By Sarah Rodman
March 25, 2020 at 11:27 AM EDT

Cherish the Day

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Spoiler alert: This story contains major plot points for the entire OWN series Cherish the Day, including the finale.

Just like the seductive Sade track that gives the series its title and theme music, the OWN drama Cherish the Day showed us how deep love could be.

The first season of the dynamic series wrapped up Tuesday night with the last of the eight episodes chronicling the five year relationship between whip smart free spirit Gently James (Xosha Roquemore, The Mindy Project) and buttoned-down tech whiz Evan Fisher (Alano Miller, Underground).

Created and executive produced by the indefatigable Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us), Cherish the Day employed a unique narrative device: Each of the eight episodes represented one day in the timeline of Evan and Gently's romance, from love affair to marriage, and eventually, sadly, to divorce. When EW recently spoke with Roquemore before the show's premiere she talked about loving the challenge of the time jumps. "It was fun because I felt like I got to explore the character really wholly," she said. "I got to know her over a five-year span. So much changes over five years. In film you get the whole script, so you know where your character is going to go. But on TV it’s getting revealed to you as we get each new script. So it’s fun to see what was happening and then have to rise to the occasion of piecing it together with the story we already told."

Now that the story has been told, we hopped on the phone to chat with DuVernay about the first season of her latest creation, Miss Cicely Tyson, and those fab cameos in the finale.

Courtesy of OWN

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Xosha and Alano really burned it up in this first season.  Did you know they would? They did a chemistry read, right?

AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, they did a chemistry test. And the thing I liked about them was that I did not think that they had an instant chemistry in the room. I thought they had just enough where I would be able to see it grow on screen, and that's actually what happened. Sometimes you put two people in a room in a chemistry test, and it's like, "Whoa, should I step out? Do you all want the room?" And it wasn't that. It was enough, so I could see them first meeting each other in the series and being interested, but also being able to walk away.

I know we're supposed to switch to a new couple for the next season, but I can't be the only one who has expressed the wish that we can keep going on this journey with Evan and Gently, right? 

Well, it was envisioned to be an anthology, so that we can get a taste of different couples. It's been interesting to work within the creative confines of that. I found it to be really refreshing and energizing to think about how to tell a story in eight episodes about one couple that's compelling and has a true beginning, middle, and end.  So if we get to go to a second season, there'll be a second couple.

It's clear that you all took pains to make sure neither character would be perceived as always the good guy or the bad guy and I certainly felt my allegiance switching at times.

Yeah, we definitely wanted to create a balance between the two, their weaknesses, their strengths-- at the time when one is needy and the other one is able to be more stable, and how that fluctuates back and forth in any relationship. It's been interesting though as I look at the feedback on social media. It feels that folks are really in tune with him.

Really? Because I felt myself siding with her frequently. He seemed like a person who envisioned the best version of himself – less bougie, less worried about other people's opinions – but wasn't always living up to that image. 

Really? Interesting. [Laughs] And I love that about the series, that it depends on the person. I was talking to Gayle King actually. She was saying, "Why is she so mean to him?" I said, "He's not being mean to her. Let me tell you all the ways." Afterwards she was like, "I didn't see it like that."

It's been interesting to see different people talking about the different sides, and that's the joy of making work is just to instigate that conversation. And I think for me, in making something about black romance, it was really a goal of mine to make something [where] I could talk about black intimacy and black love separated from any social constructs like race and criminalization and all the things that we have to go through. It was just the intimacy between these two people.

One way Evan and Gently get to know each other intimately is through music and some of these cues were so wonderful and disparate, from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Bill Withers, and that was just one episode.  Clearly, music was an important element to you.

Yeah, we wanted to try to connect the idea of how people kind of travel and experience the world, especially with folks who don't leave the country. There's incredible statistics about the numbers of Americans who've never left the country. And so, we're just thinking about that [Evan's extensive record collection] as a bit of a foil to Gently, who's been all over the world, and music was what we came up with. And so, it was a fun to deep dive in the writer's room. It was really the writers who came up with those specific cues. And then we went out and we got those songs. That's one of the top things I hear about, people will ask us about the music so much every episode. So I feel like that's been really successful.

