In the fourth episode of the short web series “Next Stop,” three Torontonians pile into the back seat of a car pool, and gripe about the challenges finding success as a Black content creator in Canada.
That plot point is also in part how the series came to be.
The creators of the show are Toronto filmmakers, Jabbari Weekes, Tichaona Tapambwa and Phil Witmer.
Tapambwa, who wrote, produced and directed for the series, says they were each looking for a way to break into Canada’s film and television industry and decided to self-fund a project.
To their surprise, a year after they started releasing episodes on YouTube, the series has been picked up for streaming on CBC Gem.
While workshopping ideas for the show, Tapambwa said “We tried a lot of ideas. And a lot of them did not stick.” But they soon decided on making a series about Black Torontonians that balances comedy and drama in a way they hadn’t seen in many Canadian shows, and landed on “Next Stop.”
“What is that bittersweetness of being a Black Torontonian?” Tapambwa said.
To answer that question, the team gathered what equipment they could and cast some first-time actors with captivating personalities, including Vanessa Adams and Jordan Hayles, and started shooting.
Episodes are built on joking conversations between friends, peppered with references and slang that Black and racialized Torontonians would be familiar with, like the long-standing debate over which subway station has the best patties. And chances are, viewers will read the name of the series in their heads, and hear the familiar cadence of a TTC stop announcement.
Next stop … Bloor-Yonge Station.
But along with the humour, each episode is also nestled with a more serious plight, such as Toronto’s climbing rent prices or battling with depression.
Tapambwa said they drew inspiration from FX’s “Atlanta” created by Donald Glover and Netflix’s “Easy,” shows that are both comedic and dramatic. They also noted “Ackee & Saltfish,” a popular web series by British director Cecile Emeke, as another muse.
Over the course of 2019, from February to November, they released four short episodes of “Next Stop” on YouTube, and gained an enthusiastic local following.
Amar Wala, owner of Scarborough Pictures, which signed on as executive producer of the series, says that after 10 years in the film industry, he has noticed a clear lack of diversity.
“Frankly, as I’ve gotten a little bit more successful and a little bit more stability, the less the industry started to look like [me] and what my kind of social circles look like,” Wala said.
That realization has prompted Wala to advocate for more racialized voices in the industry.
Refinery 29 Canada writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote a piece at the beginning of the year about how overwhelmingly white Canadian television content is. The piece quotes Jennifer Holness, a producer and founder of Hungry Eyes Media, who said, “It’s very difficult for diverse filmmakers [and TV creators] to get a first chance, let alone a second chance in this country.” Highlighting that there can be disproportionate pressure on works made by and about racialized people to get time to grow an audience.
This month, “Schitt’s Creek” swept all seven comedy series awards at the Emmys for its final season after a six-season run. The Canadian comedy from the CBC created by father and son Eugene and Dan Levy gained a wide following outside of the country after being released on Netflix.
As the actors and producers collected award after award, Canadians watching the ceremony urged fans to check out more Canadian content, like “Kim’s Convenience.” And others also spoke about the need for Canada to cast a broader net in the diversity of shows and talent it green lights.
CBC executive director Given Lindo who is in charge of streaming, including CBC Gem where “Next Stop” will be offered, said that there is “always more that can be done” when it comes to “commissioning and acquiring content that is representative and is showcasing as many communities as possible.”
He said it’s a lot about numbers: “the more creators [they] support, the more chances there are for breakout hits that will penetrate and resonate.”
“We think that the role we play, specifically with CBC Gem is being that platform where we can take chances and support creators who may not have the longest CV, but we can take chances on really talented people who have a unique point of view,” he said. “We have a lot of freedom and latitude, to really go niche and to find authentic creators.”
With the support from CBC Gem and Scarborough Pictures, Tapambwa said they plan to work on new episodes to pick up where they left off.
The current season of “Next Stop” is now streaming for free on CBC Gem.
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star