By Tammy Reese
Developed in partnership with Sundance Institute and Founded by Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph and Head of Film Candice Wilson Cherry, WOMEN WRITE NOW is a comedic writing fellowship designed to champion the next generation of Black women in comedy through mentorship, advocacy, production, and exhibition.
Now in its second year, this year’s fellowship brought in three emerging writers, Mayanna Berrin, Kianna Butler Jabangwe, and Danielle Solomon to develop and produce their comedic short scripts under the guidance of some of the most influential Black women in comedy. The resulting projects were then brought into production by Hartbeat studios.
On Sunday, January 22nd, the three winning films premiered during the Sundance Film Festival brought to the audience by the writers that were selected for the program. The films were directed by Logan Browning (Netflix’s The Perfection and Dear White People), Tika Sumpter (Sonic the Hedgehog, ABC’s Mixed-Ish), and Nicole Byer (NBC’s Grand Crew, Netflix’s Nailed It), all of whom attended the event.
I obtained an exclusive interview with Mayanna Berrin, Kianna Butler Jabangwe, Danielle Solomon, and Candice Wilson Cherry ahead of the event.
How did WOMEN WRITE NOW come about?
Candice Wilson Cherry: WOMEN WRITE NOW started from a need and void in the industry. Originally broached by Thai Randolph who is our CEO. Then a deep conversation happened between myself and Jeff Clanagan about the lack of representation in front of the screen but also behind the screen when it comes to writers and creating that pipeline to actually create and sustain careers from it.
We wanted to create something that is actionable, and also creates a support system for the writers to actually meet established writers, producers, agents, managers, and showrunners. So that they could see what it looks like to actually be working in those rooms.
Thai reached out to Sundance and they wanted to partner. They have been an incredible partner for us from day 1. We all started reaching out to our different networks from around the industry to find mentors and different advocates and it just blossomed into a really beautiful program.
How vital have the mentors and directors been to the program?
Cherry: The directors brought their full selves to the table and ended up being a mentor through the process. When we were looking at who was going to direct these projects, we thought about different Black actresses that we knew in the business who had lengthy careers, and really robust resumes, Also, we looked at who showed interest in their desires to branch out as producers and directors. This was a way to bring them into the process as well as bring their expertise. The mentors have ranged from agents to producers. We’ve had a great group of women for both years. We couldn’t do this program without them. You can’t buy that knowledge.
Please tell us about your project and what sparked your interest to participate in WOMEN WRITE NOW?
Mayanna Berrin (Writer, Power Dynamics):
Power Dynamics is a story of a woman who by day is an executive assistant and by night is a dominatrix. Those worlds collide when her new boss is one of her submissive clients. She has to balance between being bossed around in the office and what she likes to do at night with this particular person.
I saw the program when my partner recommended that I submit for it. He saw it and said, “You’re so funny, you should absolutely submit to this.” So I took something that I originally wanted to do as a full-length feature and found the funniest bits to compound it into something that was shorter and ten pages. I think it’s so important for Black women to have a platform in comedy. I also think that it has been historically a much smaller percentage of Black women in this space. Even though there are just as many funny and talented Black women as there are every other race of people who are in the comedy world. I’m very thrilled and excited that I got to be a part of it.
Danielle Solomon (Writer, Hey Boo):
Similar to my fellow writers, someone sent the information to me. Several people sent the information to me. I had never written a short film before so I thought to myself, what can I write about? I thought about something that pissed me off like when a makeup artist canceled on me. I noticed this was actually a trend on social media. People were telling their nightmares stories about braiders and nail techs, which inspired this short.
It was a challenge to put it into ten pages, but I managed to do it and it’s been an amazing experience. Once I started looking into the program and watching the shorts on Peacock, I just thought, wow! I don’t know any other program that would give you a first-look deal with the production company. You also get your short made and distributed, and you go to Sundance!
Kiana Butler Jabangwe: (Writer, Night Off):
I’m a new mom and I wrote Night Off when my child was 3–4 months old. It’s about first-time parents on their first night out without the baby. The dad convinces the mom to smoke a little weed and she has major mommy guilt and trippy hallucinations.
This is my second time applying. I got an interview the first year, but things happen for a reason. I was pregnant and there was no way I was going to be able to do it. So I applied again and thankfully I got the yes! It’s been so life-affirming and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
What can we expect from the January 22nd event at Sundance?
Cherry: We’re so excited to be all together and at the core of this program it’s all about fellowship and community. These women are enjoying the fruit of all the hard labor. They worked hard and took notes. They’ve written from their heart and experiences. They trusted us and trusted their mentors and directors. Now they get to enjoy this with an audience. I am so excited for the audience response and for the fellows to see their hard work on the big screen. It’s going to be incredible. It’s a major personal and career milestone.
What statement do you want to make in the world and the entertainment industry as a writer?
Solomon: That our stories as Black women are universal.
Jabangwe: Never give up! I wrote my first script ten years ago. You never know what’s going to happen. Life will take you to different places and you can use all of that to write. Just keep living!
Berrin: Surround yourself with people who can both support you and tell you to push yourself and tell you the truth about what you need to work on. Build a house with all of these people inside that are rooting for you and helping you be better.
Learn more about WOMEN WRITE NOW and see the writer and mentor bios by visiting https://womenwritenow.com/
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