‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ Production Designers: “Our Core Mission Is to Celebrate Black Women”

Caldwell Tidicue (top) — better known as RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen — emcees the Funeral Ball (above).

Courtesy of HBO (2)

This sketch — a callback to season one’s “Basic Ball” — was shot on location at RSI Locations in Pomona in an abandoned medical campus. “We had a bunch of tinsel and our title card lit up with marquee lights, and we wanted to bring those elements over to this sketch,” explains Chao. The high-angled pitch of the ceiling made this room, which in reality is a small banquet hall, resemble a church space. Chao and Yu lit the room with “a rainbow of colors,” with Chao noting that the funeral scene “wasn’t about a loss of life, but more about a celebration of life. We populated it with big, bold statements and florals to make it more of a fun atmosphere.”

That mixed tone also applies to the mood on set. “This is a sketch comedy show, so there’s the perception that we’re working fast but being silly about it,” says Yu. “I don’t know that we’ve ever worked on anything where everyone is taking it so seriously.”

Yu adds that the speed at which the production works requires a certain level of professionalism. “All of these sketches are really mini-movies,” she says, and putting all the pieces together for so many sketches requires an incredible amount of planning. “It’s intense and immense, and it’s very helpful to be working in the art department with people who have that approach. All of our job is in prep, and the more prep that we do, the better it’s going to be.”

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Chao also notes that this sketch was shot out of order, which added more challenges for the art department. “We dressed the space for the funeral ball, and then we had to reset it to its original state for the start of the sketch,” she explains. Adds Yu: “There are no pickup days on this show — we’re shooting it and we’re out.”

Ashley Nicole Black (left) and Robin Thede play two white-wine-drinking, motivational catchphrase-quoting women who are ‘live, laugh, loving their way through life.”

Courtesy of HBO (2)

One of the things Cindy and I love joking about with Robin [Thede, A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s star and creator] is bad Zillow postings,” says Michele Yu, who cites intricately staged real estate listings as the inspiration for this sketch’s homey setting. “Sometimes we’ll come across a real winner — like, this is what you do to attract [buyers] to your property?”

Cindy Chao and Yu filled this space — the sketch was shot on location in an empty house — with items that featured cheeky catchphrases. “It’s about women who are live, laugh, loving through life,” says Chao, “but [the reveal is that they are running] a sweatshop in their house,” in which other women are crafting tea towels and mugs with inspirational quotes.

A framed poster that reads “In this house, we do hugs,” throw pillows that command one to “pray boldly,” a clock that chimes when it’s “wine o’clock” — all these brought a realistic silliness to the sketch and sparked hilarious improvisational reactions from Thede and co-star Ashley Nicole Black.

But Chao and Yu didn’t just decorate this set with jokey decor. “You always need artwork, and there are certainly plenty of places you can get cleared artwork to put up. You just go to Hollywood Studio Gallery, you get a group of stuff and you put it on the walls,” says Yu. “But it’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, something that was created to celebrate Black women. We realized that this was an opportunity to feature other Black female artists. It’s not much harder to reach out to Black women [artists] who might like the exposure, who might enjoy being included in the process and who might get a kick out of seeing their work onscreen.”

That effort is not just a show of goodwill and solidarity, but also heightens the authenticity of a location — particularly in this sketch, which is set in a Black woman’s home. “That helps some of these interiors feel more real and specific, rather than just renting another landscape painting that’s easy to clear,” says Yu.

Gabrielle Dennis as Ms. Miller in this elementary school classroom-set sketch, which incorporates numerous set dressings designed to look like they were crafted by schoolchildren.

Courtesy of HBO (2)

This sketch — another callback to a character seen in season one — was also shot in an empty classroom at the RSI Pomona location. “There was a beehive,” Chao recalls of the space, which required cleaning before their team could begin dressing the room, which is not unusual. “A lot of these locations [need to be fixed up] before we even get down to design the space.”

The elementary school classroom required a lot of background details, from the drawings on the chalkboard to the posters on the walls, some of which were crafted with construction paper and glue to resemble artwork made by children. The latter items included science fair placards, such as one about volcanoes, and posters celebrating Black literary achievement — including re-creations of the book covers for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

“Our core mission is to celebrate Black women,” says Yu. While the humor in every sketch might not lead with that objective, Chao and Yu imbue that celebration into each of their set designs.

This set highlights the production designers’ ability to add narratives to the background of a scene. “Cindy and I have been working together as a team for over a dozen years at this point, and we come from an indie film background,” says Yu. “We’ve developed a [talent] for making the most out of what you have and using all the resources you possibly can to tell the story. Every inch of space on a set is something that could possibly support a story.”

That consideration applies to thinking how the characters in the sketches would decorate the spaces they inhabit. “The pace of this show is so rapid-fire and quick,” says Yu, whose first task is to figure out the basic items required in each setting. Once those are identified, they begin thinking about who the characters are and how they can help tell their stories: “We try to understand the person as a character, where they are coming from and what they would choose themselves.”

Yu also adds although production prep took place during the Trump presidency, the sketch was set in the Obama era. “It was such a relief,” she says with a laugh, “because we could include images of the [former] president and his wife, as opposed to who the president actually was when we were prepping.”

Thede as an explosives specialist whose retirement party is cut short when he has to quickly help a security guard (Black) detonate a bomb over the phone.

Courtesy of HBO (2)

This bomb shelter location was, in real life, a drab room being used for storage at the Petroleum Club in Long Beach, which Yu describes as “a very old-school club for oil executives.” The show spent a week on-site during production, using various spaces as locations. (A singles-night sketch was shot at the club’s restaurant.)

This sketch in particular alternates between two locations. The club’s rock-walled lobby served as a corporate front desk, where a security guard (another returning character from season one, played by Black) talks on the phone with a bomb control expert (played by Thede), who is interrupted from celebrating his imminent retirement in his office when Black’s character requests help dismantling an explosive device.

Particular features immediately appealed to Chao and Yu when they found this space: the large, dropped lighting fixtures in the center of the room, plus the mirrored, smoked-glass wall panels on either side. “We really leaned into the mirrors,” says Yu, who adds that the DP was able to work with “cool lighting” thanks to the reflective walls. “We decked the whole room out with multiple desks, to suggest other people were working there,” Yu adds of the additional details for the scene, which include the party balloons and a half-eaten cake.

The end result, however, was a dark office and a tight shot on Thede in character, with cool blue-green lighting emanating from the ceiling. “The drop-ceiling lights were perfect,” says Chao of the room’s eye-catching feature, which brought an almost supernatural mood to the sketch.

While much of Chao and Yu’s extensive work is visible in this sketch only for fleeting moments, they say that doesn’t discourage them from their detailed efforts to create the world in which a sketch like this takes place. “We have to get very creative with the spaces, because we never know what’s actually going to make it into the cut while we’re dressing them,” Yu explains. “We really have to dress the whole world just in case.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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