Fifteen students at Grambling State University (GSU) this week got a rare opportunity to participate in the filming of a full-length television sitcom pilot on campus.
The Film Workforce Training Program, run by GSU film studies instructor Lena Wilson Claybon, was an intensive 10-week class that paired students with directors, scouts, cinematographers and makeup artists for three days to learn more about the industry, and to produce the pilot.
The students work in all aspects of television and film production including directing, producing, cinematography, location scouting, wardrobe, hair and makeup, grip and electrical work. Filming takes place this week.
Television producer and writer Michael Ajakwe Jr., who has been involved with a number of shows including, “Martin,” “Eve,” “Sister, Sister” and “Moesha,” and producer James Tripp (“Eve,” “The Sinbad Show” and “Moesha”) are working with the students.
Ajakwe is a friend of Claybon’s and he persuaded Tripp to participate in the project, along with Rusty Cundieff, who has directed episodes of “The Wanda Sykes Show,” “Human Giant,” “Chappelle’s Show” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” who is directing the pilot, which was written by Claybon.
The plot of “The Devon Taylor Show” focuses on challenges faced by a 17-year-old rapper, talk show host and student who is being pressured to develop his “street cred” by music industry insiders. It stars 17-year-old positive rapper Justin “J Xavier” Harris, Reggie Hayes (“Girlfriends”) and Aloma Wright (“Scrubs”).
Claybon, a writer for "Claude's Crib" and "Moesha," is also creator and executive producer of "The Devon Taylor Show."
Claybon told the News-Star that Louisiana has become such a popular filming location that there is a shortage of people qualified to fill some production positions and she thought it would be a great training opportunity for students.
“I thought this would be the best way to teach them the skill sets they need right now to be able to take advantage of this shortage of crew in the Louisiana film industry,” she said.
“I have been excited by two pilots in my 25 years in TV and the first one was ‘Scrubs,’” Wright told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “And this one has the same vibe for me.”
J Xavier, a positive rapper who has acted in MTV Films’ “My Super Sweet 16 The Movie” and the feature film “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” said he found some parallels in the sitcom’s main character and his own experiences.
The show is loosely based on his life.
“He’s a 17-year-old student, has an extraordinary talent and he’s trying to balance his talent and his career and his morals get tested,” he told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
But what he found most exciting about the project was the chance to shoot it at an HBCU and interact with talented black students.
“It’s being around black people and sharing their talents,” J Xavier said, adding the students were “wonderful and very helpful and ready to do anything at the drop of a hat. …and treating us almost like royalty or something like that.”
“It’s exciting to be part of the process,” said Hayes, who plays J Xavier’s father.
“I’m a pastor and the father and I’m trying to lead him without leading too much,” Hayes said. “They want him to be more dangerous than he is to sell records and he has to make choices on his own.”
Wright said working on a pilot is interesting because the actor doesn’t know in advance how her character will develop.
In the pilot she’s a cantankerous woman, nearing retirement, who is brought on board as an affirmative action hire and becomes a prickly presence in the student’s life.
“I don’t know if she does have a change in heart. It would be a great arc for that character,” Wright said.
J Xavier said Claybon approached him four years ago about the possibility of a sitcom.
“She came to Houston, saw my talent and saw my gift and put it in a script form. It was like 4 years ago and to see it just come to fruition now is exciting,” J Xavier said.
At first, though, he just filed the offer away.
“It hit me like, yeah, that would be a nice situation, but I just kept working to stay on top of my music, handling my business as a artist.
Then, about a month ago she called and said it was time to really go forward.”
“Personally, I don’t know,” Hayes told BlackAmericaWeb.com when asked how his character might develop or what the chances were that the pilot would be bought, but he hoped the show will be picked up by a network.
“I have high hopes for this project. I’ve been praying for something like this for a long time. It’s really smart; I like the people and I hope it really does well.”