Karyn Parsons, Writer, Producer, Actor
In 1996, Karyn Parsons created co wrote and co-produced the Fox Television half-hour sitcom Lush Life. Following production of the pilot, Parsons attended New York University's film intensive program. Upon completion of that program, Parsons returned to Los Angeles to produce and star in Lush Life. In 1999, Parsons attended Santa Monica College and studied writing under the tutelage of Jim Krusoe, editor of the award-winning Santa Monica Review Literary Journal. Through the college, Parsons received a scholarship to the prestigious Squaw Valley Institute of Writers and received mentorship from such noted authors as Amy Tan, Anne Lamott and Richard Ford.
She has co-directed the short films Stromboli and Eye Spy and has recently completed her solo directing effort, one she also wrote and produced, entitled Jake and Lily. Karyn has also acted in such films as The Ladies Man and Mixing Nia, and alongside Denis Leary in The Job for ABC. She is best known for her role as Hilary Banks on the long-running NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
She stepped into the café kind of like:
"Here I am and -
there you are!"
and I instantly looked forward to our chat.
Karyn and I met at a café in the West Village early on a Wednesday morning where I discovered that she is someone that it is easy to instantly like. And, I did, instantly like her.
I admire the work that she is doing to promote self esteem in kids by introducing them to stories about people who have overcome challenges; stories about people who might otherwise be forgotten.
I really like it when I can spend an hour or two with someone who is comfortable with who they are. I love listening to someone when they have a big vision with no clear cut idea about how to get to where they want to be, yet they are clear, clear, clear that they will surely arrive.
I really liked taking the time to listen to what Karyn had to say.
DR: Tell me about your life and about your work.
KP: My company is called Sweet Blackberry. I officially started it in 2004.
The impetus for Sweet Blackberry was the story of Henry Box Brown, which my mother, who is a retired librarian, shared with me. She used to always bring interesting stories to me. In her last job as a librarian she worked as the head of The Black Resource Center. She had a wealth of information about Black history and culture and she used to share all of it with me. God bless my Mom. She did think that in school, they were teaching me things that they were not.
My Mom was telling me one day about Henry Box Brown, a slave who, in 1848, literally got a box, put himself inside of it and with the help of someone, nailed the box shut and had himself mailed from Virginia to Pennsylvania. When they opened the box on the other end, he was a free man who spent the rest of his life traveling and telling his story.
I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard this story before because it was so amazing story. I told my friends and they all thought that it was an amazing story and I thought that it would be something great to tell kids.
I started making notes and I started doing researching and I started finding out about other people that I hadn't heard of who had great stories -- usually coming from my Mom. Then I thought that it would be great to do a series for kids but at the time I was working on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and so I would go back to work and get caught up into all of that, thinking that I would get back to my idea at some point.
It was always in the back of my head and I would always talk about.
At the November 2005 Launch Party for The Journey of Henry Box Brown, actress/producer Karyn Parsons (second from left) reunites with her Fresh Prince of Bel Air co-stars Tatyana Ali and Alfonso Ribiero (third and fourth from left) and actress Alfre Woodard (Desperate Housewives) narrator of The Journey of Henry Box Brown
Photo by Michael Riddick
Finally when I was pregnant with my daughter I started thinking a lot about teaching her history and Black History in particular. I felt that I had a responsibility as a parent. So, I started talking about it again...
My husband is a film maker. He's an independent filmmaker and his whole life has been the opposite of the kind of life that actors have - waiting for the phone to ring. He has to make everything happen. He got sick of hearing me just talk about what I wanted to do and he said
"You have got to get moving!"
So I started to reach out to people.
The fist person I reached out to was Gina Kamentsky. She is an animator who I met through my mother-in-law because they had done a short film together. I knew that I wanted to keep the animation very light because I wanted it to be much more about a book coming to life. I didn't want it to be a cartoon thing.
When I met with Gina it was just to get ideas and ask for help. I wasn't thinking so much about "doing" it. But, I was pretty impressed with her and how well she seemed to understand my vision and how she spoke to it. I liked how her creative mind worked. So, within no time I was calling Gina and asking
"Well, what do you think about... maybe... you know..."
And we formed a partnership.
