Adjust your TV set all you want—Showtime's Queer As Folk will still look devoid of color. Ethnically, that is.
'What kills me about stuff like that is it just doesn't have to be that way,' laments Patrik-Ian Polk, openly gay African-American writer/director. 'Is there no one involved at Showtime, the producers, the casting, anywhere in that mix, who asks 'do all these guys have to be white, have dark brown hair and look like brothers in the same family?' Is there no one? If just one of those guys had been Black from the beginning we would have accepted it, no questions. Now there's like 6 or 7 stars, and do they all have to be white? I don't get it, but it's always been like that. With media, gay equals white.'
Come June 22, Polk will make history with a refreshing, queer, and literally colorful alternative, Noah's Arc, an episodic series described as Sex and the City meets Queer as Folk crashing into Soul Food. Focusing on a clique of Black gay friends living in Los Angeles, the hysterically funny, unabashedly sexy, cuttingly smart, and socially aware series will be 'broadcast' in an untraditional manner: on DVDs containing two 30-minute episodes (and extras) each. 'My dream is that, at the very least, it develops a following and people really support and purchase it so we can make more on a bigger level,' Polk shares. 'In a perfect world Showtime or HBO would pick the show up, but this isn't a perfect world and I'm not holding my breath.'
Noah (Darryl Stephens) is a struggling screenwriter who falls for handsome Wade (Jensen Atwood), a newbie to same-sex love. No-nonsense HIV counselor Alex (Rodney Chester) is scathingly honest but fosters some self-confidence issues when it comes to his hunky anesthesiologist boyfriend, Trey (Gregory Keith). Ricky (Christian Vincent), the clan's most frisky and swingin' member, owns a trendy Melrose Avenue store, employing delicious hottie Dwayne (Nate Adams). And upstanding college professor Chance (Doug Spearman) recently married and adopted his partner Eddie's (Jonathan Julian) young daughter. Together the buddies steer through crazed seas of love, heartbreak, horniness, and ... happiness.
A Mississippi native, Polk graduated from the University of Southern California's film school. He worked on TV's Seaquest DSV and at MTV Films before landing a gig as a production executive at Edmonds Entertainment. Kenneth 'Babyface' and wife Tracey Edmonds' company, EE produced Showtime's Soul Food series and 1999's Light It Up amongst other films. With the Edmonds as executive producers, Polk mounted Punks, a zingy 2000 comedy feature hailed as a gay Black Waiting to Exhale/Broken Hearts Club, which, like Noah's Arc, revolved around a group of gay Black Los Angelinos.
'On some level Noah's Arc is an extension of Punks, but it really is a different animal,' Polk clarifies. 'A lot more in-your-face, daring, it pushes the envelope.'
Interestingly, UK television's Channel 4 saw Rikki Beadle Blair's outrageous, multiracial Metrosexuality miniseries in 2001. The show is available stateside on DVD from TLA Releasing. Yet arguably, any gay character of color is pushing the envelope when it comes to U.S. TV. The popular Queer as Folk and Will & Grace are notoriously Caucasian (The Fab Five initially boasted a Black member, Blair Boone, who filed a lawsuit for lost wages in 2003, while a new UK version of the show is even whiter than the USA's!). Yet Officer Keith Charles, played by Matthew St. Patrick, on HBO's hit Six Feet Under is one of those rare recurring gay characters of color. Alec Mapa currently appears as 'Adam' in UPN's Half & Half. Jennifer Beals plays a biracial (but awfully white-looking) lesbian on Showtime's The L-Word. HBO's detective series The Wire features Sonja Sohn as a lesbian detective. And on FX's gritty The Shield, Michael Jace portrays a conflicted, ex-gay patrolman.
Supporting roles aside, there's never been an actual gay Black American series before, which makes the raising of Noah's Arc's anchor a truly groundbreaking event. 'It's important because we haven't seen it,' Polk opines. 'Even Punks arguably is a tame mainstream attempt at shining a light on this community.'
