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Imagine Documentaries has its first project: The new division, launched in June with former Radical Media exec Justin Wilkes as president, has partnered with Tony-winning playwright and performer Sarah Jones and her Foment Productions on docuseries She the People.
Jones, who’s currently on stage at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre with her one-woman show, Sell/Buy/Date, will build the series from the same mix of investigative research and humor that defines her stage work. In Sell/Buy/Date, she looks at sex work from multiple perspectives — including an elderly Jewish woman who watches porn to enhance sex with her husband, a home-care attendant turned sex worker, and a future sociology professor (all played by Jones, along with many other characters). The professor’s lectures, looking back on a past that is still the future, connect the dystopian threads.
“The times keep catching up with this version of the not-too-distant history that my future character is examining,” Jones tells The Hollywood Reporter on Sept. 27, the day of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “I feel like I’m living in the darkest part of the satire I could possibly write.”
She the People will likewise explore timely issues around women, sex and power — episodes will be thematic but not rigidly structured, with Jones traveling the U.S. and the world as she does to research her stage characters. “One of my inspirations for a certain episode is: I remember going on a run with the border patrol in San Diego, and the agent was this powerhouse Latina woman and I thought, unpack that,” she recalls. “So if a story like that needs to take us from Tijuana into San Diego and then maybe to D.C., we’re going to follow the narrative.” Jones cites Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown as an inspiration, naturally, but also Sarah Silverman’s Hulu series I Love You, America and Comedy Central’s Broad City: “Those girls know how to have a good time and keep you laughing your ass off and still stay woke,” she says.
“Black and white and people from different religious backgrounds, different class backgrounds, came together to make me,” Jones continues. “So I’ve always thought, why isn’t that portrayed anywhere on television, the multiplicity of our culture? My goal is to, no pun intended, get away from the binary black-and-white narratives that I think limit us.”
This is Jones’ first Hollywood project but she has many high-powered entertainment industry fans, including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Laverne Cox and Rashida Jones, who together will host a VIP performance of Sell/Buy/Date on Oct. 14. Jones won a Special Tony Award in 2006 for her earlier one-woman, multi-character play, Bridge & Tunnel.
Wilkes — who before joining Imagine collaborated with the company on multiple projects, most recently National Geographic series Mars — sees Jones as the perfect interlocutor for the issues dominating the 2018 news cycle, including the ones raised by the Kavanaugh hearings. “We need a sane female voice who can say, ‘What the fuck is going on and what can we do about it?'” he says. “I can’t think of anybody else who has the credibility, the intellect and the humor to be able to just get out there and explore the themes and issues playing out in this country and in other places.”
Wilkes and Jones have collaborated before, in the late 1990s, on the development of a Broadway production: a hip-hop musical about street basketball (“This was way before Lin-Manuel Miranda was rapping his way to Broadway,” Wilkes notes) with Savion Glover as the choreographer and Ahmir Thompson (aka Questlove) as the musical director; Jones was brought on to write the book for the Nike-funded project. The show never made it to the stage (though some of the content found its way into a series of Nike commercials), and Wilkes hadn’t seen Jones in years until, on his first official day at Imagine, he sat in on a pitch meeting for She the People.
While she plans to tackle serious issues with the series, Jones stresses that humor is a crucial lens. “I do not want people thinking that they’re coming to eat their vegetables,” she says. “I like to think of this like those brownies with the avocado in the recipes — you’ve got to get your omega-3s and your good fats, but it’s still a brownie, have a good time!”
She the People will be executive produced by Imagine’s Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Wilkes and Sara Bernstein, along with Julie Oh, Abby Ex and Jones.
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