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A first date turns into a whodunit in 'Diarra from Detroit'

Diarra Kilpatrick stars as a school teacher-turned-mystery solver in <em>Diarra from Detroit.</em>
BET Network
Diarra Kilpatrick stars as a school teacher-turned-mystery solver in Diarra from Detroit.

Detroit native Diarra Kilpatrick has always wanted to share her version of the city with the world: "For me, the gems of Detroit have far outweighed some of the more challenging aspects of growing up there," the actor, writer and producer says.

Kilpatrick's new BET+ series, Diarra from Detroit, is inspired, in part, by the time she spent as a little girl watching Columbo and Perry Mason with her grandmother. Kilpatrick notes that despite the fact that all the women in her life seemed to be obsessed with murder mystery shows back then, she never saw Black women driving the narrative.

Diarra from Detroit is a dark comedy about a public school teacher going through a divorce who decides to hit the dating scene. When a guy she meets on Tinder ghosts her, Diarra goes on a hunt to find out why — and winds up embroiled in a decades old mystery.

Kilpatrick says she was initially reluctant to use her own first name in the title for the show because she was concerned that the audience would assume she was simply being herself instead of playing a character. But as the show progressed in development, the decision began to feel right.

"It felt like it was like an announcement," Kilpatrick says. "Almost, like 'Diarra from Detroit is ready to be seen!' "

In addition to working on this latest series, Kilpatrick is an actor, writer and producer who created and starred in the ABC digital original satirical comedy American Koko, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. She also co-starred for three seasons in the HBO period drama Perry Mason.

Interview Highlights

On her tendency to joke about dark things

My father, the only way to describe him is just a damn fool. He cannot take anything seriously. They say comedy is tragedy plus time. He doesn't need the time. It's just ... funeral, joke. Someone's hurt, joke. It's never too soon, joke. So he just really doesn't have the ability to take anything seriously. And I think my mom took everything really seriously and had a tremendous amount of depth of feeling and thought and everything. And so I think making sense of the two of those personalities within myself, has kind of been my lot. And I think making sense of comedy and depth is probably a hallmark of my work.

On casting Diarra from Detroit by listening to the actors' voices

It's in the voice. I could be playing auditions on the computer and walk away from the computer to get a cup of tea or something, and the voice will drive me back. We're not really doing the vocal fry thing in the Midwest. We're not really doing the pitching up thing in the Midwest. Detroit is a southern town up north for me. And so it's that bit of southern in the voice, it's that bit of bass in the voice. Assuredness in the voice. I could tell it immediately.

On learning to drop her Detroit accent in acting school, but then using it to get roles afterward

I went to theater school, too, and they beat me up pretty good when I first got there. ... They were like, "Ma'am, what is this accent that you have? Your vowels are all over the place. You sound a hot mess." ... Even though I did love being at Tisch and that training, I didn't love the kind of judgment that I felt about my accent and being the only Black girl in studio. It was like, "We got to fix that!" Because as soon as you graduate, no one's asking you to speak the King's English. As a dark skinned, Black, 20-something actress, they want your regional dialect. A lot of times you're going out for Prostitute No. 4. They don't need you to sound like you're doing a Shakespearean play. So that part of it was interesting to kind of lose it and then kind of learn to regain it, because that's what the industry was requiring of me. And I did wish that it had been framed that way for me in school. Like, there's nothing wrong with your accent. In fact, you're probably going to work more with your regional dialect and without it.

On seeing the beauty in her Detroit childhood

I grew up in the city. When I was really young, we didn't have a lot of money. My mom and I lived in Section 8. We lived in Calumet Townhomes right off the Lodge Freeway. ... I had a very idyllic childhood. I have a very pristine idea of what it was to grow up in that Section 8 housing community. And I think it was in part my imagination.

It's not there now, but there used to be, right across from where I grew up, this big field. It was an empty field, and I would cut across that field to get to the corner store whenever my mother would bless me with a couple dollars to go get ice cream or whatever. And that field, in my imagination, in my mind, was honestly like Maria von Trapp, like The Sound of Music, like Austrian vistas and mountains. The grass was so high. I would go in that field and pick flowers for my mother. I would sing and dance and get lost in that field. And it wasn't until I was much older that I was like, "That was an empty lot. The grass was mad high because it should have been cut. Those were dandelions. They're not flowers." There was a church bell that would ring. I was always like, this is magic, because I guess that's just the love that I felt. And that's just something about me.

So I do realize not everybody has that point of view on it. I'm able to see the beauty of it. I also am able to recognize that there are challenges and there are things there that need to be fixed. So I feel like I can make room for both.

On the "angry Black woman" stereotype

It is a trap. They have made us afraid of our anger. ... But at the end of the day, anger is so beautiful and so powerful to me. Nothing changes unless someone gets angry. Obviously you don't just want to aim a bunch of unwieldy anger all over the place. That's not going to be constructive either. But there is great information in your anger. There's great direction in your anger. And, of course, there's great change that comes out of somebody being like, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." ... I think that when Black women are afraid of it, it will siphon off some of your power and your intuition and your drive.

On seeing a mural for the show in Detroit

I got a chance to go to Detroit with my husband and my baby and my sister and my oldest friend in the world, and we stood out there and took pictures. And it was a beautiful moment. ... I was trying to figure out how do I take a brick wall back on the plane with me? But it was a really beautiful moment. And I have to shout out Sydney James, who was a wonderful muralist in Detroit, who created it with her team. And I just try to keep my head down and do my work. I'll try to listen for my assignment and just follow and be obedient to it. But there are those moments that kind of shake you, like, "Girl, you're doing it. You're doing it! Your face is on this whole wall!" That's crazy. And it was a really touching, lovely moment.

Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.