'Family Reunion' Creator Meg DeLoatch On Assembling An All-Black Writers' Room And When We'll See Jaleel White Show Up [Interview]

Just after everyone's had their 4th of July barbecues, Netflix is inviting viewers to its own Family Reunion. The streaming service's new sitcom is about football star Moz Mckellan (Anthony Alab) and his wife Cocoa (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) who take their family to visit his parents (Loretta DeVine and Richard Roundtree) in Georgia. The kids experience a culture shock while the parents get back in touch with their roots. Family Reunion creator Meg DeLoatch has been a TV writer for over 20 years since Family Matters, and created other shows like Eve. DeLoatch assembled an all-black writers room for Family Reunion, which films in a traditional multi-camera format in front of an audience. DeLoatch spoke with /Film by phone about Family Reunion, which is now streaming on Netflix.How did Family Reunion come about?Well, my Netflix executive, Robert Prinz called me and he said that he was looking for a black themed family show. He felt like it was an audience that needed to be served on Netflix and we just started chit chatting. I shared with him a friend of mine was married to a football player. I always thought they had a really interesting dynamic because she was the church girl and he wasn't. That sort of changed during their marriage. Those conversations led to what I would love to do is tell a story that is very much influenced by my family and my friends and my experience growing up in this country. That's how Family Reunion evolved.You establish a lot in the pilot, that young kids like Jade don't know about political history like the Black Panthers, the whole church scene, etc. Was there a lot you wanted to set up at the beginning so you had all these themes to deal with throughout the series?Yeah, just the idea that there are children, depending on where they grow up or how they're being raised, who are not necessarily completely in touch with the community in this case, the black community and these are black children. It's a shame. For this particular family and for Jade, moving back to the south is what leads to her really getting to understand and know herself through learning more about her culture. Do you hope kids watching Family Reunion will look up the real Black Panthers?Absolutely. I would love that. We try to sprinkle things like that throughout episodes. We're not trying to preach to anybody but these are things you should know about and understand and understand them in the context of when they happened. It's awesome that we actually had the Black Panther movie and it did so well, but know that there are other Black Panthers who are just as meaningful to our community. The church scene definitely isn't preaching. It just looks like an awesome place to go. How did you want to present the church scene?That was born literally out of when I would go back down south to visit my grandmother, my grandmother was in North Carolina. She was a part of a pentecostal religion. I had not seen anything like that. My parents did take me to church, a very quiet, very reserved baptist church. I loved to go to church with my grandmother just to watch people getting the spirit. Also, when I first saw it, the first time I saw someone speaking in tongues, I literally did think that they were possessed and was like something's not right with this person. So it's really cool, I think, for outsiders to sometimes come in, get exposed and then come to understand that this can be a very normal, very regular everyday thing for people who worship this way.  And I read you assembled a writers' room of all black writers?I have. I'm so, so grateful to be in business with Netflix but not only allowed it, encouraged it, supported it and let me do it. It was a really cool experience because I wanted this to be a really authentic American family. I wanted to take a whole bunch of different black people from different backgrounds and read and look for what was common in our experience and what was different, just to create this family. I think that it rings so authentic because we were allowed to truly tell our stories. What different backgrounds do your writers come from?We have writers who grew up extremely middle class with educated parents like me. We have writers who grew up very poor. For example, Anthony Hill who was my second in command, is from Houston and I have to ask him if he was the first to be college educated, but definitely coming from a less educated background. Then we had everything in between, just people from all around the country. When you start talking and then somebody says, "My dad always said" or "My parents always came at me like this," it's like, "Mine too." It doesn't matter how different perhaps our individual growing up was because most black people, African-American black people, hailed from the south, it doesn't matter if you got all the way to California. Your parents came from parents that came from a place where there's a lot of things that got passed down: food, traditions and certainly sayings.What's been the makeup of most writers rooms you've been in, even on shows like Eve or way back on Family Matters?Family Matters, my first staff experience, I was the only woman my first year on a staff of 10. I was one of two black writers. On Eve, I had a very diverse room. It was majority minority and then I had equally male and female. I had writers over 50. Even then, I maybe couldn't quite do what I was able to do this time. It was always important to me that I put different voices in, different people in to just create characters different from characters