While it may be doing well in the ratings and with critics, BET’s Wednesday-night drama The Quad (which airs at 10 p.m. EST) has become a somewhat controversial series. This is thanks in part to criticisms from HBCU alumni and major players like Hampton University President William R. Harvey. He recently sent a letter to BET CEO Debra Lee, chiding the show’s portrayal of historically Black colleges and universities and claiming that it could hurt future enrollment.
But if you ask Felicia D. Henderson, the show’s creator, about the goal of the entire project, it’s an overwhelmingly positive one.
“I love my people,” she told me over the phone. “My goal is to employ us and show us in all of our lights.”
Showing Black people in all of our lights is Felicia D. Henderson’s specialty. She developed Soul Food for Showtime and has written and produced for everything from Family Matters to Moesha, Sister, Sister, and Everybody Hates Chris. It’s hard to believe that at one point, Henderson’s focus was pscyho-biology and corporate finance.
“I originally pursued psycho-biology because I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I thought that because I was good at math and science, and that’s what you do when you’re good at math and science. The truth is, I always loved to write, but I didn’t think there was a career in writing.”
But by her senior year of undergrad, an opportunity presented itself that would develop into one after another. While working as a receptionist at a mergers and acquisitions company, she was encouraged by her boss to study for an MBA. In applying for that, Henderson ended up landing a fellowship provided by NBC. That fellowship led to an opportunity to enter into NBC’s management training program, and that’s how Henderson read some of her first television scripts.
“A supervisor at NBC said, ‘You give great notes on scripts, you have lots of ideas, you’re very opinionated. You should try it,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s not something I ever thought about.’ But he was the reason I did try it, and he told me about the Warner Bros. writer’s workshop and I applied and got in. From there, I was placed on a show and have been writing ever since.”
Fast forward to 2017, and Henderson has co-created The Quad with Charles Holland, her buddy from the Soul Food days. Granted, Henderson never went to an HBCU, but her experiences studying at the University of Georgia and being in close proximity to the Atlanta University Center Consortium, gave her insight into HBCU life. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the people who work on the show graduated from HBCUs, and that the series is shot on Morehouse’s campus. But as she aptly put it, “You don’t have to have gone to an HBCU to want Blacks depicted being educated and smart and being creative and not monolithic.”
With that being said, Henderson was also aware that some individuals who have graduated from such institutions likely wouldn’t be excited about the project. She knew people would have a lot to say.
“I was expecting and we have received very strong opinions,” she said. “So while we’re doing well in the ratings and critics love the show, there are people who have that experience who don’t like what we’re doing. I did expect very strong opinions, but I can’t say that I did expect people not to see the good in the storytelling. That’s what surprised me.”
Her biggest grievance is with people’s attack on the lead character, Dr. Eva Fletcher, who is played by Anina Noki Rose. Her character cheats on her husband in the series. Is that the central focus of the show? Not at all.
“I did expect strong opinions, but I had hoped that the whole picture we are presenting would be given a fair shot,” she said. “I had hoped people would go, ‘Yes, it’s television. Yes, it has to have drama, but we’re looking at a show that has a young woman who is a Google scholar who codes.’ We’re showing a mathematical genius from the South Side of Chicago. We’re showing a student who is the third generation to be educated at this school. We have scenes in calculus classes. I hope those things are weighed as heavily as, ‘Well, we don’t like that Eva is having an affair.’”
And while she expected “strong opinions,” when I brought up the complaints from Harvey, specifically his worry that the series could hurt HBCU enrollment, she admitted that his comments were unexpected and a bit disheartening.”I feel disappointed, of course,” she said. “Her disappointment is especially strong considering that she says certain aspects of the story are far from fiction. Aspects of Dr. Fletcher’s character, specifically her commitment to students, are actually based on Lincoln University president, Kevin D. Rome. Also, the idea of someone coming to a school that’s in complete disarray and in bankruptcy with the hope of changing things while actively overseeing the success of its students is all too real.
“People who feel like that, I wish I could meet with them and have personal conversations with them so it could be a dialogue instead of, ‘Everyone involved on this show should be fired,’” Henderson stated. “I don’t know what is positive about such an approach. Ultimately, we have the same goal: to educate our people about just how amazing we are. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’re not complicated.”
But criticism is something Henderson is used to. Despite the fact that Soul Food was the longest-running drama with a Black cast, and one of the most successful, even that series garnered disapproval from Black audiences at times.
“I remember some of the same sort of backlash,” she said, “with people talking about ‘How we could display Black families in such a way?’ We overcame the negative backlash because people stayed and watched the show and saw what we were doing. But even though it then became overwhelmingly positive, any time there was a story line that depicted us in not our best moments, people would still get angry.”
She continued, “The show was about a family that always stood together despite their differences and their complicated lives. That’s what it was about. But if you did one thing: ‘Oh my God, I’m never watching again!’ If there’s something that’s more complex and shows us not in our best light, it feels like that will be the thing that sticks with people more than the 80 percent of a show that’s quite positive. That is what is disappointing and pretty much saddens my heart to be honest with you.”
Still, things haven’t been bad. Henderson said that she’s also heard from alumni who have told her they love the representation and see themselves in the series. Not to mention that she’s proud of the fact that she’s been able to provide employment opportunities for a lot of Black people in Atlanta, where the show is set and shot. That includes cast and crew, extras, as well writers and the directors who’ve taken turns behind the camera. Henderson is happy with the work her team has done on The Quad, and is also thankful to see it among a wealth of new shows that tell Black stories. Considering that when Soul Food ended in 2004, it was said to be the last Black drama series on TV at the time, that’s a big deal for her.
“Finally, we see a plethora of really great Black storytelling and dramas,” she said. “I was doing my drama 15 years ago when there were no others and it seemed like there weren’t going to be any others. This is a good time.”