In Treatment’s Uzo Aduba Finally Brings Depth To The “Black Lady Therapist” Onscreen

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
The wise, all-knowing “Black Lady Therapist” is so prevalent on television — especially in the era of prestige TV — that the onscreen presence of a Black woman whose sole role is to help (mostly white) protagonists navigate the messiness of life has become a tired trope. Acclaimed shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Mare Of Easttown and Never Have I Ever all feature Black women as depthless caricatures who dole out advice to the leads from their therapist chairs, while never getting their own backstories. In the new reimagining of HBO’s In Treatment, Uzo Aduba’s character is here to change that. 
Aduba plays Dr. Brooke Taylor (mentee of the therapist Gabriel Byrne took on in the show’s first three seasons from 2008-2010), who is seeing patients virtually from home amidst the pandemic. In this season, we see Brooke treating a new patient each episode, and it’s not just her clients whose problems we get to examine up close and uncomfortably. There’s a white collar criminal played by John Benjamin Hickey, a possible addict and  health aide worker played by Anthony Ramos and Quintessa Swindell as a confused teen running from the stress of home and school life, but it’s Brooke’s own internal battles that prove to be the most fascinating. She’s dealing with the grief of a big loss, a tumultuous relationship with her wasteman ex (Joel Kinnaman) and her own mental health journey (with Liza Colón-Zayas who is brilliant as her best friend). Unlike the other Black therapists we’ve seen sprinkled into shows with few other Black characters, Aduba’s Brooke has her own messes to clean, and she’s got layers upon layers of shit to unpack. 

I think it's important to see a Black woman at the center of a story about mental health and therapy... Hopefully [this role] will provoke conversations for our community in particular.

This role isn’t exactly a departure for Aduba, who has perpetually proven that there’s nothing she can’t do (she’s won three Emmys; her latest for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm), but it is on the opposite end of the character spectrum from her star-making turn in Orange Is The New Black. “Never would I have imagined that I would go from playing a character named Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren, who is incarcerated, to playing the first Black woman to run for president of the United States as my immediate television follow-up,” Aduba recently told Rolling Stone. “It’s not lost on me either to now be on the opposite side of the mental health conversation in Brooke. I’ve gone from Suzanne to this.” In a Zoom conversation with R29Unbothered, Aduba expands on that mental health discourse as it relates to Black women playing therapists. 
“We're capable of managing the responsibility without serving as the voice of saving, of always saving and rescuing,” Aduba says. Pop culture has a long history of saddling Black women characters as the “voice of saving.” In a Slate piece from 2018, Aisha Harris posits that the ‘Black Lady Therapist’ [is] just the latest outgrowth of the storied Black Best Friend.” She writes that Black Lady Therapists “exist in these narratives for the sole purpose of listening to the woes of their white patients, not unlike the BBF, and helping them arrive at a process for fixing themselves.” In In Treatment, not only does Brooke treat patients who are not white (in the first four episodes, two of the three patients are people of color), she’s also fixated on her own process of growth as much as her patients. That’s a groundbreaking progression for this trope that may be better for Black women onscreen than the Mammy or Jezebel, but still confines them to a one-dimensional sidekick that is hovering real close to the Magical Negro of cinema’s past. In this show, Brooke is no one’s sidekick. “I think it's important to see a Black woman at the center of a story about mental health and therapy,” Aduba says. 

[This series] came into my life when releasing, listening and healing needed to happen within my own orbit... It's probably the hardest thing I've ever worked on.

Aduba’s role in the center of this story is significant because it finally gives depth to the “Black Lady Therapist,” but also because of how much therapy has been stigmatized in certain Black communities. “Hopefully [this role] will provoke conversations for our community in particular, to open us up to ideas around mental health, but also for everyone to start to see us in that space and in that light,” Aduba continued. “I hope they understand that our voice and perspective and world experience is important to be centered as a part of the mental health conversation and in terms of the driving of that conversation.” 
As therapy has slowly started to weave its way into series that actually show Black women going to see Black therapists (Molly on Insecure, Nola Darling on the 2017 adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It), the hope is that the reality that Black women also go on their own mental health journeys will finally be reflected on screen. Aduba’s own relationship to therapy made this role one that hit close to home. “It was rubbing up closer in certain areas to my own life, with still some invention,” she says about how much of herself she channelled to play Brooke. “There were parts where I was like, Oh, I don't think this woman is like me in this area, but the heart of her, the area of pain and loss I could connect readily to.” Aduba’s mother passed away 10 days before she flew to L.A. to begin filming In Treatment. “[This series] came into my life when releasing and listening and healing needed to happen within my own orbit. So this was a timely project in that sense,” Aduba says.
“It's probably the hardest thing I've ever worked on, but also the most satisfying. And I was glad that I was able to make it to the other side, to make it to shore.” 
In Treatment premieres on HBO this Sunday (May 23) at 9 p.m. ET.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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