A Workspace Odyssey
Ashley Grayson's The Cube Life hopes to find the average, young African-American TV viewing audience--online
If Ashley Grayson ever gets to "Tyler Perry's level," she vows never to deal with talent again. There are the colorful personalities, the insecurities, the emerging egos, and the conflicting schedules, she explains in the conference room of cable network TV One's Silver Spring office. The 24-year-old Baltimorean makes this half-joking declaration as she chats about her life as an executive producer, creator, co-writer, and star of TV One's first original web series The Cube Life. Pitched to the network as Girlfriends meets The Office during a brief meeting with an executive, the show follows a young group of black co-workers at an entertainment company who are maneuvering the thorny sides of their professional and personal lives.
Don't get it twisted. Grayson, who projects an innocent, yet quiet power behind her baby face, isn't complaining. Why should she? She is, excuse the cliché, living her dreams. Born to a 15-year-old mother who also became a drug addict, Grayson was put in foster care at 10 and adopted at 14. As long as she can remember, she's been telling stories. She smiles brightly when she talks about the first book she penned: an autobiography in a Mead notebook using crayons. "People knew I wasn't normal by then," she jokes. If paper wasn't available, she'd write poetry on her jeans. The fact that she only had two pairs was unimportant.
Not surprising that at a young age, she posed adult questions: If my mom is a drug addict, does anything else exist outside this West Baltimore block? Education--she became the first in her birth family to graduate from high school and college--became part of the answer. At Morgan State, she majored in communications with a concentration in radio. After an internship at TV One in the online department, she recognized her love for the unique marriage between television and the web. Today, she works as an online producer at a local media company.
In 2008, Grayson, who also made some noise on the local poetry scene as Ashley Charísma, self-published a novel, School of Black Love, which reminds us how much we don't know about love and how, so often, television provides the model.
And, well, television can be limiting. It's why Grayson decided to use the web for her first screen project. There's also that diversity issue--television gatekeepers who, lately, rarely grant access to sitcoms where black people star and do regular stuff. "Shows with primarily African-American casts don't really portray the average young black college graduate," Grayson says. You know, black twentysomethings who are trying to figure out their American dream, those, as Grayson describes, "who are at the bottom of the professional totem pole, but aspire to be something else in life." She couldn't find a web series that did that either.
Even the two major black cable networks, BET and TV One, lag behind in representing the multidimensional face of African-Americans. Grayson sees hope. "I think TV One is at a point where they're growing as a network," she says. "Their web site is also growing, and they're looking to take it to the next level." The Cube Life represents that progression.
What better place to show all types of folk than in the workplace? "I tried to create people who everyone would know in their life," Grayson admits about her casting decisions. Grayson plays her namesake, Ashley, who works to keep the peace. There's Jessica (Jessica Jones), the consummate professional who's never seen in anything but a business suit. There's Nerissa (Nerissa Gravely), who, at 30, is newly engaged and preoccupied with all things wedding. There's Yvonne (Sharon Alston), the office manager who reinforces rules, even the petty ones. There's Kaliq (Kaliq Crosby), who falls for a different coworker depending on the day of the week. There's Ebonee (Ebonee Buchanan-Tyler), the "impatient go-getter." Jason Ryan plays Anonymous Black Guy, who "never says much but for some reason he's always around."
Although none of the cast has any professional experience, the opportunity was obvious. Evelyn Shelton, 27, studied electronic media and film production at Towson University and works as a production manager at a local network, and she says the opportunity was "my dreams smacking me in the face." Her character, Evelyn, provides the comic relief.
Shelton and Grayson first met when Grayson interned where Shelton currently works. Charged with creating a quick web promo for a television show, Grayson enlisted Shelton with the promise to "make her a star." The promo never ran, but Shelton, who says she aspires to be on Glee, feels Grayson has made good on her word. "I haven't seen a group of successful black people on television," Shelton says, emphasis on group. "We may have a show with one successful character, but there's nothing else like [The Cube Life], where we are represented as one strong successful unit as opposed to the one who made it. We all made it."
It's the journey to making it that Grayson hopes to capture. She set out to replicate those funny, snowball moments that happen at work when a camera isn't around. The 12-minute pilot exposes how gossip goes terribly wrong at work. After a rumor spreads that Ashley (Grayson) may be pregnant, her co-workers plan a baby shower without confirmation that she's indeed with child. Absurd? Yes. Relatable if you've ever worked in a cube jungle? Most definitely.
The script was written by Grayson, Ebonee Buchanan-Tyler, and Jason Ryan. That was the easy part. The challenges, from legal clearances to casting, elongated the project from conception in August 2009 to launch on May 4, 2010. Perfecting the four-hour night's sleep, Grayson did everything from ordering equipment to developing shots, working with the design team to crafting the show's marketing plan. She used many of the relationships she started nurturing during her days of interning at various media companies such as Radio One and ABC to help pull off the pilot.
The biggest challenge, however, remains: getting more people to watch it. Now she must prove there's an audience for the show before TV One greenlights additional episodes. The crew is harnessing the power of social media and word-of-mouth to get more viewers to participate in the experience. "Here's something that you've been asking for," Grayson says about the marketing approach. "In return, here's what you can do to support [it]."
So far, she's been pleased with the response, even if it's small. One of the most glowing comments described the show as "upscale urban comedy," which made Grayson's face light up. "To be black and where I'm from," she says, "and hear the word 'upscale,' lets me know that I'm making a positive contribution to the image of African-Americans." Even the not-so-positive comments that dismiss the show as unfunny can be valuable. "Even if you don't like the show, but you see potential in it," she says, "pass it along, so we can have the opportunity to do more."
After the pilot launched, she went around the way in West Baltimore, laptop in tow, to show "the hoodest members" of her birth family. Talk about proud. "That's my baby," her mother said over the low laptop volume. "That's my niece," an aunt yelled. "That's my booboo," another family member shouted. Grayson had to start the show over four times before she realized that they wouldn't be quiet enough to watch. Knowing she did it was more than sufficient.
"I'm from Baltimore--there's no way that I can hide that," she says. "You feel like you've beat the odds and you want to show everyone in the neighborhood that things are possible. You don't have to sell your soul to dream."
Even if she doesn't receive the greenlight to do more episodes and this particular show doesn't catapult her to Tyler Perry success, Grayson is grateful for the opportunity. "I was able to conceive a series, put it on a national web site, provide opportunities for my friends, and gain the trust of TV One," she says. "It's a victory already for me." For us.
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