For nearly three decades, Yvette Lee Bowser has created, produced and written for television shows that portray women who have what she calls “enviable female friendships.”
Such relationships played out most prominently in her popular ’90s sitcom “Living Single,” which centered primarily on the bonds among a group of four women played by Queen Latifah, Erika Alexander, Kim Fields and Kim Coles. (With “Living Single,” Bowser became the first African American woman to develop a prime-time series.) But they have also animated series she has produced since, like “For Your Love” and “Half & Half.”
The new Starz comedy, “Run the World,” which Bowser oversees as showrunner, also follows four friends, depicting the careers, love lives and ties between four 30-something Black women living in Harlem: Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), Renee (Bresha Webb), Shondi (Corbein Reid) and Whitney (Amber Stevens West).
“Run the World,” however, is less a direct successor to “Living Single” than part of the continuing evolution of how women, and Black women in particular, are portrayed on television. As in series like “Scandal,” “Insecure” and others, the women of “Run the World” are ambitious, openly sexual and emotionally layered, their boldness and confidence spiked with moments of uncertainty and self-doubt.
Created by the writer and former media executive Leigh Davenport, who borrowed from her own personal experiences as a young Black woman carving out a life in New York, “Run the World” is a combination of Davenport’s experiences and Bowser’s gift for depicting female friendships on television. While the show is unabashedly fun, it also delves into deeper, more nuanced issues like racial and gender dynamics, power imbalances in relationships and even gentrification, painting a complex portrait of Black Harlem. Nevertheless, the bond of female friendships remains the central refuge for the characters.
“Women deserve to tell their stories in their time, and this is this generation’s story,” said Bowser. “I wanted to make sure that we brought them together for meaningful, wonderful and enviable moments of sisterhood because that has, over these decades, become my brand.”
“Run the World” is insightful about how friends can be in different places in their lives despite being in the same stage of life, with the main characters personifying different flavors of early-30s anxiety and accomplishment.
Whitney, a perfectionist and people pleaser with a charming fiancé, appears to have it all but still feels unfulfilled. Shondi, a grounded Ph.D. student, is taking uncertain steps toward becoming a stepmother to her partner’s daughter. Renee, an outspoken go-getter, is dealing with her crumbling marriage. Ella, an entertainment writer, is starting over at a lowly job after her big break ended up being much smaller than she thought.
This period of life is both fraught and fascinating, Davenport said, because it’s when many people begin “walking into real adulthood.”
“You start doing a lot of evaluation,” she said. “Is this the job that I want to grow into at this stage of my life? Is this the right man?”
Having worked in entertainment journalism for over a decade before pursuing screenwriting full-time, Davenport feels especially close to Ella — “Ella” was even her pseudonym in a blog she used to write about her life in New York. While she initially imagined Ella’s story as the focal point, it was Bowser’s idea to expand “Run the World” into an ensemble show.
“I thought there was a ton of value in featuring the entire foursome and giving all the women equal weight so that we had that wonderful, tribal feeling,” Bowser said.
The sisterhood presented on the show is contextualized in the diverse but specific experiences of Black women. Certainly, the show’s fun, feel-good tone, with abundant club scenes and well-choreographed dance montages, is broadly appealing. But the show is unmistakably told from Black women’s perspectives as the friends continuously examine their romantic relationships through a lens of Black love, and make references to how their social interactions can render them unseen by others.
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“There’s a lot of commentary and a lot of exploration of race and dynamics, and feminism and politics,” Davenport said.
The specificity of Black women’s experiences was a big part of the show’s appeal for Stevens West, who plays Whitney and noted that in terms of representation, depicting authentic portrayals is what allows for genuine understanding. “The more you show the nuances of every culture and have different kinds of people, the more we have empathy for each other,” Stevens West said.
She added that the show’s portrayal of not only the bonds between the women but also the significance of those bonds rang true.
“We lean on our friends for mental health, too,” she said. “Culturally within the Black community, that’s kind of just how women show up for each other.”
Bordeaux, who plays Ella, shared similar sentiments: “Run the World” illustrates both the conflict and the comfort that can result when close-knit friends lead dissimilar lives in terms of status, access and how they are perceived within the social hierarchy, she said.
“All the women are on the same journey, but they’re just in different stages of that journey,” Bordeaux added. “What really just jumps out is the idea that you know who you are. And who you see yourself as is ultimately the most important thing.”
Bordeaux sees a lot of her own career story in Ella’s predicament of having to be a comeback kid within her industry.
“I’ve had a similar experience with feeling like I’d gotten like my big break or my dream job, and it kind of crashing and burning and not being what I expected it to be,” she said. “It rocks your confidence — it kind of shakes your idea of who you are, and you really have to start over.”
While the show reflects the pain that comes “when other people don’t see you in the way that you see yourself,” Bordeaux added, she hopes the women’s stories also remind viewers that there is beauty in life’s uncertainty.
“The unknown is where infinite possibility exists,” she said.
That said, in “Run the World” the character’s possibilities are situated within the bounds of New York City, usually within Harlem. For Davenport, who lived in New York for 11 years until leaving for Los Angeles in 2016, Harlem is more than home.
“When people explore our neighborhoods, they’re always exploring what’s problematic about them and not what community and love and joy feels like,” she said. “That’s all Harlem is to me.”
But the show is cleareyed about Harlem’s contemporary, conflicted reality as a cultural beacon for Black people that has also become a site of gentrification. Davenport said it was important to demonstrate the diversity of Black Harlem and how Africans and African Americans continue to share space and culture.
As the season progresses, there is a night on the town at Shrine, dancing to Afropop. There is a search for the perfect Aso Oke (lavish hand-woven cloth originating from the Yoruba in West Africa) at Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market ahead of a traditional Yoruba wedding.
In “Run the World,” Harlem represents not just a scenic backdrop for big-city life. The women’s relationship to the neighborhood — a sanctuary for sisterhood as well as for their dreams, disasters, mistakes and hopes — is as enviable as their relationships to one another.
For Bowser, creating this vision of Harlem was about both honoring the neighborhood’s cultural and communal meaning to Black people and honoring Davenport’s particular love for it.
“I wanted to make sure that I served as a North Star, to make sure that we captured every layer that we could.” Bowser said. “It’s not just a place, it’s not just a location — it’s a community, it’s a vibe.”