She’s Bringing the Black Experience to American Television
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s got a strong voice, and isn’t afraid to use it.
By Andreas Hale
“It was like Superman returning to Krypton and realizing that this is what home feels like,” Jas Waters says from Paris, reflecting on her career path. With writing credits for NBC’s Emmy Award-winning This Is Us, plus VH1’s The Breaks and Comedy Central’s Hood Adjacent With James Davis, Waters has taken a rather unconventional journey to finding her home in the writers’ room. But, like Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, she kept her head down and did the work while waiting to show off her superpowers. “I was not an alien. I was just on the wrong planet.”
Today, with a season of This Is Us under her belt, Waters is writing for the forthcoming Showtime series Kidding starring Jim Carrey. And as a Black woman in an industry in which just 4.8 percent of TV writers are people of color, she’s doing her part to produce nuanced and authentic portrayals of Black characters and storylines touching on racial subjects.
Despite her success — and the emergence of Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Lena Waithe and others — in a climate that appears to support more fully realized portrayals of African-Americans, Waters still finds herself fighting for the culture.
Waters relocated to Los Angeles but was quickly humbled — or, as she puts it, “crapped out spectacularly.”
“Jas has a bracing, strong, personal perspective; it was a persuasive, original voice at our table,” says This Is Us co-executive producer Don Roos, who credits Waters with pushing to flesh out more of character Beth’s Black immigrant family experience — and the show will in season three. That’s one victory in what could well be a career full of battles in writers’ rooms where the Black experience is woefully underrepresented. But it’s a battle that Waters was built for.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, and raised mostly by her grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment in a senior citizens home, Waters remembers accompanying her street-hustler-turned-minister father to movies that were in no way appropriate for the preteen. But he made a point to educate his daughter on the meaning of what she saw on-screen.
“My dad’s philosophy was that I could handle anything as long as he could explain it to me,” the 30-something reflects. At age 9, encouraged by her father, Waters penned her first script and got hooked on the idea of writing for television and film.
An admittedly underachieving student who barely graduated high school, Waters stepped out for a year to work on a script before enrolling in Columbia College Chicago. A chance run-in with ER actor Eriq La Salle was the first of several gear-shifting moments.
“I boldly asked if he needed an intern,” she says with a laugh. “He asked how long did I have, and I responded: ‘How long would it take?’ He made me wait outside of his trailer for five hours.”
La Salle helped Waters land a one-day internship that turned into a four-year stint as a production assistant on ER. She also got gigs assistant-directing on the many commercials and feature films that blew through the Windy City.
In 2003, Waters relocated to Los Angeles but was quickly humbled — or, as she puts it, “crapped out spectacularly” — and beat it back to Chicago. Put off by what she’d seen in Hollywood (“I learned who I wasn’t.”), Waters decided to jump-start a career in entertainment journalism. She launched an urban lifestyle blog, FlyStyleLife, in 2007 and got pulled to New York, where she picked up side jobs producing music videos.
And then the gears shifted again: Waters — who was undergoing a massive body transformation, losing over 100 pounds — ended up being cast on the VH1 reality series The Gossip Game in 2013. The celebrity lifestyle didn’t do it for her — but being on set reignited her old passion.
After wrapping the one (and only) season of The Gossip Game, Waters dropped everything to focus on her first TV pilot. She took another chance on Los Angeles, where she met an ambitious young agent who believed in her script — soon she had her first writers’ room job for VH1’s The Breaks.
She remembers texting her agent in the early weeks asking, “Are you sure that this is my job?” Waters scored another writing gig with Hood Adjacent and was officially on her way.
During a hiatus from both shows, she spent New Year’s Day 2017 on a beach telling God she was ready to level up. He answered, but not in the way she expected. Five days after returning home, she found herself unemployed when both shows failed to renew her contract. But rather than retreat, Waters dug in her heels. “The highs and lows happen so much in my life that this time I made a decision to not be scared.”
And the payoff came when her agent submitted her name for the 12-person writers’ room of This Is Us, one of the 10 top-rated shows of 2017. Hired for season two — and one of just three writers of color — Waters wasn’t shy when the interaction between the show’s Black characters felt unnatural.
“I believe wholeheartedly in protecting the authenticity of the story,” she says. “That’s my job. If something feels inauthentic, I have to say something.”
Waters will keep speaking up as long as the pool of TV writers is so lacking in diversity — a 2017 report found that two-thirds of shows had no Black writers. “The challenges that she may face in the future really lies within the industry and how it embraces women of color in positions of prestige in the creative space,” Datwon Thomas of Vibe magazine says. “The measure of fantastic work should be a level playing field for all.”
For now, Waters is going all in writing for Kidding, Jim Carrey’s first TV show since 1990, debuting later this year. She’s amazed at where she’s landed, but she knows that L.A.’s a fickle town that promises nothing, and that good fortune can vanish with yesterday’s headlines.
“I never saw this [coming],” Waters says, “but somehow this is where I am, so I guess that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that Waters still writes for This Is Us, but after wrapping up season two, she committed full time to Kidding.