American Koko’s Diarra Kilpatrick On Using Comedy To Tackle Race And Getting Co-Signed By Viola Davis
When actress and writer Diarra Kilpatrick wrote and created her YouTube series American Koko years ago, a comedy about the Olivia Pope-esque E.A.R. Agency (Everybody’s A little bit Racist) that tackles “sticky racial situations,” she couldn’t have imagined that we were headed into a Donald Trump presidency. She also couldn’t have imagined that the cackle-inducing series would also garner the attention of Academy-Award winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon. The famous couple, who have a production company called JuVee, helped to bring the show to ABC’s streaming service ABCd, and it is finally available for streaming. We talked to the acclaimed writer about the inspiration for American Koko, the similarities between Kilpatrick and her hilarious heroine, Akosua Millard (code name Koko), and why a comedy about tackling the hairiest of racial incidents is necessary now more than ever.
MadameNoire: What inspired you to create American Koko? It’s hilarious by the way!
Diarra Kilpatrick: Thank you and I’m a big fan of your site by the way. I was watching a lot of shows like Scandal and Law & Order, and I thought it would be interesting to try to solve race problems in that kind of procedural way. There was this rumor going around that we were in a post-racial America because Obama was in the White House, but I was seeing race issues festering all over the place and I wanted to peel back that layer and talk about it.
And honestly, I wanted to create art with my friends. It seemed like a good time.
When you came up with the concept for the show and decided to invest your money and time to get it online, were you hoping to get it picked up for TV, streaming or just happy to get it out there in any way possible?
No, I wasn’t trying to get picked up for TV specifically. I was just trying to find a new way to express myself and the Internet was the perfect platform because no one had to grant me permission to exist there. What’s amazing about the Internet is anyone can crash the party and it looked like fun.
How did you find out that Viola Davis was a fan and JuVee Productions was interested in taking the series to ABC?
When I first got to L.A., I did a play with Julius, Viola’s husband who now runs JuVee. So I had their email and I sent them the web series in a group email with a bagillion other people I had met on my grind in L.A. Julius and Viola were honestly the last people I expected to hear from. I hadn’t seen them in a while. But Julius was the first person to call me. We had less than 100 views and he said, “We love this and we want to help you make more.” It was extremely validating because after I pressed that publish button on YouTube, I was a little nervous. I felt like I had had a baby and then let him wander out the front door. It was a very vulnerable time. So to get that validation from them so quickly was really nice.
Why is a series like American Koko, that you brought to life years ago, even more of a necessity in times like this (aka, Trump times)? And why is it so necessary to tell these stories through comedy?
We have a race problem in this country, flat-out. We always have, but I think Donald Trump woke a lot of people up to how bad it is. Bigots got mad bold after he won. Hijabs were getting ripped off. People of color were verbally and physically assaulted. It was crazy. But at least we’re all aware that this generation still has work to do. We can’t bury our heads in the sand.
In life, when people get uncomfortable they laugh or they chuckle to themselves anyway. So, I think when talking about issues on the third rail it’s great to lean into that. Plus, I wanted to keep it entertaining. I think short-form series need a little comedy to allow people to sink into the story faster.
How similar are you to the very blunt, let’s-keep-it-real Akosua?
[Laughs] There’s some similarities. My mom always told me she was very close to naming me Akosua, so she’s definitely an alter ego. But I’m definitely more shy than her and I hope more tactful. But to be honest, I put a lot of myself in all of the characters that I write. There’s a character in Season 2 who murdered someone. A loathsome character, right? And I thought, okay, what similarities do I have with this guy? How can I make this character human to me? Once I came to the fact that this guy loves Eddie Murphy just as much as me, I found a way into writing him. I try not to write any of my characters from afar.
What has it been like to have Viola’s guidance and support?
It means a lot. She’s in my top tier of queens! It’s Oprah, Michelle, Beyoncé, Shonda and Viola. So it’s pretty exciting that she’s been so good to me. She called me “the next big thing” in an interview and I had to read it back like 10 times. It was actually a little disorienting to have someone I have so much respect for talk about me like that. But I’m like if Viola says it, it must be true. Let me go to the gym and eat my vegetables. She said I was the next big thing!