In an interview, the actor discusses leaving “Chicago Med” for her soapy new Fox drama about a powerful Black community on Martha’s Vineyard. “I can carry a show,” she said. “It’s time.”
After six seasons playing the nurse April Sexton on the hit NBC medical drama “Chicago Med,” Yaya DaCosta was contemplating her future in the “Chicago” franchise earlier this spring when she received an auspicious offer. She was given the opportunity to lead Fox’s “Our Kind of People,” a soapy new drama centering on the rich and powerful Black elite in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, and she was ready for it.
“Every time someone came up to me to tell me they loved April Sexton, the next thing out of their mouth was that they needed to see more of her,” DaCosta said in a recent interview. “And it echoed something in my spirit that was like: ‘Yes, I want to do something where I have more screen time, where I have more responsibility. I can carry a show. It’s time.’”
Created by Karin Gist (“Star,” “Mixed-ish,” “Girlfriends”) and inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham’s provocative, best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, “Our Kind of People” premieres Tuesday. It follows a single mother named Angela Vaughn (DaCosta), who moves from Boston to Oak Bluffs to start a Black hair care line on a property that she inherited from her late mother, once a maid on the island. But when Leah Franklin-Dupont (Nadine Ellis), a socialite and member of the Franklin-Dupont dynasty, refuses to accept her family into the coastal enclave, Angela uncovers a dark secret about her mother’s past that threatens to unravel the fabric of this exclusive, tight-knit community.
“Angela coming in as this disrupter is fraught with friction and skepticism, but it’s also kind of refreshing,” she said. “She’s there to reclaim her family name and to discover more about her mom and what place she can carve out in Oak Bluffs.”
An earlier adaptation of “Our Kind of People” never made it past the development stage, but Gist and Lee Daniels — who had previously worked together as executive producers on the Fox musical drama series “Star” — were more successful. They began working on their own version in the summer of 2019, and earlier this year, Fox executives greenlighted a 12-episode first season.
During the early stages of development, Gist spoke with the author Graham, who died in February, and received his blessing to create a fictionalized world that was informed by the interviews he conducted, for his book, with some of the most prominent Black families in America. Once the creative team — which also included Tasha Smith, who directed the first two episodes — received a series order, they quickly determined that DaCosta “embodies so many of the qualities that I saw for Angela,” Gist said.
“Her essence is empowered; she celebrates Black beauty and hair,” Gist said. “She’s very centered and grounded, but she can also give a little spice and a little attitude.”
DaCosta initially found fame as a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” before going on to act in television (“Whitney”) and film (“Tron: Legacy,” “The Kids Are All Right”). “Our Kind of People” reunites her with two former collaborators: Daniels, who directed her in the film “The Butler,” and Debbi Morgan, who played her mother on the ABC soap opera “All My Children” and will play her aunt in the new series.
In a recent panel discussion to promote the series, Daniels said he was struck by DaCosta’s evolution as an actor.
She “was always grounded when she played the Black Panther in ‘The Butler,’” Daniels said. “But she’s grown into a more groundedness with her work that shows here, something that age and wisdom has done.”
In a phone interview from Wilmington, N.C., where “Our Kind of People” is filmed, DaCosta discussed the responsibility that comes with showcasing affluent Black communities, her hopes for the series and her own contributions to her character’s inventive hairstyles. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In a promotional video for the show, your co-star Joe Morton said, “Our Kind of People” represents “a part of Black culture that we’ve never seen before.” What sets this show apart from something like “Empire”?
My understanding is that a show like “Empire” was chronicling the life of a family that was self-made. You see their journey from the “hood” to success. The difference here is that families that vacation in Martha’s Vineyard generally come from multigenerational wealth, so there’s a different energy, there’s a different ease. They’re not entertainers, they’re not athletes, and that’s the part that is new.
How does this show help to demystify the wealthy, Black upper class and provide a broader understanding of the community?
It’s not new to see Black people with money. It’s new to see communities that were able to defy the odds of the atrocities of history — the burning down of Black Wall Street, the decimation of entire communities that were self-sufficient. When enslaved people freed themselves and were building their cities and having full infrastructures, those places were literally burned down.
[Martha’s Vineyard] was one place that survived. People traveled to this place that they heard was safe and used the Green Book. These are families that were doing well but also had to navigate the times. And it’s not a year-round place — it’s a vacation place. It’s really an interesting peek into this world, and it’ll be interesting for people to see how and why this island off the coast of Massachusetts became this safe haven where people continue to vacation and connect and share stories of the past to this day.
What are your hopes for this series? What kinds of conversations do you hope it provokes?
We’ve come out of a very intense period of highlighting what’s wrong, and what has been wrong for a very long time in this country. The quieting of those voices, the different frequencies of peaceful protests, doesn’t indicate a dip in the occurrence of police brutality on Black bodies. It just means that people are tired — tired of talking about it, tired of seeing trauma porn on their Instagram feeds, tired of feeding the narrative. And while it’s necessary to never forget and to highlight the atrocities, it’s also important to see ourselves in a light that we want to see more of. That’s true on a personal level, and that’s true on a societal level.
I’m thrilled to be working on a project that shows full human beings in all of their glory — and their flaws as well, because you’re not having to represent an entire people and fear that somebody is going to get embarrassed because your character made a mistake. Any time I read scenes that are funny, scenes where there’s dancing, scenes that are uplifting or just silly, I rejoice, because that reflects my experience in my real life. So I hope that people enjoy seeing themselves, whether it’s an entrepreneur trying to break a ceiling, or someone whose family vacations in places like Oak Bluffs and can relate to generational wealth.
Angela arrives in Oak Bluffs to learn more about her mother’s past, but she also wants to expand her hair care line. Did you know much about that industry before working on this show?
I’ve always been obsessed with hair. I went to a boarding school in Massachusetts, so I would have girls from around campus coming to my dorm room, and I’d be doing their hair, and then I’d do my hair and finish all of my homework in between. I still graduated cum laude, but I was known for this. So to play a character, finally, where I get to express myself and play with hair in the way that I do in real life is such fun.
How have you worked with the hair and makeup team to determine Angela’s beautiful and distinctive hairstyles from week to week?
I get to do it with my longtime friend and hair stylist Chioma Valcourt. It’s the first time that I’ve been able to bring her on a project. For so long, Black actresses had to get their hair done behind-the-scenes and then come to set ready, because we never knew what we were going to get. We didn’t want someone to break our hair or destroy our edges, which is the hairline area.
So I have the most fun with [Valcourt], talking about what Angela is doing with her hair because she, her daughter [played by Alana Bright] and her aunt are her biggest billboards. When they walk around Oak Bluffs, they are representing their family, and they’re also representing [her company,] Eve’s Crown. So to have the real-life Angela Vaughn with me on set is a blessing.