‘Abbott Elementary’ Stars Aim to Give Black Educators Their Flowers
Before she became an author, before she starred in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” before she was Milly-Rocking across the globe, Quinta Brunson was a teacher’s kid.
The 31-year-old Philadelphia native remembers her mother getting her ready for school at 7 a.m. daily, only to command her own classroom and take care of over 30 students afterward. As Brunson entered high school, she admittedly felt the pressure associated with being “a teacher’s kid,” but moreover, she developed an appreciation for her mother’s career.
“It’s not just teaching them to read,” Brunson said. “It’s what can they eat? What can’t they eat? What’s happening at home? Who’s going to pick you up today, who’s not picking you up today? And my mom not going to sleep ’til after eight o’clock, because she was doing her job from seven in the morning to eight at night. It gave me such respect for what teachers do. It was shocking to me when I got older and realized that other people didn’t have that respect.”
For 40 years, that was Brunson’s mother’s reality as an educator in the School District of Philadelphia. The anecdotes she shared with her daughter over the past decades spawned Brunson’s latest project, “Abbott Elementary,” which premieres Tuesday and picks up its 13-episode season in January.
The ABC workplace comedy follows a group of five West Philadelphia teachers and a principal who are determined to give their students the best and forge personal relationships despite the odds stacked against them.
From dealing with flickering lights and outdated history books to “reverse-y toilets” and little to no funding for basic supplies, “Abbott Elementary” touches on both the mundane and systemic issues plaguing American public schools. Uniquely, the series highlights the impact that Black educators have on their students, distinguishing itself from other depictions of academia on modern television.
Brunson said that “Abbott Elementary” isn’t inherently trying to push any messaging, other than the fact that teachers should be supported more.
“The pilot was very loosely based on various things I had seen and heard throughout my mom’s career. Her love for the job despite how hard it was, which is something we hear about teachers all the time, that’s what inspired me,” Brunson said.
“I thought that that alone presented a certain form of comedy to me, still loving something that is so absurd and hard to do sometimes. I just felt that it was a world ripe for mining.”
Brunson said that her character, the young, passionate teacher Janine Teagues, encapsulates her mother’s most optimistic, joyful parts, while the seasoned, no-nonsense veteran Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) mirrors her firmness. In the show, Teagues is keen on seeking Howard’s approval, be it for mentorship or friendship, but comes to find that the two educators have very distinct approaches to managing a classroom.
“Our whole kind of theory with the generational outlining of this show was like, you need that healthy mix of people who are jaded and people who are blindly optimistic to get a solution. Sometimes in more modern TV, we try to present the perfect relationship with our Black characters, because there’s so many negative ones. I wanted to explore the middle ground where it’s not perfect, and it’s not horrible. It just is human, which naturally has its ups and downs.”
“We love the idea of perfect Black Girl Magic in the workplace and all Black girls get along,” Brunson continued. “That’s just not realistic. There’s so many things that create friction. But the idea is to get over our differences and use our differences to create solutions, which is what I think I have these characters do.”
Be it mothering Lauryn Hill in “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” or acting opposite Brandy Norwood in “Moesha” and Tia Mowry in “Instant Mom,” Sheryl Lee Ralph is an iconic Black television matriarch. However, stepping into the role of the authoritarian “woman of God” Barbara Howard was an adjustment for her.
Ralph said that in real life, her first inclination is to mentor Black women in the industry; Brunson and Ralph had even worked together on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” In March, Brunson reached out to Ralph about her vision for the series.
“It was the way that she came to me with such sincerity and such desire to have me as a part of this project. If all things worked out for the good, I knew that this was something that I had to do. That’s how it came to be for me,” said Ralph.
Like Brunson, Ralph is a teacher’s kid; her father, Dr. Stanley Ralph, was a professor at Rockland Community College in New York. She drew inspiration for her character from her own relatives, notably her Auntie Carolyn. Ralph said she wants viewers to appreciate the importance of education and how teachers mold children’s minds daily.
“They deserve more support, they deserve more money. Overall, our communities, our government, we all need to pay attention to the importance of teachers. I had such great role models in all of the educators in and around me and my family,” Ralph said. “Barbara is very much a reflection of my Auntie Carolyn. Auntie Carolyn was that tough teacher, but you knew she was tough because she loved you. She was that teacher who was willing to do something different.”
The superstar cast is made up of all-too-familiar archetypes: the try-hard white liberal male ally Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) — which Brunson modeled after a teacher she knows — the zany, self-absorbed Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) who meddled her way into the role and of course, the unbothered teacher from South Philly who has seen it all, Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter).
For Brunson, she especially wanted to showcase Black male teachers through the character Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams. Black men make up only 2% of the teaching workforce nationwide, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s an interesting world,” Brunson said. “A teacher is something that a lot of people look down on for men, almost how they treat male nurses still to this day. I thought, kind of having that character here, touching on those things without touching on it, was interesting.”
After a frustrated teacher quickly bails, Eddie joins the Abbott Elementary staff as a substitute teacher. Williams said that what has been so important to him throughout this series is validating the Black male experience in the rearing of the next generation.
“There are Black male teachers in our school system that are, every day, getting up and going to work and doing the job that’s not necessarily romanticized or in the dating world seen as ideal,” Williams said. “That’s one of the things I wanted to do in this. Let’s make Black men being involved in the teaching of the next generation sexy and attractive.”
Unsure of whether he’ll stick around, Eddie takes a liking to Teagues and begins to reconsider. Like any other mockumentary office romance, of course, Teagues is unaware of Eddie’s budding crush. Williams said that “whether or not he can do anything about that is a whole ’nother conversation.”
“Gregory for sure likes Janine. He was somebody who immediately saw her as the positivity in the midst, like a rose in the midst of the concrete. Somehow, your heart is still here and it’s untouched and it’s pure. There’s something beautiful about that,” Williams said. “He finds her as an ally in the battle that is trying to get all these teeny, tiny humans to grow up to be functional adults. I think that’s what anyone looks for in a partner, particularly if you’re thinking about starting a family.”
Apart from the romance on the way, Brunson’s character and cast shine, showing how passionate Black teachers are and the lengths they’ll go to for their students. They are often parents away from home, lifesavers and lifechangers, which even Adele can attest to.
Brunson said that it was important to her to place Black leads at the forefront of the show, since that is the reality in a West Philadelphia public school. The only sitcom she could recall centering a Black educator was “Hanging with Mr. Cooper,” which focused on high school and the family unit at large.
At the “Abbott Elementary” red carpet on Monday, local Los Angeles educators were given an opportunity to attend a two-episode screening. When Brunson’s mother watched the pilot, she was impressed.
Though her mother retired three years ago, Brunson will always be a teacher’s kid at heart. Her hope is that people come ready to laugh at “Abbott Elementary” the way they would laugh at “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Parks & Recreation.”
“She called me after and she said, ‘Quinta, I’m so proud of you.’ My mom has not said that to me since I graduated high school, and I’ve done so many things since then,” said Brunson with a laugh.
“Good or bad, fail or whatever, I have done something that not only I was already proud of, but now I can feel as though I’ve tapped into my strength, so to speak. I got a long way to go, but like, I’m here. I feel like I’m getting to put out into the world what I would like to put out into the world.”