We started working together and we got Mark Page on board to illustrate the first one. Alfre Woodard, who I worked with on the mini-series Gulliver's Travels was someone that I wanted for the project because when I was writing the stories at some point Alfre's voice got into my head and I couldn't get it out. She was perfect for this. I asked God, "Please, please, please". I just wanted Alfre.
And then there is Coati Mundi from Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Coati has a very child like energy. He likes kids. He's kind of a big kid. Once we gave him all of the visuals he ended up creating something that I hadn't anticipated. He brought a lot of pulse and life to it. I had good ideas but what he brought took it to a new level.
DR: So are you going to keep doing new stories?
The first series will be six stories. I have six stories that I want to tell, about little known African Americans throughout history. From there we will branch out. I would like to tell stories about all people; little known stories, stories that we haven't heard about. People share amazing stories with me all of the time that I don't want to get lost. I would like to bring them to life in kind of a fairy tale way and also get a message across.
DR: Do you consider yourself to be successful?
KP: At this?
DR: Or generally...When you wake up in the morning and when you are just walking through your life doing what you do everyday, do you think of yourself as successful?
KP: That's a great question.
It's a constant challenge. Relatively - Yeah! I certainly don't think that I am not successful.
You know financing and funding, that area, that is a huge hurdle for me to get over. It is unbelievably difficult. You get such great response...I am going to meetings with really incredibly well known and respected companies and they are telling me "We love this! We want to air this. We want to publish another book." And then you wait and you wait....You wait for people to talk to other people, then they might tell you that you need to get some other ducks in a row first...
I have gotten a lot of positive response and I feel really good about it. A lot of people that I am dealing with are straight shooters. I believe they are telling us the truth.
Most importantly, the kids are loving it! That is my biggest thing. I never intended on writing things for kids. This is all new to me so the fact that kids are watching it over and over and hearing the testimonials from talking to people - I feel very successful in that regard.
Educators are our biggest supporters and that makes me feel great. We talk to teachers and librarians all of the time and they let us know that they are hungry for this! We are in the process of creating a teaching guide so that teachers and parents so that they can guide the kids through the material.
The Journey of Henry Box Brown takes a magical look at the historic true tale of slave Henry Box Brown, a man who mailed himself in a wooden box from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1848.
Narrated by four time Emmy Award-winning actress, Alfre Woodard, The Journey of Henry Box Brown tells the true story of a slave's brave and dangerous quest for freedom. This animated treasure for children is illustrated by graphic artist Mark Page, with music by Grammy-nominated artist Coati Mundi of Kid Creole & The Coconuts.
The Journey of Henry Box Brown is a story of determination and courage that you and your child won't soon forget! Ages 3-10.
Click here for more...
DR: What are you most happy about right now?
KP: This project has revealed a lot to me about myself. I had never thought about what a big thing I would be taking on. If I had I probably wouldn't have gotten into it in the first place. But I have grown a lot. I have had to face a lot of things and a lot of parts of myself.
DR: For instance?
KP: For instance, I have had to speak up for myself and put myself on the line a lot and deal with the fact that people are not always going to like me. It is not about me. It is about the company. It's about Sweet Blackberry and so I have to push my concerns out of the way. It is hard because people don't always like what I have to say. That has been a struggle within me.
DR: What is the thing that you say to yourself when faced with the prospect of people not liking you?
KP: When my daughter was born, I taped "Do it for Lana" on the front of my phone. That has become my thing. Once I had my daughter it became important for me to always do what I think is right. I want to make sure that I am a real role model for her. I want to be someone who is strong and does what she believes in and doesn't buckle. I want to live a life that she can watch and learn from.
Then, when I started Sweet Blackberry I then found myself saying "Do it for Sweet Blackberry". I know that I have to get out of the way sometimes and just focus on what the company needs.
DR: What is the ultimate vision that you have for Sweet Blackberry?
KP: Well, it started out as books for kids and then it became DVDs for kids for two reasons. First it was much easier to do that on our own because we didn't need a publisher. The other thing was that I was seeing so many parents that were using DVDs as tools. So I thought that since so many parents were using DVDs to entertain their kids, why not make DVDs that teach.
That is what we thought when we started. Now we want to get these stories out in multiple platforms -- DVDs, broadcast, books, etc. Part of why we are doing this is so that the stories don't get lost because we can all be enriched by them. I also want to move us away from the attitude that February is the one time of the year to hear about Black History.
