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'Being Mary Jane' showrunner on latest episode: 'I was interested in white privilege'

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Guy D'Alema/BET

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains details from “Purging and Cleansing,” Tuesday’s episode of Being Mary Jane. 

Mary Jane had some pretty difficult decisions to make in “Purging and Cleansing,” ranging from how much she should share with D’Asia about Patrick’s drug abuse, how best to create a premise for “Talk Back,” and later in the episode, how to deal with Cece’s request for more cash. And, of course, the night wasn’t just about Mary Jane: PJ helped Niecy create a new life plan, MJ’s parents had an incredible poignant discussion about how their adult children affected their long-term plans, and Kara got into with her ex about whether life is really easier as a white man.

Addressing issues like prescription drug abuse, the spectrum of parental responsibilities, and the nature of race-based privilege, this episode summed up the best of Being Mary Jane: timely, poignant, and unafraid of deep-diving into highly personal issues. (Like this zinger: Is it ever okay to publicly admit that sometimes a girl just wants to be selfish with her time, resources and energy?) With the end of the season around the corner, we wrangled some one-on-one time with showrunner Mara Brock Akil, who answered our burning questions about the series’ ninth episode and what to expect before next week’s finale.  

The subject of parenting loomed large this episode in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen on the show before. Why was it important for you to tell that story?

Trying to shape my characters and give my characters humanity is so much part of my work. One of the things I think has been missing from the landscape of talking about black characters is talking about our humanity, and the fact that we come from somewhere. We come from people who came from a people, who came from other lands. We have a history and a legacy, and I think the very idea that you come from someone makes you a human being in the history of our country. We are still fighting for our humanity when our black bodies are still used for commerce and our black bodies aren’t valued, when they’re borderline entertainment in the news.  

That’s why it was important to me to include parenting as a layer on the show. And parenting can be a struggle. Whether you’re poor, privileged or middle class, parenting often is a constant struggle with guilt and doubt. That played a big part in Richard Roundtree’s story, questioning about where he went wrong in the parenting of his son, knowing that as a black man in America, you can’t make a mistake, because if you make a mistake like Patrick has done, it creates a ripple effect among the family. 

There’s been a lot of fan theories circulating about Cece’s role in Mary Jane’s life. Can you set the record straight about who she represents in Mary Jane’s journey this season?

Everyone in Mary Jane’s journey is a reflection of the self. Cece is part of that too. She’s the pundit that will never get to be on SNC News. She doesn’t have the “credentials” that the pundits we see on CNN and MSNBC have, but she has very strong opinions that are very clearly outlined from an outsider’s perspective. It’s my way of having a conversation about what is valid. Is an opinion only valid at the news desk? And Cece is full of contradictions, just like Mary Jane is. I thought looking at the nature of honesty and truth was interesting. In one respect, Cece is honest. She’s honestly extorting Mary Jane and she’s honestly giving her opinion. On another level, I enjoy the fact that Cece represents a different representation of what black women look like in America. From a physicality standpoint, this woman exists everywhere. Loretta Devine has played her brilliantly.

Lisa Vidal had a great scene this episode when her character decided to confront her ex about his lack of so-called success, and in the process, brought up the matter of his access and privilege simply by virtue of his race. What was the impetus for that scene?

That was the very last scene we shot at the end of the season, somewhere between 1 and 3 o’clock in the morning. We were all sort of delirious since it had been a long couple of weeks, and Lisa was losing her voice. When I went back and watched that scene during the editing process, the tiredness and the exhaustion in Lisa’s body and her voice just added an entire level to the dialogue between these two people. There were two things that I wanted to explore in that scene. I was interested in white privilege, specifically white male privilege and the anger that is bubbling up as a result of it being questioned and confronted. There’s also the thing that has been happening where women are becoming breadwinners. What has to happen for men to accept that role? I’m not trying to answer questions, but I am trying to show how there’s a lot of disconnect on that topic and how Kara is trying to unpack her own choices. 

You mentioned this was the last scene you shot of the season. What else can you say about those final hours on set?it

That last scene, from a production standpoint, is nearly perfection in that all the departments aligned in.  From the actors, the writing, the direction, the set design, the DP, and the props department. When I looked at in the editing room, I was like “Wow.” As a showrunner, it really exceeded my best hopes and dreams, right down to Lisa’s strained voice. 

What can you say about what lies ahead for Mary Jane in next week’s season finale?

One of the fun things about writing for the show and specifically for the character of Mary Jane, is that much like in our lives, we don’t know about what’s ahead. You don’t know if the drama is going to stop, but it’s how you respond to it. That’s all I can say. [Laughs] 

Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on BET.