Monday, May 20, 2024
Culture

Behind ‘Black Cake’: Marissa Jo Cerar’s Epic Journey in Crafting a Tale of Identity, Music, and Drama

Black Cake — Season 1 — Based on The New York Times-bestselling book by Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake is a family drama wrapped in a murder mystery with a diverse cast of characters in a global setting, from Marissa Jo Cerar, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, and Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment. The story takes place in Jamaica, Italy, Scotland, England, and Southern California. Cerar wrote the adaptation and serves as showrunner on the series, which spans decades. In the late 1960s, a runaway bride named Covey disappears into the surf off the coast of Jamaica and is feared drowned or a fugitive on the run for her husband’s murder. In present day California, a widow named Eleanor Bennett loses her battle with cancer, leaving her two estranged children, Byron and Benny, a flash drive that holds previously untold stories of her journey from the Caribbean to North America. These stories, narrated by Eleanor, shock her children and challenge everything they thought they knew about their family’s origin. Covey (Mia Isaac), shown. (Courtesy of Hulu)

Showrunner: Marissa Jo Cerar

Executive producers: Oprah Winfrey, Aaron Kaplan, Carla Gardini, Charmaine Wilkerson, and Michael Lohmann

Book by: Charmaine Wilkerson

Season: 1

Episodes: 8

Where to watch: Hulu

Starring: Mia Isaac, Adrienne Warren, Chipo Chung, Ashley Thomas, Lashay Anderson, Faith Alabi, and Glynn Turman, with recurring guest stars Ahmed Elhaj, Simon Wan, and Sonita Henry.

Synopsis: The Hulu series Black Cake, spanning decades and set in various locations including Jamaica, Rome, Scotland, England, and Southern California, unfolds a captivating tale. In the late 1960s, a bride named Covey mysteriously vanishes off the Jamaican coast, leaving behind questions of her fate – whether she drowned or was a fugitive on the run from her husband’s murder. Fifty years later, in California, Eleanor Bennett (a widow battling cancer) bequeaths a flash drive to her estranged children, Byron and Benny. This drive reveals previously untold stories of her journey from the Caribbean to North America, narrated by Eleanor herself. These revelations shock her children and challenge their understanding of their family’s origins.

Black Cake is an adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book by Charmaine Wilkerson and is poised to captivate not just Black audiences but viewers of all backgrounds. With a narrative that delves into the coming-of-age journey of a young woman and the discovery of their past by two siblings, the series compelled me to a night of binge-watching. I was eager to learn more about this family, especially how the lead character, Covey, would navigate her transitions to new locations and adapt to her ever-evolving life.

Marissa Jo Cerar, the showrunner of Black Cake, sat with Taji Mag to discuss the series and the challenges she encountered while bringing it to life. Explore the origins of this compelling drama series directly from the creative mind behind it.

Marissa Jo Cerar

DDF: When adapting this novel into a series, what unique challenges and opportunities did you encounter? 

Marissa Jo Cerar (MJC): The challenges we faced were numerous, considering the series’ global and multi-decade scope. Initially, finding the right locations was a hurdle, but we ultimately chose to film in Portland, Jamaica, where the story is originally set. While it was our preferred choice to work with authentic Jamaican talent, it presented challenges such as updating the infrastructure and navigating the tricky terrain, roads, and logistics.

The second significant challenge was casting. We had to find an actress who could portray Covey at different ages across multiple timelines, as well as accurately represent her ethnic background, which is a mix of Chinese and Black Panamanian. Identifying the right actress was a complex process, but when Mia came into the picture, it was an immediate connection. There was an undeniable spiritual resonance, and we knew she was the perfect fit for Covey.

The themes of identity, culture, and personal growth were particularly captivating. Personally, the theme of identity resonated with me, especially Covey’s journey of being a mixed-race girl in a rural community, feeling like an outsider despite belonging there. This was a personal connection for me as a mixed-race woman with a mixed-race child who grew up feeling like an outsider in a small community.

