Seizing a moment when diversity is being embraced by the small screen, prolific playwright Josefina Lopez is trying TV again with a dramedy about four sisters set up at ABC and ABC Studios.
Lopez, best known for writing the play and 2002 feature “Real Women Have Curves,” is penning the script and will exec produce with Michael McDonald. The project with the working title “The Fabulous Fernandez Sisters” revolves around four estranged sisters who are forced to pull together to raise their younger brother after their parents die in a car crash in Mexico.
Lopez says she is energized to try TV again because of the openings this season for Latino characters, demonstrated by Cristela Alonzo’s ABC sitcom “Cristela” and the CW dramedy “Jane the Virgin” toplined by Gina Rodriguez.
“One of my goals in my writing is to represent the Latino community with all the rich complexity and humanity that we have,” Lopez told Variety. “This (TV season) is the first time we’ve ever had two Latina leads in a sitcom and a dramedy. I hope this is a sign that we are moving beyond showing Latino women as secretaries, maids, trophy wives. I want to share a different side of who these women are.”
The four main characters of “Fernandez Sisters” are all quite different. One is a city councilwoman, one is an immigration attorney, one is a conservative Republican high school teacher and the youngest is in college and bound for medical school, until she begins have visions that lead to a spiritual awakening.
Lopez was recruited to ABC for the project by McDonald, who is an exec producer on the Alphabet’s midseason drama “American Crime.” McDonald had long been a fan of Lopez’s plays, and tracked her down at the theater companies she runs in East L.A. Lopez first made her mark in the 1990s with “Real Women” and other plays.
After graduating from the Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts, Lopez founded the Little Casa Theater in Boyle Heights, where she grew up. She was an undocumented immigrant until she received amnesty as a teenager in 1987 as part of the landmark federal immigration reform legislation.
Lopez has operated Little Casa through a combination of her own money and a mix of public and private grants. She also has a second stage on the same street in Boyle Heights, CASA 0101 Theater, and she recently launched the Real Women Have Curves Studio to nurture projects.
On Friday, CASA 0101 opens a monthlong run of a production of “Julius Caesar” directed by actor Robert Beltran. It features a predominatly Latino cast and promises to add surreal touches to its first Shakespeare production.
“This is a really incredible moment in our history and our community — Shakespeare in the barrio,” Lopez said. “We have made Shakespeare our own.”
Lopez’s various legit entites have long operated community outreach programs designed to engage youth as an alternative to gangs and other dangerous behavior. John Ortiz, a series regular on “American Crime,” got into acting through his participation in Little Casa/CASA 0101 programs.
“We’re celebrating 15 years and it feels really great to see the impact that the theater has had on the community,” Lopez said.
Throwing herself into the theater work was a way of dealing with the frustration Lopez faced in her early efforts to develop TV series and film projects. In the late 1990s she teamed with Norman Lear — who was impressed by Lopez’s plays — to develop a Latino family sitcom, but it was a no-go for broadcast networks at the time.
“We had worked so hard, and I remember just wanting to give up,” Lopez says. “I started producing theater as a way of rekindling my spirt and my soul.”
Even after “Real Women” became the darling of the Sundance film fest in 2001, Lopez still hit brick walls in Hollywood. That only made her put more energy into her theater work. “Theater is where I get to bathe my soul in love and sunshine and approval,” she says.
This time around, Lopez has high hopes that “Fernandez Sisters” will strike a chord at a moment when mainstream America is recognizing the growing influence of Latinos in all aspects of American life.
“I think the networks finally get that this community is hungry to see itself on the screen,” Lopez says.
On top of her plays and ABC pilot, Lopez is knee-deep in developing a musical rendition of “Real Women Have Curves,” and she’s hunting for a distributor for the indie film she produced based on her play “Detained in the Desert.” The pic is a protest work targeting Arizona’s controversial law that allows law enforcement to detain people suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
Lopez is repped by Leslie Conliffe of Intellectual Property Group and manager Marilyn Atlas.