Issa Rae writes her own definition of blackness
Celebs| | By
NEW YORK — Issa Rae remembers the first time she felt insecure.
As a sixth-grader at a predominantly black middle school in Los Angeles, her peers taunted her for acting and talking “like a white girl.”
“It was kind of jarring to be like, ‘What? I’m just talking, and I’m obviously black,’ ” says Rae. “That definitely caused me to question what the definition of blackness was to people, like, if I didn’t fit into that box, what box did I fit in?”
Those inhibitions went on to inform Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl, which she has adapted into HBO’s Insecure (Sunday, 10:30 ET/PT). In the half-hour comedy, Rae plays a socially inept young woman (also named Issa) living with her banal, unemployed boyfriend (Jay Ellis) in South L.A. On the cusp of 30, and feeling empowered by her more successful best friend (Yvonne Orji), Issa sets out to improve both her love life and job at a priggish nonprofit called We Got Y’all.
The inspiration for Awkward, which ran from 2011-13 on YouTube and amassed more than 20 million views, came from sitcoms including 30 Rock, Seinfeld and the original British version of The Office.
“I was like, ‘(Dang), there are no black people in here, and I love this kind of humor,’ ” says Rae, 31, who once aspired to be a theater actress before getting behind the camera. “There’s always been a specific black humor — why don’t the two mesh?”
The seeds of Insecure were planted in 2013, after ABC passed on I Hate L.A. Dudes, a comedy project she developed with Shonda Rhimes. She was introduced to ex-Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, an Awkward fan, shortly after.
“I just fell in love with her point of view,” says Wilmore, who was also an early producer of ABC’s Black-ish. With Insecure, “we’re really trying to mine the point where Issa is in her life right now as a young person, who’s facing the world kind of unsure of her future, where she’s going and who she is.”
Like Awkward, Insecure is loosely inspired by Rae’s life. She, too, worked at a nonprofit before her YouTube channel became popular, although she does not share her character’s knack for abrasive, impromptu raps. Although the new series’ episodes are longer, she says the biggest challenge of jumping to HBO has been condensing story lines and incorporating more risqué content.
“It was for the most part organic, but some of the early outlines that we turned in, our executive was like, ‘Hey, this is HBO. Don’t be afraid to put sex in it,’ ” Rae says. “Then we turned in one sample draft and she was like, ‘OK, that’s enough. We’re good.’ ”
Rae has a first-look deal with HBO to develop new series, and is seeking other female and minority voices. Despite being the first black woman to produce and star in her own HBO show, she’s not aiming to be the “representative for the black race.”
With Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar new to TV this fall, “there’s just so many other facets of black people’s lives being represented that it’s a relief,” Rae says. “Now, if people are like, ‘Why doesn’t your show have this?’ or ‘Black women don’t do this,’ then it’s like, ‘OK, well, go watch that other show and you may get your fill.’ ”