But what I really want to do with all of the stories is to teach kids that they can do anything. I want to let kids know that they don't have to feel small.
DR: Do you ever get discouraged?
KP: Yesterday and I think it's hormonal!
I came home... my husband could not believe me... I am a real positive person until I take a dive like yesterday.
I had just come from a great meeting with one of the oldest publishing houses. During the meeting I was sure that she was not interested until at the end of the meeting when she said "I am really interested in pursuing this". My head spun around. She had some "buts" and it was all very positive.
This woman that has been working with me as a consultant is going to be producer on this because she has just been so fantastic (She was with the Children's Television Network, Sesame Street for 19 years). We met for a little bit afterward and I just took such a dive! I guess I was just feeling the weight of all of it.
On the cab ride home I just got really sad.
When I bumped into my husband on the way in, he asked "What's the matter? How was the meeting?" I told him that it was really good actually and so he asked "So what's the matter?"
I think it is really just...
We don't have a staff. When we met to talk after the meeting that went well, we were covering so much ground and my head was just swarming and swarming and swarming like a bee hive and EVERY bee represents something else that I have to put down on paper very clearly and then take care of...
DR: That's such a good way to put it.
KP: Well I think I just felt the weight of all of the responsibility. There are all of these things that we have to take care of. I have to admit that I had this moment like when I was having my daughter, of wanting to go...
DR: Never mind?
KP: Yeah. I had this little moment of wanting to stop.
DR: So what did you do? Because a lot of people would and will - STOP.
KP: I got home and I was walking into my office and I could see how easy it would be to just go...
DR: Never mind...
KP: Well I could see how I could do it but I just decided to focus on what I am doing. I am giving birth to something and I can't let myself get in the way right now.
And thank God for my husband. He is great. He is so sweet. He was exactly what I needed.
Today I feel fine!
DR: What would you say to someone who is going through a rough moment or a rough season?
KP: Make yourself talk to someone.
I made myself talk to my husband when I felt like not saying anything. I made myself say some of the things that were hard to say. He just listened and he had some ideas even. Also, I let myself be sad without wallowing. I didn't try to be cheery. I didn't end up crying but I wanted to do a "Holly Hunter in Broadcast News".
I think sometimes we need to do that; to let it go.
DR: Do you ever consider the fact that you might be a hero to someone.
KP: No! That's just stupid!
DR: Why do you say that?
KP: That is too big of a word.
DR: Well do you have any heroes?
KP: Yes, so many heroes. There are so many people who have affected me so much.
Alfre Woodard was my idol after I did Gulliver's Travels.
Here she had two kids and her career and I remember being at her house on a Sunday. She was cooking and chopping and giving you something to do and talking and laughing and having a great time and pouring champagne and all of a sudden out of nowhere she said
"Here's to Sundays!"
She is. She is so full of life. She is so warm and her kids are awesome. She is a dedicated mother. She is a great wife. I watch how attentive she is in a crowd with all of the attention she is getting. She is just this great woman. Alfre Woodard is somebody who I really admire...
DR: You don't think there is anyone who thinks that way about you?
KP: Me? No! My daughter...My three year old...
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
KP: Well I'd like to think that I have a few more lives ahead of me. Hmm...I feel vain even going there...
I would love to see Sweet Blackberry in some way help unify people.
There is such a separation that I think we feel sometimes will allow us to hold onto something. But I would really like to see the day when people don't think that Black history is for Black people and it just becomes history. I would love to see the day when we don't wait for Black history month to talk about the accomplishments of Black people.
I would like for us to get to a point t where we ALL realize that we ALL put this country together, big time!
I would love it if Sweet Blackberry were able to usher in a new day and a new way of thinking...
I also wouldn't mind being remembered as a Pulitzer Prize winning author...
Sounds really good doesn't it?
At Sweet Blackberry, our series of educational DVDs is central to our mission on behalf of parents and children. Sweet Blackberry was established to share the stories you may recall from your childhood…or even stories that are new to you!
Borrowing from the tradition of folk and fairy tales, these fact-based stories are complemented by eclectic music, from conga to classical, and include narration by acclaimed actors from film, television and stage. The Sweet Blackberry DVDs not only stimulate a child’s imagination and knowledge of their culture, but also give parents the confidence that they’re sharing stories that will stay with their child for a lifetime.
Click here to visit and learn more at SweetBlackberry.com.