WASHINGTON — After growing tired of watching stereotypes of people of colour on the screen, Issa Rae created her own vision of reality with "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl."
The Web-based show follows J, played by Rae, and her mishaps and successes in work and love.
"The Web series came about because I really didn't see anybody like me on the screen, nobody that I could relate to," said Rae, the show's producer, writer and director. "There's are just so many limited archetypes for black females in particular, and just people of colour in general, and it's frustrating to look at the screen and only be able to relate to people like Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, people who don't look like me."
Since the series first posted online in February, the debut episode has garnered more than 240,000 hits. Subsequent episodes have received more than 100,000 hits and 1,000 viewer comments. Nearly 17,000 people are dedicated to the show's Facebook page. Rae said she and co-producer Tracy Oliver are packaging "Awkward Black Girl" as a half-hour comedy to sell to a cable network, but are strongly thinking about keeping it online to build the audience and maintain stronger contact with viewers.
"Social media is what made the show honestly," Rae said. "Had it not been for social media, this show just wouldn't have been what it is today. I couldn't have done this 10 years ago."
Susan Fales-Hill, who produced and wrote for the long-running NBC sitcom "A Different World," called Rae's work fresh, incisive, and non-stereotypical.
"She is showing an educated, African-American woman leading an integrated life and a professional woman with friends of many different nationalities and backgrounds, and just trying to make her way," Fales-Hill said.
She said Rae's guerrilla approach to TV making is brilliant and an inspiration to veterans in the industry like her.
"A lot of us came up during a time when there was a studio system, more jobs and you came up through the ranks," Fales-Hill said. "So for us, it's a culture shock. ... I find it very liberating that she has created her own show. She's definitely making a lot of us think about how we can do things and how much more aggressive we should be."
Rae, 26, born Jo-Issa Rae Diop, created the concept for the show two years ago while on a public theatre fellowship in New York. A Los Angeles native, she didn't know anyone in New York, and that provided many awkward experiences. After returning to the West Coast, Rae gathered a few friends to help her begin shooting the series with her own camera equipment in January.
"I knew if I didn't shoot it myself it was never going to get done," said Rae, who attended Stanford University and the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles.
Rae recruited her friend Andrew Allan James to star as A, her annoying co-worker and admirer. The diverse cast now includes J's best friend CeCe, an Indian-American, played by Sujata Day, and her love interests White J, played by Lyman Johnson, and Fred, an African-American, played by Madison T. Shockley III.
"Diversity is important to the series just because it exists in my life," Rae said. "In real life, I do happen to have a Bengali-American best friend."
As the show's fan base has grown, so has its production. By episode four, Oliver, who plays J's co-worker and rival Nina, joined in as a producer and helped pull together a full crew for the show. The episodes grew from about four minutes to12.
After episode six, Rae and Oliver, former Stanford classmates, realized they could no longer afford to fund the series. Rae, on a temp salary, said she couldn't cover the 12-hour-day shoots and production costs.
The two had received a couple emails from people offering to donate to the show, so they decided to start an official campaign for viewers to donate through the online fundraising platform Kickstarter.com. By the end of day one, Rae said the show had received $4,000.
"It was just overwhelming," she said. "We just knew that we had something on our hands and that people really believed in our project and that was just extremely touching."
After about a month, the show had more than $56,000 from nearly 2,000 donors.
Since "Awkward Black Girl" launched, Rae has signed with United Talent Agency and 3 Arts Entertainment. She hopes her success will lead to more opportunities for minorities to tell their stories.
"I think it sends a message to mainstream media that we don't have to have these white male and female leads for everybody to relate to them," Rae said. "It's sort of unfair to think that, so I hope that this show influences future casting decisions just based off what we've been able to do so far. "