that I would create. Family Reunion is set in Georgia. Are you creating that in a studio in L.A.?We are. My mother's from Columbus, GA, my mother's family. I went back for a family reunion there about two and a half years ago. That's sort of why I chose to set the show there, because it's really cool to go back to a place where you have so much history but it's not really history I know well. Even though I did live in Columbus for a short time when I was little, until you go and you see these places and your family tells you about them, it just really resonated. I remember thinking how complete I felt and in the arms of my family in Columbus, even though Columbus truly was never really my home.Georgia has been a very big hub of Hollywood and a lot of studios are pulling out due to their abortion laws. Do you have any thoughts about dealing with Georgia that way?I do insomuch as I find that new law very disappointing and I'm hoping that something will happen to keep it from going into effect, because I definitely believe in women's right to choose. I do understand Georgia as a state is very different from the more liberal places I've grown up. I personally appreciate that Netflix was one of the first companies to take a stand and say, "We're not going to put people who work for us into a situation where they don't have a choice. So we won't work  in Georgia." And I think that's only fair.What is the experience filming in front of a live studio audience?It's funny, because sometimes you forget how exciting it is to put on a show in front of an audience. It has a lot of the feelings of a play and that kind of energy. Almost every actor I've worked with is better in front of an audience, instead of just in front of a crew. They feed off of it. It elevates them. Also an audience gives you such quick feedback as a writer. I know if something worked. I know if they don't get it. I know if they don't like it. I definitely think it makes for a better product when you're doing a comedy for sure.How long did it take to assemble the cast of this family?Probably about a month and a half. And we started with Loretta Devine. I wrote the character with Loretta in mind of M'Dear. You know how you just think, "Well, I'll never get her." Robert again had worked with her in the past. Then we went out to Tia. Again, I wasn't sure, she had had a baby, what her interest level would be. We sat down and it just felt really good. I'm thrilled that she took such interest. She brings such a level of sincerity and genuineness to this role that's not always the easiest role to play when you're up against such a formidable character like Loretta, to play someone who doesn't have the same gravitas, at least not at first glance. I just think she's done a wonderful job. Tia and Anthony, I think they have such chemistry as a couple, and we cast them separately because Tia was not available when it was time to cast her. It was one of those things where you're like, "Oh my gosh, is this going to be good?" When I see them together, I think they were meant to play husband and wife. Was Richard Roundtree the only actor you tested with Loretta?We didn't test him with Loretta. We talked to Loretta about who she would like. I brought up Richard. She said she liked him a lot and they had never played on screen together but they were both on Being Mary Jane. We reached out to him and were thrilled. They are lovely together as well, aren't they? That was her idea and said, "Yeah, I think he would be a great grandpa." She was mad that we didn't make him a series regular. She's like, "Where's my husband all the time?" But I couldn't budgetarily afford him for every single episode. How many is he in?He is in I believe 10 of the 20. We're only dropping the first 10 in July and there'll be another 10 episodes.They make a big decision at the end of the pilot. What do the next episodes look like?Episode two is dealing with the family making the move, the culture clash that comes with it as well as all of the relationship stuff that happens when you move into your mother's house, your mother-in-law's house, your grandmother's house. A whole lot of people living together and everybody trying to parent. It's a warm show. I think it's a feel good kind of family show. I also am very confident that an entire family can sit down and enjoy this together and feel like it was for each one of them. I never got so heavily into the kids' stuff that I felt like an adult would be turned off and vice versa.Is it very different being the creator and show runner than on the writing staff?It is. For writers, I think it's an incredible experience for you to be the one to be able to say yes or no and to interweave everybody's vision into one whole. Hopefully, a unified vision. So it's awesome. I love being able to say, "M'Dear would not say that." Or, "She would say that." Because she's mine and because she's a part of me, I get to be the final arbiter of that. It is a really wonderful way to tell your story and make sure it gets hurt.Was Family Matters a fun show to work on?It was and for it to be my first writing experience, I felt very appreciated. As the only woman, it was cool because I did get heard as opposed to shut down. The second year they brought in another woman. It was just a great time for multi-cams. I remember that time very fondly. Jaleel White is doing an episode of Family Reunion. Some of the cast came through, Kellie and of course Telma is on the show as well, so a number of our Family Matters people have shown up on Family ReunionWhen is Jaleel White on?I believe it's episode 10. He's playing a friend. Tempest Bledsoe and he are playing a couple and they're friends of Moz and Cocoa's.