Reality TV Has Become An Unlikely Champion For Black Subcultures

Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Sherwood/Bravo.
Earlier this week Bravo — the network responsible for the Real Housewives franchise — debuted a new reality series called Your Husband Is Cheating On Us. While the premiere set viewers up for the typical amount of drama we’ve come to expect from a docudrama, the show isn’t nearly as salacious as it sounds. Your Husband Is Cheating On Us is the name of the new stage play by writer and director, JD Lawrence. The Bravo show follows Lawrence, the cast of the play, their understudies, and his two daughters/business partners over the course of eight weeks as they prepare for opening night. This is the first show of its kind that puts the thriving urban theater circuit in the national spotlight. However, it is not the first reality show that has invested in one of the many subcultures that Black Americans have enjoyed within our communities. Reality has become one of the only mainstream mediums to shine a light on the cultural fabric of Black America, for better or for worse.
The urban theater circuit is a booming industry that brings in millions of dollars per year by appealing to Black audiences with the promise of telenovela-worthy drama, song, and inspiration. The plays are a hit with Black women and churchgoers who get to indulge themselves in storylines of dysfunction like extramarital affairs and drug abuse without betraying their religious principles. Urban theater has also been called Black Broadway, gospel theater, and “the chitlin’ circuit,” a term that dates back to the early 1900s when African-American entertainers could only perform in certain venues under segregation. Black theater stage plays launched the career of mega producer Tyler Perry. Most of his films — like Madea’s Family Reunion and Diary of Mad Black Woman — were adapted from plays that he toured around the country. Lawrence hopes that Bravo’s Your Husband Is Cheating On Us will help him make a similar shift into traditional theater and entertainment. He has enlisted a cast of urban theater vets and R&B singer Ginuwine (yes, “Pony,” Ginuwine) to get butts in seats and eyes on the show.
Watching the first episode of Your Husband Is Cheating On Us, I was thrilled to see a part of Black entertainment that was definitely popular in my household being explored. I felt the same way when Bring It! first aired on Lifetime in 2014. Following the success of Dance Moms, the women’s network created a show based on the Dollhouse Dance Factory and the Black majorette team it houses, the Dancing Dolls. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, and run by Dianna “Miss D” Williams, Bring It! followed the troupe as they toured and competed against other teams across the country, the antics of their over-involved parents, and Miss D’s passionate outbursts. Black majorettes combine elements of stepping, cheer, and traditional dance for their performances, which are often set to hip-hop and R&B music. Dressed in colorfully coordinated costumes, these dancers push the boundaries of respectability and body politics with their discipline, precision, and uniformity. Growing up, Black majorettes were allowed to move their bodies in sexualized ways that are denied to Black girls who don’t don dance tights.
Both Your Husband Is Cheating On Us and Bring It! offer perspectives from fringe markets. But even more established urban reality programming adds valuable insight about the way Black people live. For example, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a scene where one of the cast members actually tattoos someone, the premise of VH1’s Black Ink Crew is that the body modification world has a Black faction just like many other industries. There are Black tattoo artists who are just as revered as former tattoo artist Kat Von D. Hip-hop has been a global phenomenon for decades, despite its nasty tendency of not giving the women amongst its ranks the proper shine. Love & Hip Hop arrived on the scene to show women in the industry as more than wives and girlfriends to rappers and producers. On any of the four installments of the franchise, you can catch hip-hop publicists, event planners, promoters, producers, and artists, all of them Black women. Looking beyond the shattered glasses and snatched wigs, reality has something way more substantial to say about our community.
Families of Black doctors are the focal point of another Bravo series, Married to Medicine, which takes viewers into the lives of the Black elite outside of Hollywood. Hustle & Soul is a WE TV reality series about the staff of Chef Lawrence Page’s soul food restaurant, Pink Tea Cup. Cutting It: In The ATL underscored just how important Black hair culture is in Atlanta by following hairstylists as they launched product lines and participated in hair shows.
Reality television is often criticized for only offering negative portrayals of Black people. For these critics, the genre’s reliance on interpersonal tension that often escalates into physical altercations implies that Black people aren’t capable of relationships or business deals that aren’t dysfunctional. Two of the castmates in Your Husband Is Cheating On Us have a baby by the same man, and previews for future episodes suggest that things may come to a head as they live under the same roof. It’s a docudrama, after all. Black folks, and those in community with us regularly, know that one of the shortcomings of reality TV is that it doesn’t always reflect our reality. However, in a moment where traditional entertainment and media all but ignores the creativity and innovation coming from Black America, reality TV consistently shows up with the cameras rolling, finding value in the things that are for us and by us.
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