“When you write a show, every character is you to some extent,” Courtney Kemp Agboh, the creator of “Power,” which premieres on Starz on Saturday, said. I had asked her about her experience writing her leading man, James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a drug distributor and club owner based in part on the rapper 50 Cent, and the rise of a group of female showrunners like “Ray Donovan” creator Ann Biderman who are telling stories about men.
“It’s going to be an odd metaphor, but I feel like being a working mom is like that,” Agboh said of the way St. Patrick compartmentalizes his family life, his legal work and his illicit empire. “Where you really have to cut off parts of yourself. My daughter is crying because she doesn’t want me to leave the house in the morning, but I have to leave because I have to provide for her. And I can’t go to work and be in tears because my kid misses me, because that’s just not going to be acceptable.”
“Power” has a lot in common with other shows presently on-air. St. Patrick, who goes by Ghost, is a fairly classic anti-hero. His wife, Tasha (a quite good Naturi Naughton), enjoys the profits of his illicit businesses but, in a slight twist, feels threatened when Ghost starts exploring more legitimate business opportunities, as does his best friend Tommy (Joseph Sikora). When Ghost reconnects with his old girlfriend Angela (Lela Loren), now a lawyer working on anti-gang prosecutions, both his public and private life are threatened.
So far, so familiar. But “Power” has a sentimental streak a mile wide that distinguishes it in a media environment that makes a fetish of cynicism. In an early episode, Ghost and Angela meet under the whale in New York’s American Museum of Natural History (a location Agboh wanted so badly, she was willing to shoot the scene at 3 in the morning) where they flirted as teenagers. It is a grand romantic moment, something that has become all too rare in television dramas.
And as much as “Power” has a male main character, Agboh has a deft touch with both Angela and Tasha, who are drawn to very different parts of Ghost, and to interactions between the show’s other female characters. A scene in the pilot where Tasha’s mother encourages her teenage granddaughter to wear more feminine clothes feels strikingly realistic, and rare for a television drama with serious aspirations.
“I really do love male characters, in some ways, for the fact that they get surprised when they’re vulnerable,” Agboh said, explaining how she grounds her whole cast in her own experiences. “Women are more surprised by their strength. In 2011, when my father passed away, I had my daughter first, I had her on January 24, and I had a seizure during the delivery. I lived through that, and five weeks later, my father died suddenly of a heart attack, and I lived through that. And then my daughter had surgery, and I lived through that. And then I had to pitch this show, and I lived through that.”
During the experience, Agboh took a picture of herself in Chicago O’Hare International Airport while she was hooked up to a breast pump and wearing her hair in pin curls under a scarf so that she would be ready to speak at her father’s funeral. Agboh said she looks at the photo whenever she needs a reminder of her own capabilities.
It is not merely the loss of her father that animates Agboh’s work on “Power,” but the trajectory of his career. He earned his first money dancing on the street for tips and ended his working life as an advertising executive who moved his family to Connecticut. Agboh grew up fascinated by New York. She cites Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” with its detailed vision of New York as a city stratified by class, as a major inspiration.
In its best moments at Ghost’s club, “Power” captures a hierarchy that runs from barbacks up through bottle girls to Ghost himself. The show’s big, diverse cast also reflects New York, and Agboh can be blunt when she talks about the need for writers to create characters who are not mere reflections of the writers’ own experiences.
“There has been a lot of, in recent years, backlash when people do go outside their comfort zone. And even the most responsible white male writer is going to be afraid that he’s going to be attacked to some extent if he doesn’t do it right,” she told me.” I can write Tasha, and Tasha can be vindictive and childish and emotional and craven and greedy and not understanding, and no one’s going to say I’m racist because I created her that way. But if I look different, maybe someone is saying, ‘Hey, well, is that what all black women are to you?’ In a way I can understand why people stay in their comfort zone.”
But Agboh pointed out that women have had to learn how to see the world through other perspectives for as long as they have been reading fiction.
“The baseline character in a lot of Western literature is a man. So we, as women, do a lot of suspending of our disbelief to experience a novel, or a play, or a movie through that male character,” she said, citing her favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye.” “I’m experiencing that book as Holden, I’m not experiencing it as the hooker. I don’t have to go find a woman in whatever the fiction is to relate to.”