Two sisters, two different moms—TV's 'half & half' takes a fresh look at the blended black family

Take the Carringtons from "Dynasty," add 100 percent more humor and 200 percent more color and you have the Thornes, a family who puts the "fun" in dysfunctional in the sitcom "Half & Half." And while the title sounds like something you put in your coffee, there's nothing halfhearted about the UPN show, which is one of the most popular series on television with Black audiences. It also has earned nods from the NAACP, which honored the sitcom with four Image Award nominations--including one for Outstanding Comedy Series--a first for the show in its two-year run on UPN.

And signs are pointing to a third season of Monday night mayhem for the sitcom, which chronicles the adventures of two adult half-sisters with the same father who grew up in different homes and are trying to bond for the first time in their lives.

There's a lot of reality in the silliness that is our show," says Telma Hopkins, who stars as Phyllis Thorne, the ex-wife of San Francisco real estate mogul Charles Thorne (Obba Babatunde) and single mother to their daughter, Mona (Rachel True). "You've got two girls with just their daddy in common, who really don't know each other. You've got two mothers who are always bickering, who have their own insecurities. The people on this show, as ridiculous as they can be, are still people with whom you can identify since there are many, many broken families out there."

The show centers on Mona, a free-spirited neophyte music executive, and her younger half-sister Dee Dee Thorne (Essence Atkins), a very privileged, very pampered law school student, who become neighbors in the same apartment building, which their father happens to own.

Mona's parents, who met in high school and got married right out of college, divorced after three years of marriage. "One of the reasons Phyllis and Charles split up was because he wanted to pursue real estate as an entrepreneur and she was afraid of backing him," Atkins explains. "He eventually separated from her because he felt like she wasn't being supportive of' his dreams. So they got divorced and he met [Dee Dee's] mother.".

And that's the moment the fireworks began between the two Thorne matriarchs. After all, Dee Dee's mom, Big Dee Dee Thorue (Valarie Pettiford), has been a true thorn in Phyllis' side.

"What can we not say about Big Dee Dee," laughs Pettiford, who plays the woman folks love to hate. "She speaks her mind, whether you like it or not. She's rich, she loves Life, she loves who she is and what she represents, and she loves her family. And believe it or not, she loves and respects Phyllis--that's her sparring partner. She sharpens her teeth with her and she gives as good as she gets."

The cast agrees that their outrageous antics hook the viewers, but the realism of the story lines also reels in audiences week after week.

"I think the show is successful because it's funny, it's positive and it strikes an honest chord with people," says "Half & Half" executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser, who herself has four older half-siblings. "It's an accurate depiction of' blended families, which is how 60 percent of the families in America look today."

In fact, most of the "Half & Half" cast are part of blended families like the Thornes. True's real-life parents are divorced and she has a younger half-sister. Atkins informs that although she didn't have siblings in childhood, she now has a younger half-brother on her father's side. And Chico Benymon, who plays Mona's best friend Spencer Williams, says he didn't grow up with one of his brothers.

Bowser, who also created and executive-produced the top-rated sitcom "Living Single," says that her own experiences as the youngest child in a blended family serve as constant story-line fodder.

"I just basically rip pages out of my diary to tell stories on TV," admits Bowser, who modeled Mona and Dee Dee after herself and an older sister who lives with her. "There's a lot of me in Mona and a lot of me in Dee Dee. These two women are the two sides of sisterhood."

True says she too has a lot in common with Mona, whom she describes as the "everyman of the show." The actress and her alter ego both have a quick wit--although True points out that Mona has a team of writers feeding her those snappy one-liners. And True, like her character, is "a bit of a hermit." True says that she and Mona even own similar pieces of furniture in their apartments, which she swears is a coincidence, and they both share the same "weird sense of style."

"All my life people have said to me, 'Oh Rachel, only you could pull that off.' I knew they didn't really mean it as a compliment, but I just took it as one because I think that being different is a neat thing," says True, who vehemently refuses to give up the Frankenstein boots she rocks on the show. "I know platforms are out--I don't care. I'm 5 feet 3 OK! So with the boots I'm 5 feet 6 and I rule the world!"

Half-sister Dee Dee, on the other hand, is the optimist of the family, Atkins says. "She's the most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed character. It was her idea to move into the building so that she can get to know her sister better. She really has a great amount of hope in all."

Atkins also acknowledges that although Dee Dee is spoiled and very sheltered, there is hope for her.

"She's finding her wings this second season. She's definitely more sensitive and she's also been through more of her own struggles, having removed herself a little bit from the shadow of her mother," Atkins says.

As for similarities, Atkins admits that she and Dee Dee definitely share the same compulsive habit of cleaning things when they're anxious or upset. But unlike Dee Dee, Atkins is more pragmatic than her character and wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

"And it's very rare that you would catch me in a pair of hot pants," she jokes,

Despite their differences, the Thorne sisters and their families always unite when they need to unite--a message the show tries hard to convey.

"Even though they are truly dysfunctional, when push comes to shove, they are a family," Hopkins notes.

Bowser promises fans of the show some big changes in the Thorne clan in upcoming episodes.

"Mona and Dee Dee are becoming more integral to each other's lives," she says. "Of course Big Dee Dee is going to be having her baby and everyone is going to be making adjustments for the new little one in the family. Spencer is going to be making some big moves and Phyllis is getting a very significant man in her life, portrayed by actor Lou Gossett Jr."

But when it comes to the burning question in everyone's minds, will Spencer and Mona take the leap from friends to lovers? Benymon says that fans will just have to wait to see.

"There is some possibility that could happen in the near future," he alludes. "It's definitely a roller coaster that everybody's gonna like."

Reflecting on the show, Bowser says that she hopes to present the many facets of Black life to audiences. "We're not a monolith," she asserts. "We're not always angry, sassy or uneducated. We have many, many shadings, and not just in our skin tone. We deserve to be heard and seen."

The "Half & Half" cast certainly reflects this diversity and strives for it in the show.

"Mona's a weird alterna-chick and we really haven't seen a Black actress play this kind of role," True says. "I love that Yvette breaks some of the stereotypes and has been able to give Black women a strong voice."

Atkins agrees. "I would love for eur viewers to see the grace and the elegance of Black women," she says. "And I would love for them to see themselves in these characters."

by Nicole Walker
COPYRIGHT 2004 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

2 comments:

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