Moreover, the exploration of Jamaican-Chinese culture and the unique character of Covey drew me in. Her epic, globe-trotting journey (along with a focus on people of color and queer individuals as central characters) makes Black Cake a unique and groundbreaking series. It’s a story that moves, breaks hearts, and challenges conventional narratives in the most compelling way.

DDF: At what point did you realize that actress Mia Issac was destined to play Covey? 

MJC: It was an immediate connection for me. When our casting director, Aisha, sent Mia’s audition tape, there was an inexplicable chemistry that happened, similar to my experience with Adrian Warren during Women of Movement. It’s like you watch a tape, and there’s this profound, almost spiritual connection you feel. Even when Mia had to handle the accent and aging aspects, she effortlessly embodied Covey.

For Mia, her first audition tape was truly the standout, although she went through multiple auditions and screen tests. I had no doubts; I knew she was our Covey. We did meet other incredibly talented young actors from around the world, but Mia’s authenticity and resonance with the character were undeniable.

As for Black Cake‘s exploration of identity, culture, and personal growth, the theme of identity struck a personal chord with me. It’s something universal, applicable to everyone. Whether you’re a mixed-race girl from a rural community like Covey, as I am, or someone Jamaican and Chinese, the theme resonates. I, too, grew up feeling like an outsider in a small community despite having lived there my whole life.

Discovering the specific community and culture of Chinese Jamaicans and following the journey of an extraordinary young woman as our heroine was a compelling draw. There was nothing quite like this character in television or film, and I was eager to embark on this epic, globe-trotting adventure. I wanted to be the one to protect and elevate this character, creating a premium mystery series that puts people of color and queer individuals at the forefront rather than relegating them to supporting roles or mere backgrounds in a picturesque postcard. Black Cake is truly unique, evoking a range of emotions, and I hope I’ve addressed your question, with a particular emphasis on the theme of identity that initially captivated me when I read the book.

Black Cake — “Covey” – Episode 101 — In the late 1960’s, a runaway bride named Covey disappears into the surf off the coast of Jamaica. In present day, Eleanor Bennett, loses her battle with cancer, leaving her two estranged children a flash-drive that holds untold stories of her past. Covey (Mia Isaac), shown. (Photo by: James Van Evers/Hulu)

DDF: Music plays a significant role, as does the idea of “Black Cake,” which I truly appreciate. Can you share how you approached the process of selecting the music and songs to complement the audience’s experience while watching the series?

MJC: Music holds great importance for me, and I have strong opinions about it. I incorporate songs into scripts to preempt any budget concerns. When it comes to song choices, I plan well in advance, typically about six months ahead. One example is “Lilac Wine” by Nina Simone, which my husband introduced to me while we were listening to Christmas music on Pandora. Even though I was familiar with Nina Simone, I’d never heard this particular song. It resonated with me as I was writing the pilot script because lilac plays a significant role in the book, and her aversion to lilac. It was perfect for that crucial moment, and it was executed beautifully by Natalia, Stuart (our DP), and Mia (our remarkable young Covey). The timing was impeccable.

In episode three, Bob Dylan’s “All the Tired Horses” finally found its place. I had been trying to include it in a show for a long time, and it fit perfectly. I wrote it into the script, and the ending was a perfect match.

In episode seven, “Girl from North Country” was another thoughtful choice. I love that song, and I wanted something melancholy to follow a heavy and devastating event. The song choices are very intentional and specific.

Our score by Adam Taylor elevates everything on screen, and I wanted it to be unexpected. We didn’t want the stereotypical island vacation sound. We aimed for a cinematic experience that surprised the audience. The music is a vital element, and I’m thrilled that you reacted positively to it. In the finale, you can expect some fantastic song selections by talented Black female artists, which I’m excited about. I don’t want to spoil the moments, but I included nearly every song I wanted in the show. It was an exciting process, and these songs contribute to the anticipation of each episode.

