Janine Sherman Barrois remembers being one of the only Black people in the writers’ room — or on set — when she began in television more than 20 years ago. At the time, she was grateful to get a seat at the table, given how few opportunities there were for Black women in Hollywood.
Fast-forward to 2022, and Sherman Barrois acknowledges there are more powerful Black women on camera and off (like her idols Shonda Rhimes and Oprah Winfrey). But there are still so many diverse creators who haven’t been empowered enough to get their big break.
That’s one of the missions behind her new production banner, Folding Chair Prods., which she has launched at Warner Bros. Television Group (where Sherman Barrois has held several overall deals since 2015). Nikita S. Adams, previously an agent at Paradigm Talent Agency and A3 Artists Agency, has been hired to serve as Folding Chair’s new head of television.
A multiple NAACP Image Award winner, Sherman Barrois has steered TNT’s “Claws,” starring Niecy Nash, as executive producer through its four-season run (including as showrunner for the first three). She also serves as showrunner on OWN’s latest aspirational family soap, “The Kings of Napa,” which features an almost entirely Black cast.
Now, in launching Folding Chair, Sherman Barrois says the new shingle seeks to develop thought-provoking, inclusive series and films with both established and up-and-coming talent. “I want to focus on stories, certainly about Black people and BIPOC people, but also stories of powerful women in general and powerful families,” she says.
Sherman Barrois came up with the company’s name from one of her favorite quotes, by late congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
“I want the spirit of the ‘folding chair,’ of taking down the glass ceiling and finding your own place — not waiting for the industry to do it for you — to come through in all of the projects that we do, and with all of the writers we work with,” says Sherman Barrois, whose earlier credits include “Third Watch,” “ER” and “Criminal Minds.”
“There are many artists and writers and directors in this town and elsewhere that just need a champion,” she adds. “I want to champion the voices that other people might be overlooking for whatever reason.”
Sherman Barrois recently spoke to Variety about the growth of “Kings of Napa,” her ongoing relationship with Warner Bros. TV and the importance of representing people like herself on television. An edited version of that conversation follows.
This is your third pact thus far with WBTV. How has your relationship with the company evolved and strengthened over the years, from your stint in the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop to now?
Sherman Barrois: The workshop was clearly my first break, and I wound up getting to write for “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and then I got a chance to write for “Third Watch.” That was my transition from comedy to drama. I spent the final four years of “ER” writing for the show and wound up leaving as an executive producer. I had about nine seasons total being mentored under the John Wells camp, which was phenomenal. I left Warner Bros. wanting to find my own way and wound up at “Criminal Minds” for five seasons. Warner Bros. approached me afterward about signing a deal at the studio, and I came back because I really wanted to get back to my roots of writing character-driven shows and using the skills I learned on “ER.”
“Claws” just ended, and “Kings of Napa” just debuted. How are you feeling about it all, and what have you learned while producing both of these series?
While I was doing “Claws,” I was also writing “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” and both of those experiences involved writing for strong women and strong people of color in a world that hadn’t been seen. In “Claws,” you wouldn’t think that this crew of women in a nail salon in Palmetto, Florida, represents the American dream, but it is a different version of a powerful family trying to get a piece of the American pie. “The Kings of Napa” is more about owning land, legacy and generational wealth. When you look at all three of these shows, you see people fighting to get their place in the world by any means necessary. I’m saddened that “Claws” came to an end, but I’m so grateful that we were able to put into the world a show about these dynamic women who would normally not be the focus of a show. The “Claws” ladies were not looking for men to validate them, and they were not looking for men to give them money— they were taking what was there. That’s something that I want to make sure translates in every show that I do. I want all of my characters, especially the women, to be unapologetic.
Tell me more about the decision to launch your own production banner, and also to bring on Adams as the head of TV.
I had been talking to Warner Bros. for a long time, and letting them know that I had really wanted to build a company and wanted it to be a place where artists of all different colors, who were fighting for their place at the table, could come and feel empowered, encouraged and ready to put bold shows out into the world. Nikita Adams was one of the fiercest agents I met with, and I told her my vision for the company. Her vision aligned with that, and there was this sort of unspoken alchemy on the phone.
Looking back on your career (and when you started in the TV industry), how has the representation of Black folks, particularly Black women, changed on-screen and also behind the scenes?
I didn’t know it was so bad out there until I met other BIPOC writers who would say to me, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never been in a writer’s room with another Black person— I didn’t even know there were this many people of color wanting to write television!” I was lucky enough that I had a launchpad where I was able to work with people who were at least very aware and actively making sure that their shows reflected the wrongs of the world.
What I have seen over the past 15, 20 years is that people are waking up; they’re getting more conscious, and they are not looking at minority talent as the “sidekicks” of the shows. One of the most powerful women on television is a Black woman [Shonda Rhimes]. When I first started, there were a lot of allies, for sure, but not a lot of opportunities for us. Now there are more opportunities and there are networks and streaming services that will actually order shows with Black leads. The business is course-correcting, and it is being outspoken about wanting to take steps that target inclusivity and diversity.
You also have a new generation of kids and artists coming up with social media who will also bring it to people’s attention. A bunch of young writers, a couple of years ago, asked people to start posting their writer’s rooms, and it took this chain to make people wake up and understand that there was a stark disparity in the business. Now is a great time for people of color and for women in the industry. Obviously we have to keep pushing the system to have equity. But as long as we have voices that are unapologetic and bold, speaking out online and speaking on panels, and getting more people of color as executives at networks and studios. And also, more people of color creating their own production companies, like myself. People are actually cheering us on as we go out into the markets and push stuff out with Black leads. I think that is the difference now— we can all link hands and join forces to make a change. And I want all people of color to win and to get our voices and our shows on the air.
This interview has been edited and condensed.