In May of 2020, OWN announced its long-running drama “Greenleaf” would be coming to an end with its then-upcoming fifth season. Immediately, executive producer Craig Wright tells Variety, he and Oprah Winfrey began talking about what they wanted to do next (outside of the “Greenleaf” spinoff, of course).
“I said, just in passing, ‘If I could do anything, I would do a show about –‘ and I pitched her a show about a couple that were in the throes of dealing with grief after their child died. And the husband is locked in — he can’t connect with the wife in the wake of the daughter’s death — and she says, ‘You have to figure out something to do or we’re not going to make it.’ And he’s a writer and then what you would do is, you would enter into a TV show where you would see the life of a girl they lost, and it starts with her at 17 or 18, graduating high school and going into her life — and what a force for good she is in the world and how much she makes a difference in people’s lives every day just by being who she is. And I said, ‘That girl’s name is Delilah,'” says Wright.
Wright put that idea to the side as he met with the larger team at the network to discuss what its viewership was craving, but the central core of the character he conceived during a conversation with Winfrey stuck in his mind. And so did the name. Combining that with new details about who Delilah’s family and friends would be, as well as a complicated, thriller-esque legal story so the show had a plot engine, the new drama series was born.
“Delilah,” premiering March 9, stars Maahra Hill in the titular role, a single mother and lawyer who owns her own boutique agency in Charlotte, N.C. When the audience first meets her in the series premiere, she is raising her two children and her nephew while her Army-veteran brother adjusts to life back at home after being gravely injured in the line of duty. She also has a complex relationship with her friend Tamara (Jill Marie Jones), who is also a lawyer, but one who made many personal sacrifices to climb the corporate ladder. When a wrongful-termination case comes Delilah’s way, she quickly realizes there are bigger issues and the question of mass safety at stake.
“Though she leads with integrity, she’s got this strong moral compass and seems heroic,” Hill says. “She’s flawed, too. She’s trying to juggle all of these things and some of the balls don’t always stay in the air.”
“I’m a big fan of the Pixar storytelling ethic, which is, ‘We love characters because they try, not because they win.’ Delilah’s strength as a character has to deal with how she tries,” Wright adds.
Wright had a very clear idea for who Delilah should be from the story standpoint and when he saw Hill for the role, he says he knew instantly she was it. “We’re placing someone at the center of the show that is both extraordinary and extra ordinary at the same time. She has that charisma of a star, but she also has that very relatable, personable presence that’s the perfect blend,” he says.
For her part, Hill, too, admits a deep connection to the character.
“I root for the underdog. That is primarily my thing. I’m also a CASA — a court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system, and I studied political science; my first thought was that I would be a lawyer. I have an analytical mind and a heart that wants to serve and make the world a better place, quite honestly. And I’m a mom who also put my career on the back burner so I could raise her and be available for her. It was easy to pull from my life experiences. I also have an ex, who is my daughter’s father, and we work to co-parent. There was some heartbreak in that situation. It’s not, I’m going to say, method, but I have specific life experience to pull from,” she explains.
“Delilah” was ordered by OWN in August 2020, while the nation was still in an uproar over the recent killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Wright shares that originally his pitch for “Delilah’s” Season 1 legal case was “a story about police and the death of a young Black boy” and that he and his writers’ room had mapped out the whole season and written “four or five” full episodes as such. After Floyd was killed, “it was just like a car drove into a snowbank, ‘Is this really what we’re going to do? Do we really need to keep steeping ourselves in this — victimizing, in a voyeuristic way, the Black male body in order to make stories and also keep on showing the same old boring white tropes?'” he recalls thinking. In the end, the answer was no, and they restructured much of the plan for the show.
“Since Oprah’s friendship with Gayle [King] is something we discussed in the beginning and was definitely tied to how we created Delilah and Tamara — not that either one of them stands for either one — we said, ‘Let’s come up with a story where they’re at odds.’ And that was a giant breakthrough,” Wright says.
“This season Delilah is going to learn over the course of the season that some of the compromises that Tamara has made, that she previously judged Tamara for, are actually quite practical. And similarly, Tamara, even though she’s going to stay on her vector and continue up the corporate ladder, she’s going to realize that stepping away from her values is costing her something. And those two women will always be in conversation about that,” he continues.
Delilah and Tamara end up on opposite ends of the legal case, which blurs the line between the personal and the professional. Collaboration between Wright, Hill and Jones became key, Wright says, because “I’m not a Black woman, so I’m not writing this show from my perspective.” Considering himself a “humble aggregator of insights,” Wright was ready, willing and eager to listen not only to his other writers’ ideas, but also those of his actors, especially when it came to crafting a story about “the limits of sisterhood — when do you have to drop someone and when do you hang on?”
The first season of “Delilah” was produced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in North Carolina, which meant those who were on set were limited to essential personnel. The result was a lot of phone conversations to work through story points when needed, with Hill being a “moral leader” on set, Wright says.
“I definitely felt a responsibility to be protective and to honor the feelings side of [shooting during COVID] and not just the medical side,” Hill explains.
Similarly, Hill may feel a bit of a responsibility to her new role. As Delilah will struggle with overextending herself, there was a level of authenticity to the female experience she wanted to be sure to reflect. But she also wanted to see her character redefine what success might mean.
“My definition of success for her did involve the idea of self-care. There’s this pouring into others that you do and the next thing you know you’re empty. She’s just so much giving to others and so much not taking the time, when we talk about balance, to give to herself,” she says.