As he prepares for the release of his second episode, Alex Ubokudom–actor, writer, producer–sits down with the Thin Line Collective to discuss his newest venture, and get some other things off his chest.
I remember when I was graduating from high school, my acting teacher told me that I would go far because I wasn’t afraid of anything. At the time, I took it as a bit of a back-handed compliment because she didn’t say anything about my talent or my potential. I later realized it was one of the greatest compliments I could have ever received. I don’t have the same fear about expressing myself that some other artists may experience.
When Alex Ubokudom graduated from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor with a degree in Communications, he wasn’t exactly sure of the path his life’s journey was taking. As the third of four children from Nigerian immigrant parents, Ubokudom was faced with the hardest task of all: meeting his family’s expectations. None of those expectations included working as a server and grinding through odd jobs just to make ends meet in the nation’s most expensive place to live, all while pursuing his dream of being a successful performer and writer. Fortunately for Ubokudom those expectations, mixed with the constant grind of surviving New York City, lead him down his latest and most innovative road.
Recounting his upbringing, Ubokudom re-lives his days growing up in Southfield, Michigan: a Detroit suburb he classifies as the place where “bougie middle class and a few lower-middle class Black folk” exist together. “My parents were strict but so full of love,” he says. “Though they wanted to steer me away from the performing arts world because of a lack of true job security, they always sat front row at every one of my performances.” Ubokudom recalls his parents support always came with that less-than-subtle hint of immigrant pragmatism. “No matter where the performance was they would shuttle me back and forth to every rehearsal and when they had people over the house they would braggadociously show clips of my performances. Then they would turn around and tell me that I was going to law school.”
The advent of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and other mediums that allow for content distribution have ushered in what some call the ‘Golden Age of Television’, and have opened the doors for new talent in all aspects of entertainment. While Ubokudom is not a beginner when it comes to producing content, his newest creation – BOK TV – is his first foray into this ‘golden age’, immersing his viewers into the world of social commentary and parody. Described as a “Black-@ss Sesame Street,” BOK TV seeks to provoke thought and tackle media inconsistency, while also allowing space to laugh and unwind. “It is a variety show that comprises satirical sketches, scathing monologues, political round table, and random performance pieces.” Ubokudom feels that consumers have been forced to settle to mediocre reporting and commentary, and that it is his place to offer an alternative.
I want to talk to people who have felt left behind by traditional media because they do not fall into the audience that just wants lowest common denominator content.
The debut episode offers skits ranging from a spoof of a nationally known commercial to further dissecting the Black Lives Matter protests. “I think BOK TV is a safe space for the truth. Or at least that’s what I am hoping it will be,” Ubokudom says. “That’s the beauty of satire and comedy. You can often say certain things that might be dangerous in another context.”
The Thin Line Collective was drawn to BOK TV after watching the first skit, which addressed race and the hyperbolic nature of sports – specifically football – commentators, and the ease with which they dismiss the personal transgressions of the athletes for their on-field accomplishments. “I wasn’t trying to say too much about issues of race from an athlete’s perspective,” says Ubokudom. “I think my character was making a point about how these passionate Black sports commentators, many of whom are former players, often use their passion to seem as though they are giving an unbiased, honest viewpoint when they are really just serving the company agenda. It’s as if the networks are trying to capitalize off the ‘keeping it real’ effect of having a loud Black man.”
If BOK TV truly avails itself to creating discourse through uncensored and provocative content, then getting, as the broadcaster on the skit shouted, “this good southern Christian boy screaming out ‘Allah Akbar’” finely walks that line. Ubokudom knows that, in order to stimulate ideas, growth, and progress during this time of media revolution, you cannot shy away from conflict.
He very clearly sees disparity when discussing issues of race within the sports world. Although he contends that wasn’t the parody’s sole focus, he recognizes the role that it plays in society, and the importance of furthering the dialogue. “I think race and sports are inextricably linked especially in an American context. I mean the only Black (or maybe even nonwhite) majority owner of a major American sports team is Michael Jordan and he is only the greatest basketball player ever,” says Ubokudom. “When you conceptualize the fact that the life blood of the sports industry are Black and Brown bodies, it truly depicts a microcosm of the western power structure. Wealth and power rule. And we aren’t the ones with it. It doesn’t matter that some of these athletes are making millions they are ultimately powerless to truly challenge the power structure.”
Ubokudom isn’t going to commit to creating funny sketches about sports during every episode, but he wants the viewers to know they can expect a few more pieces: “As long as these athletes keep doing stupid sh*t, and as long as there are a**hole owners who care little about the public good, you can bet your heiny there will be more. Plus I have to do something about the zombie-ish effect of Jordans on the Black community.”
As a self-proclaimed actor, writer, and satirist, Ubokudom points to famous visionaries all of whom were ground-breaking in their own right. Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Dave Chappelle, and Jon Stewart have all been driving inspirations throughout Ubokudom’s career, but he also credits his parents and, as he puts it, “any marginalized bodies seeking social justice.” Ubokudom recognizes that inspiration does not solely come from visual examples, but to truly tap into his creative essence, what he hears is just as important. “I am very inspired by a good story. If someone shares a good story with me, I will remember it for the rest of my life. And those are the types of stories that motivate me.”
For most people, choosing acting as a career path takes a special type of influence and dedication and for Ubokudom, his quest was no different. He cites watching a VHS recording of Michael Jackson perform during the Motown 25th anniversary celebration as a young kid as the earliest memory of his desire to enter into the realm of performance arts. Initially desiring to become a vocalist, stating that “nothing is more satisfying than throwing yourself into a song on stage in front of a crowd of people and slaying it,” he started acting while a student at Southfied High School when an acting teacher said he showed a lot of promise and good stage presence. He eventually began taking part in acting roles while at Michigan, and parlayed that experience into acceptance and completion of a Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California. Ubokudom’s talent has landed him roles in numerous short films, and eventually the lead role in the independent drama AlaskaLand.
Before ending the interview Ubokudom, a Michigan native and political enthusiast, offered some choice words regarding the deplorable circumstances for residents in the city of Flint. “The Flint situation is a byproduct of a racist, classist, egregiously capitalist, mendacious political system gone to the extreme. We are living in a society where profit margins and cost-cutting override everything, including public safety. Flint really shouldn’t surprise anyone one. We’ve been divesting from communities like Flint for decades. These are elected officials who made these decisions. They don’t have to be in those positions. But until we realize that we have the power to change politics, sadly we’ll see more of the same.”
Fortunately for consumers, the no-nonsense, straightforward approach that Ubokudom brings to his interviews also encompasses his writing, acting, and producing. He firmly believes that citizens have the ability to change the nation’s political climate. At some point in his journey from the suburbs of Detroit to the boroughs of New York, Ubokodom realized that he also has the ability to change media through his passion, his directness, and his outright refusal to settle for the status quo.
And that is exactly what BOK TV is preparing to accomplish.