The series, created and executive-produced by Mara Brock Akil (creator of Girlfriends and The Game) and directed by her husband, Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom), is an unflinching look at the balancing act of trying to manage a stressful family life and a hectic career, all the while traversing the tight rope of single-dom.
Union credits a failed Scandal audition with guiding her toward her new role. “The words that we were auditioning with were so amazing that all of us were like, even if we don’t get this job … it was so good to practice with good material. It’s making me better just auditioning … We all kind of fell in love with this idea of playing in a world that a black woman had created.”
The world Brock created is one that Union believes is a testament to an authentic life. “For women, you are either a victim or a hero. You’re either the good girl or the bad girl, and very rarely do you get to see 360 degrees of a character,” she says. “In Being Mary Jane you see her be all of that. She is a victim, she is a hero; she’s a good girl, she’s a bad girl, and she has those days when nothing is really happening. It reflects life—we aren’t all one thing.”
For Avery, the reflection is a bit different. “I was just happy to have a job,” she says, sharing a laugh with Union, tinged with a sadness that they both know to be based in truth.
“I am happy about Being Mary Jane,” Avery says, “because when black people do the casting, they accept my look. When whites are doing the casting, they figure, if I’m the mama I’ve got to be 20 to 30 pounds overweight and almost semi-Aunt Jemima-like. It’s got to be that look that makes them feel comfortable.”
It is that comfortable look that makes Union feel uncomfortable. “It is a caricature, a stereotype, and it isn’t real,” she says. It is authenticity that she craves from Hollywood. “I would love one time, a woman plucks her chin hair. Or just one time a man goes in for a full workup because of low testosterone or low libido … just the real issues that we are actually facing, and also the backlash that comes with it.”
She turns to Avery: “The scene where you are sick and coughing and Richard [Roundtree as Avery’s husband] says, ‘I wish you would go on and die already.’ You never see that! People having a moment of brutal honesty.”
Avery and Union don’t just play these characters—they believe in them and fight for them. It is clear in talking with both women that this isn’t really a show they star in but more a cause they believe in.
“I was tossing this conversation around with some of my friends when I recognized that my own father wouldn’t have dated me,” says Union. “My dad only likes light-skinned women, and he married a light-skinned woman thinking he would have light-skinned children.”
Avery and Union look at each other and laugh. “Whoops,” Avery says.