Update: Anthony Sparks, assistant professor of cinema and television arts, received three 2017 NAACP Image Award nominations: Outstanding Drama Series (“Queen Sugar”), Outstanding Writing on a Dramatic Series (“Queen Sugar” episode titled “By Any Chance”), and for Outstanding Instructional Literary Work – for “Running the Long Race in Gifted Education: Narratives and Interviews from Culturally Diverse Gifted Adults,” which he coauthored with Joy M. Scott-Carrol. The 48th NAACP Image Awards will be held Feb. 11 in Pasadena.
As a kid, growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Anthony Sparks often rode the bus past Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. He dreamed of becoming an actor, a writer and one day, a producer. The Cal State Fullerton assistant professor of cinema and television arts credits his teachers for spotting and nurturing his talent.
Fast forward to about a year ago and Sparks, a longtime Broadway performer now screenwriter and television producer, is set to meet creative force Ava DuVernay. But her search for writers to assist on a CBS pilot is halted when the show is canceled, and Sparks’ meeting with the “Selma” director is too.
Now, Sparks is living the most climactic scenes of his screenplay yet. Winfrey and DuVernay tapped Sparks to write and produce for “Queen Sugar,” a new series produced for OWN by Warner Horizon Television.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that these things don’t happen every day,” he said.
The show, based on a book by Natalie Baszile, begins filming soon and debuts on Winfrey’s network in October. Winfrey and show creator, DuVernay, announced about a month after the book’s January 2015 release that they would executive produce the series. Melissa Carter also is an executive producer.
“True Blood” star Rutina Wesley will play Nora Bordelon, a Louisiana journalist and activist whose sister Charley, played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, moves back from Los Angeles to help tend to the family’s sugarcane farm.
“I love what it is about and, most importantly, I loved the opportunity the show has to tell stories about underrepresented people that we don’t see on TV and in TV dramas,” said Sparks.
As a supervising producer, Sparks joined five other writers, including Winfrey, DuVernay and Carter. It is the fifth television show for Sparks, who joined the Titan faculty in the fall, ending his search for a diverse campus and a university that emphasizes teaching while recognizing the benefits of industry experience.
“I almost consider it a duty to teach,” said Sparks. “Fullerton is a teaching university that values teaching and also values creative work as scholarship and the ability for the professors to bring both of those abilities to the classroom. They value a student that is a striver.”
Simultaneously working in the entertainment industry can bring multiple doses of reality to his students, said Sparks.
“I become a better writer as I teach, and I become a better teacher as I write,” he said. “They know they’re being taught by someone who has a knowledge base constantly being updated, and my opinion might actually mean something,” he joked.
Tight deadlines for scripts reinforce Sparks’ strict deadlines for students. Any overlap becomes a bit of a juggling act for Sparks.
“Deadlines are real,” he said. “You have never turned on your television and had it say on the screen ‘sorry, the writer didn’t finish the script.’”
Sparks’ experience as a drama writer and screenwriter for television shows includes “The Blacklist” for NBC and “Lincoln Heights” on ABC, and his education and research is as an American studies and ethnic studies scholar.
He earned a doctorate and a master’s degree in American studies and ethnicity from USC, as well as a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre. His 20-year career in entertainment includes a long run as a member of the Broadway cast of “STOMP” in New York and on tour.
He began working on “Queen Sugar” in December, a week after getting the call. But he only recently met Winfrey.
“I’m not a huge gusher, but I have to say I was a little more gushy than I usually am,” he said. “I’ve met people. But there’s only one Oprah.”