It was a community event that fueled Polk to construct Noah's Arc. Last July, gay TV was picking up steam with talk of gay-specific network startups (which are finally coming together), Queer Eye's breakout, and other gay-interest television programs. During that month's Los Angeles gay Black Pride weekend, 'I went to a club, Boytrade at the El Rey theater, and it was really packed with Black men from all over the country who come for that weekend every year,' Polk recalls. 'And I was suddenly struck by the notion that this was a group with money to spend, travel, rent hotel rooms, rental cars, and attend events like this. It's a viable consumer base but nobody's marketing anything to them. So I left that club vowing that by that time next year the show would be a reality. I put a casting notice in the trade papers that Monday, I didn't have a script, and we shot the first promo in September and here we are.'
Rather than pitch Noah's Arc to networks and corporate financiers, a potentially endless and exhausting process (Polk has seen a number of projects and scripts languish in development or get shelved, including a college drama series at MTV), Polk decided to go ahead and produce the show independently (with Carol Ann Shine, who worked on Punks, and Jasmyne Cannick). 'Balls-out,' he notes of his—and the show's—approach. 'I thought if I'm going through the trouble of doing it independently with very little money, all my own, don't hold anything back. First and foremost, it's aimed at the gay Black community and if it doesn't resonate with them, how do you expect it to resonate with anybody else? I think the smart thing to do is make it realistic and explicit. I don't believe in sex or nudity just to titillate—it has to be in context, but I'm not shying away from that and I think it's important because you just don't see it [in media].'
Polk's casting call resulted in approximately 100 auditions, with some actors' reels sent in from as far off as NYC and London. 'We didn't get any huge stars and we also didn't have huge money,' Polk admits. 'I just wanted to get the best people for the job. Actors who were fearless, unafraid of the subject matter.' Stephens appeared in Circuit and MTV's Undressed series, Vincent danced in Madonna's Drowned World tour ('Christian doesn't really kiss and tell but I've heard enough Madonna stories to know that she's definitely not the nicest person on the block'), and Chester appeared in Punks and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.
How sexually explicit WILL Noah's Arc get? 'I would love to show pickle but I don't think any of my cast will allow me to!' Polk confesses with a laugh. 'I let them know every character would have to be naked at one time or another, doing love scenes. And they all said the same thing—'as long as I don't have to show my penis!' I'm hoping that at some point [they'll do it]. It just seems more realistic that when someone gets out of the shower you get a flash [of their penis]. It's also of social significance. I feel like Black men are constantly being emasculated in the media, so there's something symbolic about actually seeing a penis on a Black man even if not involved in pornographic activity. But it'll be as explicit as anything you see on Sex and the City and maybe QAF.'
To testify on Polk's behalf for a moment, the promotional clips indeed feature extensive nudity and very hot, unafraid male-male action.
Another important element of Noah's Arc entails its music. At present, Polk and his producers are 'scouring the earth' for upcoming, unsigned, and undiscovered talent for use in episodes and as DVD extras. And as with Punks, Polk himself will switch into songwriter/musician mode and supply a share of tunes himself. 'We're a low-budget production so we won't be able to afford expensive-ass Beyonce and record-label music,' he admits. 'I would love to—Loooooveeee to—and we are talking to some labels, like Virgin and BMG, about possibly promoting their artists by using their music.'
Some initial Noah's Arc production assistance came from the national Black AIDS Institute (www.blackaids.org), says Polk. Volunteering with the Institute for a couple of years now, his affiliation, interactions with personnel, and resulting awareness inspired him to create the character of Alex, a flamboyant, sassy, no-nonsense HIV counselor. 'I met a lot of people who work in that field, as researchers, healthcare workers, fundraisers, and I figured there's a lot more potential [safer-sex and HIV-related] storylines and latitude with [a character who's] working in the field, so that's when I got the idea to make Alex a healthcare worker. That was important to me, knowing the way this disease continues to ravage the Black community. AIDS is now the No. 1 killer of Black women aged 18-35 and young Black men. It continues to be a major problem in our community in particular, so it was important to me that AIDS have a place in this show. And they consulted me on the most effective ways to get info into the show without being preachy and didactic.'
Polk notes that 10% of profits from Noah's Arc will be contributed to the BAI.
In one funny safe-sex related 'Arc' clip, included on the promotional DVD sent to press, Noah and Wade attempt to have anal sex for the first time, but their condoms keep breaking. Left latex-less, they literally slip into a moment of unsafe sex, which compels Noah to lock himself in the bathroom and make a series of frenzied phone calls for advice from Chance, Ricky, and Alex, who sets him straight. It's a very entertaining, sexy, zippy sequence, but ultimately an educational one as well.
