‘Real Housewives of Benning Road’: Web parody is winning viewers

Under swank chandeliers, amid the scent of nail polish inside a Largo beauty salon, “The Real Housewives of Benning Road” introduce themselves.

Tiny, a woman who is not tiny, sits next to Little Man, a man who is not little. They perch on plum cushioned chairs along with an assortment of other characters from the hit Web comedy: Punkin, Lil’ Trina, Mandi, Kedda, Ree Ree.

And then there’s Scooter Boo, who was locked up in 1989. Now released, he is stuck in a time warp circa 1989. In one episode, he heads to the Landover Mall to shop, only to arrive and find the mall, which closed in 2002, is gone.

“Where Landover Mall at?” Scooter Boo shouts. “I can’t believe this [expletive].”

Across the set from Scooter Boo is Moe — not his real name, but as housewife Lil’ Trina explains, every­body in the “hood answers to Moe.”

Finally, there is Stink, played by the show’s creator, Mike Brooks, who coats his chest with talcum powder — an old-school method of cooling off in the heat — and carries on his hip an infant who, the housewives gossip, looks nothing like him. “Mandi got him thinking that baby is his,” one housewife declares.

“Quiet on the set, y’all,” yells Brooks, a comedian who hosts a comedy club in Forestville.

“Action!”

“Welcome back to ‘The Real Housewives of Benning Road: Season One: The Reunion,’ ” announces Jeannie “Kitty of the City” Jones, a radio and television personality. “This season generated so many e-mails, so much drama! Let’s get it started.”

“The Real Housewives of Benning Road,” a Web comedy series produced by Brooks and Amon Williams of Hardhead Films, spoofs Bravo’s “Real Housewives” reality television franchise, depicting the other D.C. that never quite made it to Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.,” which was canceled in 2010.

The “Housewives of Benning Road,” which is uploaded each Tuesday in seven-minute film clips on YouTube, is heading into its second season. With scripted and unscripted scenes full of neighborhood drama, love triangles and characters who speak a language familiar to certain neighborhoods, the show has drawn more than 1 million viewers on YouTube.

At the same time, “Benning Road” has prompted some viewers to pose the question: Is it too messy? Should black writers, producers and directors broadcast over-the-top portrayals of black people some consider stereotypical?

“We are starting to perpetuate a culture of messy,” said Inez Saki-Tay, a public-relations media consultant. “I understand certain people have those lifestyles, but we’re glorifying poor behavior. We have gone beyond accepting it and understanding it. Now, it is part of the mainstream. And that is problematic to me.”

The show’s creators and cast members emphasize that the show spoofs reality television. “When we first started, fans were iffy, because they thought we were making fun of them, but then they realized that we are not making fun of anything,” Brooks said. “We are only writing about the comedy that is already there, and we are trying to showcase the area’s talent. We are flipping the script and making it funny.”

Brooks created the show to capture the comedy and dialogue of Benning Road, one of the area’s most recognizable streets, stretching from the edges of Capitol Hill, past its famous landmark, the Shrimp Boat restaurant, and into Prince George’s County.

“It’s the hood. We don’t hear their voice a lot of times,” said Brooks, who grew up in the District and Prince George’s. “But that is where a lot of the funny comes from.”

The debate over depictions of black people in media — from Tyler Perry movies to the shows on Black Entertainment Television — has evolved as the number of outlets for shows by and about black people has proliferated, said Paula Whatley Matabane, associate professor of television and film at Howard University.

“This show is on the Internet, as opposed to if we looked back to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when you had only the Big Three” — ABC, CBS and NBC — “and people didn’t have a choice as to what they could look at,” Matabane said. “Clearly, one now has a choice. I think the evaluation of the debate should be taken in that context. ”

Brooks “is folding universality into the lives of people who are marginalized. Hopefully, in that humor, he is finding that humanity common to all of us, which is why it might be finding an audience,” Matabane said.

Fans have begun to recognize the show’s actors, stopping them on the street to talk about a favorite episode or story line.

One fan stopped Ro-Burgess, a 30-year-old global communications expert who lives in Bowie and plays the character Mandi, and showed her a stick tattoo like the one Mandi created on the show for a client. In that episode, the customer sat on Mandi’s porch, which Mandi called her “waiting room.” The client pulled out a snapshot and asked Mandi to reproduce the photo in a tattoo on her arm. Mandi got to work, but the final tattoo resembled a stick figure with a pink heart. Still, the real housewives admired Mandi’s skills.

“The reason the ratings are so high is because somebody can always relate to one of the characters — whether it is someone in the family, in the community, or someone they met at the mall,” said Jones, who grew up near Benning Road.

Brooks, who grew up near Good Hope Road and graduated from Largo High School, said the name of the show just popped into his head. “I’m always thinking off the cuff,” he said. “One day, I was passing Benning Road, and the title came out of the blue: ‘The Housewives of Benning Road.’ ” He ran it by friends, who thought it was hilarious.

Brooks initially wanted to create only a trailer, post it on YouTube and move on to other projects. He put out a casting call on Facebook. The first 10 people who showed up happened to be perfect for the parts.

“I shot the trailer in three days. It went over 100,000 views on YouTube. The comments said you should do a series and see whether a network will pick it up.”

Most episodes are shot early Sunday mornings with a cast that works a range of day jobs, from accountants to beauticians to government workers to stand-up comics.

“As a comedian, you try to do anything to boost your career,” said Michael “Big Mike” McIlwain, 43, who answered the blind casting call and plays Little Man. “My character is trying to lose weight but still eating. He’s in plastic body wrap jogging in the McDonald’s drive-through.

“He’s got it a little twisted. You see that in real life, people trying to lose weight and eating at the same time. I see them exercising all the time. They finish and go straight to the buffet. And they are not eating salad.”

 
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