The “Empire” troupe took over Carnegie Hall on Saturday, celebrating the Sept. 23 launch of the Fox drama’s second season with an event that was by turns serious, silly and appropriately musical.
Co-creator Lee Daniels noted that the hugely successful show with a largely black cast has hit at a time of great tension in race relations, following a string of questionable deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is reflected forcefully in “Empire’s” season premiere episode, as the Lyon family seeks to stir up public backlash to the jailing of Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon for murder.
“Where we are in America with race relations is an ugly place,” Daniels told the packed house of “Empire” devotees. “It’s time we tear the roof off this mother——. It’s time we see that we are all one.”
Daniels was effusive in his praise throughout the night for Fox Television Group chairman-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman. He acknowledged that some of the material must make the two squirm as it pushes the envelope in many directions. But the two have been unwavering in backing the vision of Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong for the show that revolves around the many struggles of a by-the-bootstraps family that built a successful music label.
“They don’t necessarily agree with what we put on screen, but there is a trust. They trust that we’re going to deliver for them,” Daniels said. Fox’s decision to “put black people on TV is changing the face of television,” he added.
Taraji P. Henson, who plays larger-than-life matriarch Cookie Lyon, said that despite the foibles of Lucious and Cookie, the success of their business sends a message to viewers.
“These characters have broken the cycle of poverty,” Henson said. “Anybody from the ‘hood knows that is very hard to do. (Lucious and Cookie) are heroes in a very American way.”
Cast member Ta’Rhonda Jones, who plays assistant Porsha, said she thought she was auditioning as a rapper, not an actress when she first went out for the show. She told an emotional story of working in a nursing home at the time she got the call that she had the job on “Empire.” Having lost her brother in April to gun violence, she waited for a sign from Jesus before taking the “Empire” role. When her brother’s watch made a ringing noise after being shut down for months, Jones took that as her sign.
But the post-screening discussion moderated by Elvis Mitchell wasn’t all heavy topics. Henson broke out in laughs that resonated around the hall and frequently whispered in Howard’s ear. Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers and Bryshere Y. Gray — the three Lyon brothers — told stories of Smollett having to audition to an impromptu rendition of the 2014 pop hit “Blurred Lines,” among other tales.
In closing, Gray and Smollett took the crowd through a quick set of key songs from the first season, including the hits “Drip Drop” and “You’re So Beautiful.”
The afterparty on the top floor of the Carnegie Hall was packed to the rafters. Among the notables showing up to rub elbows with Daniels were Mariah Carey, Courtney Love, Marisa Tomei and Naomi Campbell.