce the biggest star in the world? I was so confused about this idea that that people of color were somehow [unappealing] to our foreign neighbors. The show got made anyway. Starz believed in it from the beginning. Then we started to sell the show abroad. The idea that the show would not work overseas has been dispelled to some extent.