Editorial Note: At the time of publication, this episode was billed as a two-hour edition of OWN’s “Black Women OWN the Conversation.” The special has since been retitled “Speak Sis.”
The OWN Spotlight series “Speak Sis” is taking on the topic of mental health and trauma — and for the deep, emotional conversation, the show enlisted a special guest, Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey joined hosts Adrienne Bankert and Jotaka Eaddy and panelists Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, Dr. Dena Simmons and Kym Whitley to lead the conversation with its 50-woman audience.
The episode, filmed in May, was already set to be momentous, since it marked showrunner and executive producer Jennifer Ryan and her team’s first live audience taping since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Winfrey’s appearance was an extra source of excitement.
“She’s the OW of OWN, and we’re very honored to have done this show and had her on it,” Ryan tells Variety, sitting on the production’s pink-hued set after the taping wrapped.
Winfrey beamed in virtually to join the candid conversation about mental health amid the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color, and the after-effects of the Black Lives Matter protests that ramped up last June.
“She’s a fan of the show, and once we knew what [topic] we were hitting, she was like, ‘I’m coming and I’ll be there for the whole hour,'” Ryan says, adding that Winfrey was also excited to see the live audience return.
Ryan and the OWN team had already produced two seasons of the Emmy-winning series “Black Women OWN the Conversation,” which premiered in 2019 and features frank discussions centering Black women’s perspectives on the topics that most affect them, taped in front of a live audience. Previous guests have included political activist Stacey Abrams, singer Monica, actors Mj Rodriguez and Ryan Michelle Bathe and model Winnie Harlow.
“We were gearing up right when COVID hit a year ago to do shows and then it just was paused,” Ryan says. “So for this to be my first one back with an audience, it’s special. It’s special for all of our crew, my producers are so excited. It’s nice to see people again. It’s sort of a collective celebration.”
After five weeks of Zoom meetings planning this special, Ryan and the 50-person production crew were equally giddy about getting back on set, safely. The producer ran the gamut of emotions leading up to the taping, anxious to get the women back into the room. But once everyone was COVID-tested and ready to tape, she could breathe a sigh of relief.
The OWN team recruited a beautiful assembly of 50 Black women of all ages, from all walks of life, dressed in bright jewel tones and rocking carefully coiffed hairstyles, from long colored braids, to ‘fros, to long silky weaves and blunt bobs.
The audience, Ryan explains, is really heart of the OWN Spotlight specials.
“Since its inception, it hit me in a way that I have never experienced in television — and I don’t think it’s ever really, truly been done — where you’re setting the environment for Black women to be heard,” Ryan shares. “Because I can’t think of many instances where people are like, ‘I just want to hear your thoughts. I just want your story.'”
“We continue not to listen to Black women; we often use them in the world, but are we listening?” she continues. “I think that’s what the show does and that’s what I’m so proud of.”
The new episode is the first of several planned for 2021 with a focus on health in the Black community, presented in conjunction with the network’s “OWN Your Health” initiative. Since tackling a topic as broad as mental health over the course of one episode (which was initially planned for 41 minutes, but has expanded into a two-hour special) is a big task, the discussion focused specifically on childhood trauma, noting the ways those incidents manifest in adults.
“I can’t think if there’s a person that was in this room or watching behind the scenes, who cannot reflect on something that happened to them when they were a child,” Ray explains. “That really does affect how we deal with things in our everyday lives. And once we realize that, then we can understand who we are as adults.”
Likewise, Winfrey spent a lot of time talking about this point specifically with her new book, “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing,” co-written with trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry, and her Apple TV Plus documentary series with Prince Harry, “The Me You Can’t See.”
In order to set the right atmosphere for such an emotional discussion, Ryan says, the production crew worked to create an environment where the women could be vulnerable once the cameras were rolling, which meant off-camera, they wanted them to have a little fun. Before the taping began, the women gathered and gabbed during a private reception, complete with an area to take photos with friends, and a DJ to keep the atmosphere light and help them get to know one another before confessing some of their hardest and darkest moments.
The producer also notes the intentionality behind the set design for the show, which has the women arranged in a circular formation instead of having panelists raised onto a platform. Despite the challenge that creates for camera angles, Ryan says, it’s important to let all the women know that everyone is on the same playing field. “We’re not elevating anyone here,” she says. “That woman is equal to this woman, this woman is equal to that woman.”
Though the audience was smaller than usual (only 50 women versus the typical 100), the event still packed powerful of a punch as the women took the mic to share their personal stories. Tissues were passed around to the audience during the taping as, one by one, women raised their hands to share the childhood trauma they’ve endured, how they’ve recognized what happened to them and how they’re working to overcome it.
Adding to the emotional weight of the episode was the awareness that the specials would air in a world still reeling from George Floyd’s murder, among the countless other Black people who’ve lost their lives due to police violence.
“I could do a whole two or three shows on George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the violence in this country towards Black woman, Black men, Black children,” Ryan says. “[But this episode’s approach] adds to the narrative of us coming back out of our world and acknowledging that we’ve gone through a lot of trauma. So where are we now? Let’s check in ourselves. How do we continue to acknowledge the past, but also move forward?”
The two-hour OWN Spotlight special “Speak Sis” airs Tues. Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.