By the time Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier, two of the founders of Black & Sexy TV, found themselves standing on the steps of Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2012, the site of so many famous Hollywood criminal and civil proceedings, they were spent.
There were no flashing lights, no throngs of reporters, photographers, and fans to fight through, just the Zipcar they used to get there and the knowledge that no matter what the judgment was in their eviction case, they were going to leave the courthouse and go to work on their set, which also doubled as their home, with their co-founders, Jeanine Daniels and Brian Ali Harding.
“We just had to take on this mentality of no matter what, it’s going to work out,” Perrier said. “We just have to give it up, and take responsibility for the choices we made, and the choices we made were we need the money to shoot Black & Sexy. We’ve just got to figure it out. And that was just one of the many risks that we’d taken.”
The preceding months had not been easy — not on the network, and not on Dortch and Perrier’s relationship, either. The two have a 3-year-old daughter together named Rockwelle.
“We got to a point where we were making the decision to not pay our rent because we wanted to pay for our shoots and we pushed our landlord a little bit too far with that and once you get paperwork going in a certain direction, you can’t really turn the clock back, so we just had to go through with it, get a lawyer, and plead our case,” Perrier said.
Because the judge in the case found that Dortch and Perrier had valid complaints of their own, they won and walked out with a better deal on their rent. The same day, a benefactor gave them money they needed into their account so the check they wrote for their back rent as part of the settlement would clear.
When they left to shoot the first episode of “The Couple,” where the characters of both “The Couple” and “The Number” converge on an engagement party, it wasn’t just a celebration of a fictive engagement. There was an overwhelming sense of relief; Black & Sexy TV would live to see another day.
“If we did not shoot that night,” Dortch said, “There would be no HBO deal.”
Deciding to forego the typical route to success in Hollywood is not for most people — otherwise the place wouldn’t be teeming with underappreciated production assistants. Hollywood’s first currency may be the dollar, but relationships are a very close second. But Dortch and Perrier are not most people. They don’t own a television or a car, two things that are practically unthinkable in a town whose culture relies so heavily on both. Dortch tried the rise-and-grind PA life, and it just wasn’t for him.
Their early success has proven that there’s more than one way to “make it.” Black & Sexy now has a development deal with HBO to turn “The Couple” into a series for the cable network. Spike Lee is executive-producing.
“One of the awesome things about HBO and the deal is that we never, ever pitched ‘The Couple,'” Perrier said. “There was never a pitch meeting. We were not out there. We were on our way to making a film, and we got this phone call because we’ve done this work and an executive saw the show and fell in love with the show and watched every episode overnight, basically. It was a new paradigm. We … never had to explain what this black couple is because we did the work and it’s there and they could see for themselves, ‘We think this is a fit for our brand.'”
Aside from a strong sense of themselves and their mission, Dortch and Perrier also have an uncommon ease with being outsiders, something both of them say they developed as children. Perrier was adopted and though she knew who her biological mother was, she didn’t really talk to her until she was 17, the age her adoptive and biological parents agreed to. She was part of a family of eight children, and spent part of her childhood on a farm in Washington where the kids were expected to get up, play outside and use their imaginations to fend for themselves. The farm became an incubator for future projects. That’s where Perrier said she dreamed up her first characters.
“Always trying to make sense of our worlds, I think, is something that we carry through into our art,” Perrier said. “Why these relationships didn’t work out at one time and then they did — I think that curiosity is kind of a self-therapy in a way. When you have a background like that and you’re trying to make sense of it all, it’s going to, I think, inform whatever you do, especially if you’re an artist.”
Dortch was born in a suburb of Philadelphia. His mother and father divorced when he was two years old, and he didn’t reconnect with his father again until he was 18 and on his way to college. His grandmother put him in touch with his father, and now they have a relationship. After the divorce, Dortch’s mother moved the family to El Paso and eventually married Dortch’s stepfather and gave birth to his younger sister when Dortch was 12.
“There were times when I was the only one who had the Dortch last name,” he said. “Everybody else had a different name, so I just felt like an outsider a little bit. I always felt like an independent person.”
Eventually, all of it blended together, and it just worked.
“We have this shared sensibility and shared experiences and a little bit of loneliness and a little bit of ‘I’ll do it myself’ and when we came together, we were really attracted to each other because I think we were looking for a creative partner,” Dortch said. “Everybody wants a partner in general in life, in business, and in love, but I think we were looking for all three because I don’t see the difference between my business, my family, and love.”
While independent and self-driven, they’re not anti-social. When you get to set, it feels “like family,” said Shayla Hale, who plays Tamiko on the Black & Sexy show “RoomieLoverFriends.” That might be why Black & Sexy has been able to retain its stable of actors and limited crew, even if it can’t always pay them. If nothing else, Perrier said, they make sure everyone gets fed, and fed well — no bad pizza.
Perrier and Dortch’s home in Los Angeles, which serves as the headquarters for Black & Sexy and the set for “RoomieLoverFriends,” doubles as personal refuge, said Hale. Because she grew up in Atlanta, Hale said she was surrounded by black culture, and she took it for granted. But then she moved to the San Fernando Valley, where you have to drive 30 minutes (at least) to Crenshaw just to find black hair products, and that deepened her appreciation for Dortch and Perrier. She was in breathless awe as she described their home. They sound like a couple of artists you would find in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights who wound up creating their own little oasis in Los Angeles.
“Numa and Dennis both are very Afrocentric,” Hale said. “They have a deep appreciation for their culture. When you go to the Black & Sexy headquarters, you walk into that and you already feel that. Numa is very well-versed on the different arts and culture of the Afro American person, period. Anything they do is surrounded by that … There are books and books and books just sitting around of plays and architects and sculpture and history … It’s spread throughout the house, the different paintings on the walls in their bedroom are just fantastic. When you walk in, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness I’m in a museum!’ It’s just beautiful.”
“The Couple” is partially, if not wholly, based on Dortch’s and Perrier’s relationship, which presents its own set of challenges, especially for Perrier, who plays Chick.
“Because I’m acting in the series, sometimes I have to be like, whoah, you’re really throwing me under the bus right now,” Perrier said. “Because people are like, ‘Oh my god, this woman is like, obnoxious, she’s annoying, she’s crazy, she’s all these things.’ But after awhile I kinda came to realize I actually am obnoxious, annoying, and crazy. I am all those things, so it was a lesson in self-acceptance. I am those things, and I am many other great things. I’m willing to do that because it’s helped my work and I think it’s helped Dennis be able to vent about things.
“We definitely will get in fights about it because sometimes I feel like it’s definitely a little misogynistic. It’s always about how crazy Chick is. Dude is always the stand-up guy; he’s never in the wrong. I’m like, ‘Come on! What about all of your control freak stuff and your OCD? When are we gonna get to that part of ‘The Couple?’ Huh? Huh?’ I guess we’ll put that into the HBO series.”