And then visually, for what could've been a very straightforward romantic drama, your directors made some really interesting visual choices from tracking shots to shifting depth of focus to moving the camera to odd angles. Given that it was often going to be two shots of the couple, was that a mandate of yours, or something the directors brought to it?

I handpicked the four directors whose work I was familiar with, or I've worked with before. Blitz [Bazawule], I had actually distributed his film, The Burial of Kojo, through our distribution platform.  Deborah Kampmeier was a director on [DuVernay's other OWN series] Queen Sugar. Same with Tanya Hamilton, same with Aurora Guerrero. These are just some of my favorite directors, who I said, "Look, you get two episodes. Basically, it's a film. Go out there and shoot it out. Give me untraditional frame, untraditional blocking. Take the material and stretch yourself." And they all really rose to the occasion, so I'm pleased with what we got back.

Let us talk for a minute about the legendary Miss Cicely Tyson who plays revered, but unsung, former actress, Miss Luma Langston. What was it like working with her?

It's hard to really put into words what it means to have her on set. She's such an icon and a legend, but also, she is walking black history, civil rights history, women's history. She's 96 years old. She stands on her own without anyone helping her. She dances, she laughs, she makes jokes. For me, beyond just being able to work with someone of her caliber and depth of talent, just more as a human being and a woman, to be able to see that kind of longevity and vitality up-close, makes me think differently about my own life and what's possible.

Okay on to the finale, that last moment of Evan and Gently kissing after Miss Luma's party is truly ambiguous and open to interpretation.  At this point we learn that they are divorced, haven't seen each other for some time and are headed for different parts of the world. That moment could mean anything from sealing it with a kiss for closure, to maybe it leads to a full-blown booty call, or maybe they are getting back together! Care to share thoughts on your intentions or what you might have secretly wished for them?

It was written for you to interpret it as you will. And really, what I wanted was for the ending to be satisfying, right? And not on the nose. And so, that was really what we were striving for from writing the very first episode. It's how can we tell this love story in a way that feels untraditional and fresh, particularly as it relates to black love stories or black romance, but also leave it so that you don't feel like you've invested all this time and get to the end and it's a letdown.  So, I think we've been really true to the rigors of relationships and marriage, and I just appreciate having a real rooted ending that feels meaty and not just tacked on to make everyone happy. More than happy, satisfying is what I was going for. I would hate to put my thought about it, because my thought about it becomes what it is, because I created it. So I really want to let people interpret it for themselves.

The finale also featured some top shelf cameos during the epic birthday party that Gently throws for Miss Luma. Quincy Jones popping up as an admirer and contemporary was some tight casting. What was the inspiration for choosing him?

Well, it was trying to think of someone, "Who could Miss Luma know?"  We've teased that she was this incredible actress back in the day, who never really got a shot. And so, we really needed someone weighty to be able to authenticate that.  I've met [Jones] a few times socially. And so, when I reached out directly, and I said, "This is something we want to do. It's a scene with Miss Tyson." He said, "Baby, tell me where to go." And he showed up one day, and they ad-libbed that, and it was fantastic.

Wait, they ad-libbed that scene?

Yeah, we had talked a little bit about the shape of it. But really, put those two together, and what are we going to say? There's nothing we could write that's as good as them just talking.

And did you cast Loretta Devine to play herself just for that specific reference to her scene with Gregory Hines in Waiting to Exhale so that you could have Evan and Gently act it out?

Yes. Literally, I thought about Evan and Gently doing that scene. And then it was, "Oh gosh, what if we could get Loretta?" And she came! She came.

It was one of many moments on the show that made the relationship feel so real and lived in, like, we know this couple, they could be our friends and we are rooting for them even as we see their flaws and why they might have friction. 

Exactly. Yeah, that was the hope. And I'm just so happy people embraced it. It was the top freshman scripted series on basic [cable]. It's a little thing, but folks have really come to embrace it, and to root for it, and to love these characters. And so, I love making it.

Given what's going on in the world, a lot is up in the air but, hopefully OWN will want you to keep making it.  Are you plotting next season in your head?

Yeah, we know what we would do if we got to season two. Obviously, in the current climate, all that is on hold. So we'll see what happens. We're all going to come out into a new world when this is over. And the hope is that we'll all come out better and stronger, and we'll see what the prospects are when the day comes. In the meantime, just living in the moment, cherishing the day.

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