A hybrid of talk show and dinner party, “The Conversations Project” pairs gourmet meals with provocative questions about being Black in America.
By Christopher Kuo
Seat eight highly successful Black people around a dinner table and prompt them to discuss reparations and hairstyles and Kanye West over crayfish bisque and roast duck.
That’s the premise for a new television show, produced by ESPN’s Black-focused media platform, Andscape, called “The Conversations Project,” now streaming on Hulu. A hybrid of talk show and dinner party, the unscripted series explores the pride and peril of being Black in America.
Taking a cue from the early 20th-century salons of the Harlem Renaissance, where Black luminaries would gather to exchange ideas, the show’s six episodes bring together noteworthy Black figures — actors, comedians, professors, business owners, an astronaut — for a dinner hosted by Andscape’s veteran NBA writer Marc Spears, the journalist Elaine Welteroth and the chef David Lawrence.
Each of the meal’s three courses, prepared by Lawrence and a team of chefs, corresponds with a new question for the guests: Are Black people in America inherently more spiritual than other racial or ethnic groups? What does it mean to be authentic in a world that so often requires code-switching? What’s the difference between having influence and being a leader?
For the show’s hosts and guests, “The Conversations Project” is about more than discussing pressing topics. It’s also about transforming how Black people are portrayed onscreen: a celebration of Black success and a window into how many different forms that success can take.
“You see lots of white people that have had success on television,” Spears said. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of white people who have had success. It’s time for people to see Black people that have had success and talk about it."
Andrea Lewis, a Canadian actress and singer featured on the series, says she hopes it “will open up the conversation that Blackness is not a monolith.”
“It has many faces,” said Lewis, who’s widely known for her role on the show “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” “It has many stories to be told. And that’s all any person of color wants to see. They want to see their experience shown. And that our experience is not just tiny; it’s not just something that can be put in a box.”
The “Conversations Project,” as it was originally conceived, looked very different from its current iteration.
It was supposed to be about bringing athletes of color to Black-owned wineries, an idea that blossomed out of the friendship between Lawrence and Spears. For years, Spears had frequented 1300 on Fillmore, one of Lawrence’s restaurants in San Francisco, and the two had bonded over their love of wine and their loyalty to rival soccer teams. (Lawrence loves Chelsea; Spears is an Arsenal fan.)
One day in 2021, while sipping on wine and watching soccer at Lawrence’s house, Spears realized that there weren’t many online resources to find Black-owned wines. When Spears heard that Andscape was in the market for a new show, he and Lawrence decided to produce a pilot episode in which they took Terance Mann, a basketball player for the Los Angeles Clippers, to a winery in St. Helena, Calif. The hosts interviewed Mann about his career, cooked a meal for him, and talked during dinner with the Clippers assistant coach Brian Shaw; his wife, Nikki Shaw, a professional chef; the comedian W. Kamau Bell; and the winemaker Brenae Royal.
Hulu and Andscape loved the dinner party segment and cut the rest. The concept became Lawrence cooking the meals while Spears and Welteroth, who was added as a co-host, help guide the conversations. A “cocktail hour” segment before the meal would allow the hosts to introduce the guests to Black-owned wines, preserving a piece of the original idea.
Filming began this past February in Long Island City, Queens. “It was just a wide-ranging discussion,” Spears said. “We had scripted topics, but we didn’t have scripted answers or a scripted discussion.”
Though most of the episodes show the guests nodding in agreement, the show is most entertaining when the conversation grows divisive, even heated, as it did in the sixth episode during a discussion of the impact of social media.
“It sometimes feels like we are the enemy of y’all,” Brett Gray, a 27-year-old actor and TikTok influencer, says to the older members of the group.
These discussions are less about raising awareness about certain topics and more about modeling a way of talking and disagreeing with each other, said Raina Kelley, the editor in chief of Andscape and the show’s executive producer.
“At its most important, it's basically an example nowadays of how to have a civil conversation,” Kelley said.
But the show has far more camaraderie than conflict, more levity than ill will. It is, at its core, a depiction of a group of Black people sharing two of life’s greatest pleasures: delicious food and stimulating conversation.
“Even if you’re in the sticks of West Virginia and there’s no Black people there,” Spears said, “you can watch this show and say, ‘Oh OK, that’s what it’s like to go to dinner with some Black folks.’”
Christopher Kuo is a culture reporter for The Times and a member of the 2023-24 Times Fellowship class. More about Christopher Kuo
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