Black Cake — “Eleanor” – Episode 103 — Covey finds herself alone in a new city determined to start a new life – with a stolen identity. Lin (Simon Wan) and Pearl (Faith Alabi), shown. (Photo by: James Van Evers/Hulu)

DDF: How did you approach the development of the character Lin, who is Covey’s father? Creating the right balance for him, considering his personal struggles and his responsibilities as a father to his daughters, must have been a challenging task. What was your approach in shaping this character?

MJC: Thank you for that question. It’s been a while since I’ve delved into this, but it’s a bit of a departure from the book, or perhaps more of an excavation, because translating a character from the written page to a living, breathing actor is a unique experience. Readers can imagine various things, but when you witness a performer embodying a character and speaking their lines, it takes on a different dimension.

It was essential to me that Lin, as Covey’s father, be portrayed with depth. Even though he makes some very troubling choices, I felt it was crucial to understand why. While you might not fully grasp his decisions in the first episode, by the time you reach episode three, you’ll gain more insight. You may not agree with him, but you’ll realize he was caught in an incredibly challenging situation, considering the prevalent practices of child brides and arranged marriages during that era.

Modern sensibilities make it difficult for us to watch, especially when it involves a vibrant and remarkable young girl like Covey. So, from the pilot script and throughout our work in the writers’ room, I made it a priority to humanize Lin. I wanted to showcase the many layers of his character rather than reducing him to a simple villain, which could have been an easy path to take. Lin is a complex character, and there’s much more to him, not only in season one but beyond.

Simon Wan, who portrays Lin, has numerous ideas about Lin’s origin story and what he did during the years he was away. There’s a lot more to explore with him. I genuinely wanted the audience to empathize with him, even though it can be challenging at times. My hope is that by the end of season one, they will better understand his character.

Black Cake — “Covey” – Episode 101 — In the late 1960’s, a runaway bride named Covey disappears into the surf off the coast of Jamaica. In present day, Eleanor Bennett, loses her battle with cancer, leaving her two estranged children a flash-drive that holds untold stories of her past. Byron (Ashley Thomas) and Eleanor (Chipo Chung), shown. (Photo by: James Van Evers/Hulu)

DDF: Could you guide us through the process of establishing the parallels between Benny and Byron and their mother, Covey, within the series?

MJC: I aimed to introduce an element of surprise by avoiding parallel stories with the same theme in a single episode. For example, in episode three, we witness Covey facing workplace discrimination, to put it lightly. Later, we subtly reveal that Byron is also encountering similar experiences, like tokenism. I prefer a more nuanced approach, weaving these themes throughout the narrative, and letting the story guide me instead of a rigid formula.

Black Cake — “Coventina” – Episode 102 — Byron and Benny struggle to process the revelations learned in Eleanor’s first recording. Will their mother’s confessions help them reconnect or leave them feeling more lost than ever? Byron (Ashley Thomas) and Benny (Adrienne Warren), shown. (Photo by: James Van Evers/Hulu)

The show’s nonlinear nature allows us to explore different character perspectives and timelines. There may be periods when we don’t see Covey, Benny, Byron, or others, but everything is meticulously connected. It’s important to emphasize that Benny, as she learns about her mother’s experiences, is influenced in the present day. Even if the revelation doesn’t occur in the same episode, the choices Benny makes in subsequent episodes are influenced by what we saw in episodes one and two.

I wanted to play with time, point of view, and perspective, avoiding a more traditional and formulaic approach where each episode follows the same pattern and includes a flashback story.

Black Cake holds the promise of being a compelling and emotionally resonant series that defies conventional narratives. At a time when Black creatives are needed more than ever, its captivating exploration of identity, culture, and personal growth positions Black Cake to captivate a wide and diverse audience, making it a standout success.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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