Two years ago Danielle Belton and Yesha Callahan were joking around on Google chat about what it would take to get a TV show on the air that spoke honestly about race in America — specifically pertaining to black women. Initially they laughed it off, surmising, “The only way America would produce an honest show on black people is if it starred two white women.”
What began as a throwaway joke became the subversive race comedy of “Passing,” the story of two white sisters — Kelly and Unique — who were adopted by an upwardly mobile, socially-conscious black family in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Last summer, Belton and Callahan wrote several scripts for “Passing” as a TV show. For both women, it was their baby. They nurtured it and through many rewrites and character sketches they finally produced two scripts they were proud of. With the help of Mad Cow Productions’ Madeleine Smithberg (the co-creator of “The Daily Show”) and producer Sarah North, the show was sent to one of the top, if not the number one, talent agencies in Los Angeles.
They were interested and Belton and Callahan thought they were on their way. They furiously revised the scripts and the agency loved it. But as fate would have it, it wasn’t meant to be. The agency thought “Passing” was “too smart” for either a web series or network TV.
Passing was not enough “‘White Chicks’ Meets Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls'” and was too much “‘Passing Strange’ Meets Your Socially Conscious Boho Friend with the Dreds.”
After sitting on the idea for months, frustrated that our show was axed for having a conscious, Belton and Callahan said “To hell with all that” and decided to push ahead. They didn’t have the budget or resources to film their own YouTube series, let alone the time, so after some brainstorming, they decided to go “new old school” —
Comics. Well not a paper one, but a web comic.
Belton and Callahan both had a long-time love for comics. Belton dreamed of being a newspaper cartoonist as a kid and drew cartoons about her high school as a teen. Callahan was into graphic novels. Also into all kinds of comics was their friend, illustrator and painter Jada Prather. Prather, one of Belton’s closest friends, had desired to create a comic book with her for some time, and this was as good a time as any.
Thus “Passing” the comic, was born.
“Passing” is a satirical look at the illusion that is our social construct of race, tackling what it means to make it in a racially polarized world of stereotypes and misunderstandings. Characters Kelly and Unique, along with their BFF, Deidre (who is just about over everything black), “Passing” mixes satire and nuance when it comes to discussing race and culture.
And that’s where Belton and Callahan are today — two black women writing a web comic about two white women who wish they were black women but are painfully aware they are not … sort of. Team Passing hasn’t given up on TV though, so stay tuned to what will happen next — both with the comic and with Belton and Callahan.