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The HBCU Experience

The Brown Paper Dolls talk about their YouTube dramedy series ‘Milk + Honey’

HBCUs helped prepare them for the tough life in Hollywood

Jeanette McDuffie, Dana M. Gills, and Asha Kamali May, the women behind Brown Paper Dolls, a multimedia production company based in Los Angeles, are rapidly becoming wizards behind the camera and in front of it.

Before Hollywood, they grew up on the South Side of Chicago and each of them attended a historically black college and university (HBCU): Florida A&M University, Howard University and Spelman College.

On June 14, the trio’s series Milk + Honey, a scripted digital dramedy featuring Debbie Allen, Lance Gross, Boris Kodjoe and Faune Chambers, returned on Issa Rae’s YouTube channel.

The Undefeated sat down with two-thirds of Brown Paper Dolls to talk about their past and how they work together.

What is Brown Paper Dolls? How did you come up with the name?

Jeanette: The name was born from the idea of creating with what you have. As we were writing, creating characters sometimes felt like playing – like playing with paper dolls. Your imagination can run free as you breathe life into them. The name reflects the idea of the universal little girl who can play and create characters and stories using just what she has – cutting paper dolls from a brown paper bag. Whether she is on the South Side of Chicago or Bangladesh or Kenya – rich or poor – she can create.

All of you are from Chicago? How did you meet?

Jeanette: Dana and I were childhood friends. Asha and Dana became friends in high school. Dana introduced Asha and me soon after I moved to L.A. We all came together to work on this project because we didn’t want to wait for other people to give us permission to do what we love.

Talk about your HBCU experience and how it aided where you are today.

Jeanette: My years at FAMU were some of the best of my life. You were there to witness. I got to Tallahassee and felt like I was home. It was an environment that really sowed into me and expected my best. I wanted an experience where I could be ‘Jeanette’ and not ‘the black girl in someone’s statistics class.’ We were in school with such a wide array of black people from all over the country. So many varied personalities and experiences. As a result of my time at FAMU, I have a network that inspires and supports. No matter what images are fed to me in the media, I have so many examples of black excellence that counteract that.

Asha: Wow. I am a third-generation HU [Howard University] graduate. My grandmother graduated from Freedman’s nursing school. Charles Drew was her professor. She was the first black nurse in Rockford, Illinois. My older sister went to HU, my aunt and a slew of cousins. My mother went to an HBCU [Central State University] and my middle sister went to HBCU, Xavier.

What did you major in?

Jeanette: I was in the School of Business and Industry, a business administration major. Upon graduation, I decided to try corporate America for two years and then follow my real passion – directing film. I did just that. Navy and black suits with pantyhose and pumps weren’t my thing. Years later, after I’d been working in film, I went back to school and got my MFA in film production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Did you ever imagine doing what you’re doing now?

Asha: Always. But that also becomes problematic when the nos come. It can be a very confusing time in your early adulthood.

In Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” he raps: “Tell me what you know about dreamin’/ You ain’t really know bout nothin’/ Tell me what you know about the night terrors every night 5 a.m. cold sweats, waking up to the sky/ Tell me what you know about dreams/ Tell me what you know about night terrors nothin’/ You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow, Rather lay awake in the bed full of sorrow.”

As entrepreneurs, creators, producers and risks-takers, can you relate?

Jeanette: There is no set path, which is both exciting and daunting. You get what you put into it. And sometimes you don’t. It really is a marathon. There’s so much that we don’t have control over and sometimes the way things turn out isn’t what you imagine. Sometimes it’s better than you imagine.

In 2011, Jeanette was telling me about Brown Paper Dolls. Tell me about the journey.

Jeanette: This was just a God-led project. We would take a step forward and he would take two. There have been so many great collaborators along the way, including writer Kevin A. Garnett, who we collaborated with on these new episodes. Everyone shared their talents with us for the love. I remember shooting some days and really thinking about how blessed we are.

Asha: Well, it certainly is God’s plan. My voice professor would always say, ‘Your plan is s—.’ You can plan for it. You can work at it … but God will create opportunities that have nothing to do with your plan.

What’s Milk + Honey about?

Jeanette: It’s about the promised land — the journey to your dreams, the good, bad and ugly, along with the blessings of friendship and love that carry you through it. It’s about young women navigating the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood. The show is about anyone who ever had a dream and then had the courage to pursue it.

Is Idris Elba still on board? Who else is involved?

Jeanette: He was the show’s executive producer for a while and poured so much love into the show and is still a supporter of the project. We recently had the great fortune of partnering with Issa Rae Productions to release the current three episodes. She’s proving that the stories of people of color are profitable and make good business sense.

The great Debbie Allen is involved. What’s it been like to work with a living legend?

Asha: Full circle for me. I met Ms. Allen while I was at Howard — when I was Miss Howard. She became my mentor over the years. She is a personal hero for me. I am a dancer and choreographer in addition to an actress, so you can imagine the role she has played in my life. I have prayed that one day I’d work with her — I mean she was on my vision board for years … so, yeah, for me … I’m still pinching myself.

You three have similar skill sets but also different strengths. How do you work as a collective?

Asha: We all do very different things and I believe we do them very differently and very well.

Jeanette has a meticulous eye in all things camera, lighting, tone and style of the show.

Dana is a connoisseur of everything dope and spectacular. She understands our audience’s sensibilities and the appetite of the industry and in a finite way as our lead producer. Dana is extremely detail-oriented and catches everything.

I am a ‘get it done’ personality. I am fearless. I’m the one that will go up to the president of a network and ask for a meeting.

We all get THIS story, because it is so close to us.

You are committed to content that highlights diverse stories of people of color. How challenging is this?

Jeanette: It’s def challenging. The business itself is a beast. It is an art form that is very capital-intensive and competitive. For a while, even when we originally debuted Milk + Honey a few years ago, stories about black people weren’t in the mainstream. We’re happy that we’re in a moment in time where the business is open more to the stories of black people and people of color in general. And there is a voracious appetite for content right now.

Asha: It is indeed challenging. The answer is in the doing. And we know that our stories are funny, layered, twisted and interesting. We know that our audience is beyond ready to see their experience on-screen. We know that black women are magic. And we know that we are ready for the world to see all of that. That is what keeps us going.

Aaron Paxton Arnold is a keynote speaker, media contributor and founder of MusicIsMyBusiness. He’s written for and/or appeared in Forbes, Inc., CNN, MSNBC, Fast Company and serves as the Lifestyle, Entertainment, Correspondent for Kiss104.1FM in Atlanta. In 2012, he was also one of 125 top alumni in the 125-year history of Florida A&M University.