Peacock's Bel Air | An Exploration with The Kinsey Collection

Carla Banks Waddles and Cassandra Freeman speak on the series and their experience with the historical collection

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Gabriella Madden

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Peacock’s Bel Air , the modern re-telling of the popular ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, is not only paying tribute to the original, but has expanded on what made it so great in the first place. In the drama’s most recent season, the show pays tribute to one of the most famous families in the art world, the The Kinseys. Bernard, Shirley, and their son Khalil  are some of the most well-known collectors of African American art, with a vast collection known aptly as The Kinsey Collection. Inspired by the Kinseys, who currently have an exhibition open at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the latest episode of Bel Air centers around Aunt Viv and her journey in the art world.

Showrunner Carla Banks Waddles knew she wanted to include inspiration from the Kinseys and their collection in the show, and she was waiting for the right time and the right character to use it. She wanted to showcase Black Excellence in the Arts, and felt that the Kinsey family was the way to go. A television writer since 2000, Banks Waddles knows her way around the TV world, and Bel Air is her first showrunner credit. 

Cassandra Freeman, who plays Aunt Viv, is actually Bernard Kinsey’s niece. Paying tribute to her family that has helped pave the way for diversity and inclusion in the arts is an incredibly special moment for her, as art holds a big place in her life as well. The joy and pride art brings her combined with the electricity of a Fresh Prince reboot made for an episode to remember.

Flaunt spoke with both Banks Waddles and Freeman on the Kinsey Collection, Bel Air season three, their favorite ways to unwind, and much more. 

Carla Banks Waddles

Can you discuss your idea of including the Kinsey Collection in this episode? How do you ensure the importance of such a collection is portrayed to the audience, or do you believe it speaks for itself?

Knowing that Aunt Viv is an artist, there was already such an organic connection to our storylines this season. I just wanted the Kinsey family focus on the historical presence of Black Excellence to be felt. Episode 5, “Excellence is Everywhere,” was the perfect opportunity to showcase that message.

What was it like for the cast to visit the Kinsey Collection off the screen? What were people's initial reactions, feelings, and thoughts of being introduced to one of the largest documentations of Black art and history that exists?

The Kinsey family— Bernard, Shirley and Khalil— generously spent a Saturday afternoon with the cast and some key crew on Bel-Air, walking us through their exhibition at SoFi Stadium. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the magnitude and the depth of what we experienced that day. The knowledge and history that was shared and the historical artifacts in their collection were phenomenal. Everyone should experience it. We could feel the pride and the passion they had and we all left feeling such gratitude for the time they spent with us. It was very special and meaningful and such a privilege.

How do you feel that Black Excellence inspires and informs the lives of Bel-Air characters–what are the ways in which you try to portray this excellence through milestones and their everyday lives?

I think the show naturally embodies this idea of Black Excellence by virtue of who the Banks family is, their values and the things they care about. Education, art, culture, history and music is important to them. For Ashley, it’s little things like just showing a curiosity in educating herself and reading books like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Assata Shakur, and Langston Hughes. Or even seeing the pride she felt when she learned that her great uncle was a Tuskegee Airman.

Episode 5 was called “Excellence is Everywhere” and there were perfect moments that were taken from my experience with the Kinsey collection and conversations with them— like Aunt Viv’s speech about the significance of the Barnett-Aden gallery, the first successful Black-owned private art gallery in the U.S.  And the moment she shared with Ashley about the Philis Wheatley poetry book (A real artifact owned and on display at the exhibition). These moments were all inspired by the Kinsey’s. Even having the Syncopated Ladies (a Black, female tap dance group) perform in that episode was a fun way to portray our excellence.

Can you tell us what kind of storylines you hope to bring to Season 3, or which you would like to expand on?  

We’re planning for Season three to be summer time in Bel-Air. So definitely lots of fun to see what that looks like, since we’ve spent two seasons in the school year. Will is now in a better place about life in Bel-Air and we’ll see him start to thrive. He’s ready to take on Bel-Air, full steam ahead. We also want to continue to explore and deepen all of the relationship dynamics with the family that the audience loves and spend more time with pairings of characters we haven’t seen together a lot — like Will and Ashley or Hilary and Carlton. Lots of juicy storylines and more Black excellence to come.

What do you like to do to keep yourself happy and in tune with yourself?

So much of my days and weeks are spent talking and communicating and over-communicating and just being surrounded by lots of people. I try to make sure I’m carving out my alone time. I’m also a big fan of the sun. Any time I can find a moment to sit quietly outside by the pool or go to the beach helps me recharge and connect to my own thoughts. I really want to try one of those silent retreats one day.

I’m also trying to do better with work life balance, It’s super easy to spend every waking moment on work— talking about work, doing work, coming home after work and working more. I’m trying to be more purposeful about shutting it off and just enjoying spending time with my family and friends.

Cassandra Freeman

Being the niece to Bernard Kinsey, did episode 205 feel close to home? Did your connection to the collection impact your approach to Aunt Viv’s scenes at all?

Yes, it felt like home or full circle. I've always wanted to play a character that reflected back who my Aunt and Uncle are to me and to so many people. Before we started shooting, I made a point to get the names of every item of art in the Bel Air mansion. The art that people collect reflects who they are, their values, and their goals in life.

Do you have a favorite piece from the collection, or perhaps one that made an especially impactful impression on you? What was it like to be with the cast when you all initially visited the Kinsey collection?

There are so many pieces that have always resonated with me and artists who are just incredible. And I didn't learn about any of them until I stepped into my Aunt and Uncle's house. Once you see the art on the wall and realize they are all African American, it becomes thrilling to dive deep into art history in general! And I just go deep into investigation mode to learn who they are and see other pieces of theirs so I can begin to see what their style and point of view are. The same begins to happen to Will in our show too! Some of my favorite artists that come to mind are Richard Mayhew "The Fugue" (is always my all time favorite), Bisa Butler's "The Boss," Elizabeth Catlett "Untitled Bronze Sculpture, "Alma Thomas paintings, Charles White "Ink On Paper" (pieces are thrilling!) Phoebe Beasley "Piano Bass and Drums," Artis Lane "Woman" Ed Dwight (who is a former astronaut) "The Pipers" sculpture.

What is it like to be working on a re-invented series of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? As an actor, how do you embody a character that audiences have already seen, and adjust this character to exist in a contemporary context?

It's been fun re-imagining Aunt Viv for this generation. I just really wanted her to feel down-to-earth and relatable. I believed from the beginning that she is someone who represents her roots and accent proudly. I also just loved what the OG Aunt Viv's created too! So I tried to hold the torch high in what they created in terms of her elegance and warmth.

What are you most excited about for the next season of Bel-Air?

The ability to just have more expansion in all areas for Aunt Viv. I hope we continue to be a mirror to the hearts of women and hopefully inspire along the way.

What do you like to do to keep yourself happy and in tune with yourself?

I actually paint! I can paint for hours it brings me such joy to add color to a canvas. It's basically color therapy for me. the colors can never be too bright! And of course I'm a karaoke champion. I never turn down an invitation to sing!

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Bel Air, Peacock, The Kinsey Collection, Carla Banks Waddles, Cassandra Freeman