'I've had a experiences where the condom broke, which is kind of frightening,' Polk laughs. 'We all think of a condom breaking being you have sex, ejaculate in the condom, it breaks, and spillage. But what can happen during intercourse is the condom can break and kind of unravel, like you're having sex with a rubber band around [your penis]. I've had that happen years ago and I wanted a way to encourage people to have safe sex, encourage them to be educated about this and at the same time in the form of a really comedic, fun, loving character, which Alex is.'
Episode two sees Noah drag his friends along for his birthday ritual—getting an HIV test. The episode ties into National HIV Testing Day June 27, and DVDs will include a PSA from the BAI.
'They recently did an amazing testing campaign with the Beyonce/Missy/Alicia Keys concert tour,' Polk adds, 'called 'Testing for Tickets.' In certain cities the tour would give them a block of hundreds of tickets to give away in exchange for people getting HIV tests. They did events in several major cities including Atlanta, Oakland and Miami. And they're doing a similar campaign with Usher's upcoming tour.'
In recent years, a number of HIV transmissions in the African-American community have been attributed to closeted men sleeping with other men unsafely and bringing the virus home to their unsuspecting wives to boot. This phenomenon/issue, dubbed 'the down low,' has been thrust into the mainstream thanks to J.L. King's book, On The Down Low, and his high-profile appearances on shows like Oprah and 20/20, Polk says you won't find the issue in his Arc.
'And if I do it won't be pretty,' he adds. 'What annoys me about mainstream press sometimes is they always uncover these stories as if it really is some sort of cultural phenomenon. It's really dumb. It may have a new cultural name, the 'down low,' but that's been around forever and it's certainly not just Black men who're doing it. There are white men who are married and have girlfriends and sleep with men ... . And 'down low' doesn't really mean dating women and men on the side. 'Down low' means 'closeted.' Means you are not open or public about your sexuality. So a gay man can be 'down low'.'
However, Polk does see validity and importance in addressing the 'down low' topic. 'I'm not a fan of this King guy, but the great thing about the attention this is getting is it's starting a conversation I think we need to be having,' he opines. 'I've always maintained that the Black community isn't more homophobic than anybody else, but we need to start talking about and acknowledging different sexualities and issues.'
At the start of Noah's Arc, Wade is coming to grips with his first same-sex affair, but Polk assures that by the end of the first episode his sexual confusion will be resolved.
Asked how else Noah's Arc echoes his own life, Polk admits the character of Chance was based closely on a best friend 'but in a very loose way.' However, unlike his series' stable of characters, Polk is frustratingly devoid of romantic—or significant sexual—attachment.
'Here's what kills me,' he laughs. 'I meet people and we might hit it off or go out or even hook up and then they find out what I do and suddenly it's a problem. ... They think there's some kind of conflict because they're in the industry and I'm in the industry, they're trying to act and I'm a director. ... It's not like I'm Alan Ball ... . I'm just a struggling artist. They see a celebrity I just don't believe I have. It sucks.'
Six episodes are planned for the first 'season' of Noah's Arc, and scheduled for release in June, August and September. Storylines will feature drag queens (Miss Kiwi and Ebony Lane will appear), a drama-filled gay wedding, a sexy HIV+ Latino, and lesbians. 'One of the characters goes through a major breakup in episode two and he's still dealing with that breakup [in episode four] when a lesbian friend comes to town with her child, having left her own lover,' Polk reveals. 'They commiserate together. I think my friend Vanessa Williams from Soul Food may play that role.' Additionally, Punks' Rockmond Dunbar may cameo, while Polk hopes for additional celeb appearances in future episodes.
Polk will embark on a tour of film festivals and Black pride events. In April, the website clocked over 300,000 hits from across the globe.
Incidentally, can Caucasian-centric 'Queer as Folk'/'Will & Grace' fans anticipate seeing a token white boy character? 'No, no plans to have a token white boy,' Polk admits, amused. 'But you never know. I'm not opposed to that idea, but I'm not purposely trying to do a rainbow coalition. Maybe when Queer as Folk adds a token Black character I'll consider it!'
The first two episodes of Noah's Arc will be available on DVD June 22 for $29.95.
See www.noahsarc.net .