Grace Nkenge Edwards began her career in entertainment as an actor, starring as Monique in the 2007 short film “Pangs.” Four years and several production and writer’s assistant jobs later, “Awkward Black Girl” became an online phenomenon.
The Michigan native distinctly remembers sitting at her desktop computer, waiting for episodes of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” to drop on Facebook. Issa Rae was a source of inspiration and motivation for her.
“I had people in college telling me, ‘Oh, you’re too dark to really make a run at being an actor.’ So it was cathartic and beautiful to watch this gorgeous dark-skinned woman, who not only was starring in this, who was a romantic lead, but who was also the creator of it,” Edwards said. “I always say that both her and Tina Fey were sort of the blueprint for me in wanting to be both a performer and writer.”
From cameos on “Inside Amy Schumer” to voicing Michelle Obama on “Our Cartoon President” and producing “Insecure,” Edwards is a triple-threat as actor, producer and writer. On “Insecure,” she is one of the main architects behind the excavation of friendships, highlighting Issa and Molly’s ups, downs and codependency in times of distress. After joining the series in its fourth season, the Guyanese American writer is charting her own legacy. Soon audiences will get to see her work as the mastermind behind the forthcoming animated series “Jodie,” a follow-up to the ’90s series “Daria.” Working on “Insecure” has opened doors for her to continue to make complex stories about Black women and rewrite the narratives, from Issa Dee and Molly Carter to Jodie Landon.
Though she knew Amy Aniobi and Yvonne Orji, Edwards learned of the opportunity to join the “Insecure” writers room from her agent. Her immediate response was, “Yes, of course I’m interested,” but she knew that in joining the series in its fourth season, she had to bring it.
She was nervous during the interview process because “Insecure” had “already been a bona fide hit,” but what she found was a warm, loving environment that Issa Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny had created.
“I had never worked before on a show that was this Black. My first show that I worked on was ‘Loosely Exactly Nicole,’ starring Nicole Byer, but she was the only Black character on there,” Edwards said. “As I was pitching [on ‘Insecure’], things can just come out of my mouth the way they would, whereas a lot of times when I was working for other shows, there’s almost like a translation that has to go on.”
Edwards said she has become a better writer overall by working with Rae and Penny. A departure from the punchline-driven comedy that sketch projects desired, Edwards now seeks to find comedy in relatability.
With “Insecure,” she found that the characters resonated with her, whether they’re young and broke trying to survive in a big city or an all-too-familiar depiction of the women in her own life. The fullness of these Black characters was something she had never seen before.
“How rare and beautiful it was to see us on screen depicted so realistically and allowing these characters to be messy,” Edwards said. “I was a fan of ‘A Different World,’ ‘Girlfriends,’ and all those Black sitcoms from the ’90s, but this was different in the sense that it was getting deeper into these characters and allowing them to be messy and make mistakes. It meant a lot to me to know that it was possible, that’s the type of television that I wanted to see out there.”
Edwards is the writer behind Season 4, Episode 9, “Lowkey Trying.” In that episode, Molly, Issa and Nathan are at Andrew’s apartment playing a drinking game. After a season marred by their frayed relationship, Molly attempts to extend a perfunctory olive branch to Issa, thanks to persuasion from Andrew. She texts, “See, I’m trying,” but instead of sending it to Andrew, Issa receives it — and storms out.
“Sometimes you do sort of get back together with a friend momentarily — not really having addressed the things — so you hope that you can sweep that under the rug. That sort of fateful text was showing that Molly really hadn’t gotten over it,” Edwards said. “Even at the beginning of this season, it’s still tenuous. When there has been that level of hurt, it does take a minute, and it does take honesty and transparency to actually get through to the other side.”
“It’s OK to sometimes let your characters make unpopular choices,” she added, “because that’s real. That’s reality and that’s life. That’s what makes something more compelling in a way because you can see yourself in the mistakes that you’ve made in them. Sometimes when you’re getting mad at a character, you’re getting mad because you’ve done that yourself.”
Edwards said that she has learned so much from writing such raw scenes about the deep exploration of characters. Her next task will be exploring an older Jodie Landon in a modern spinoff of the series “Daria.” “The perfect African American teen,” who was once relegated to the background as a Black supporting character, is now getting her long overdue time to shine.
“It was a joy because I grew up with Daria. I remember watching it on MTV and feeling very seen by it. I was a nerdy girl,” said Edwards. “And I really felt like Daria and Jane were representative of those of us who felt unseen. Like Jodie, I went to primarily white schools growing up, so I related so much to having to feel like you really can’t fully be yourself. Every time I would see Jodie, I would sit up straighter and I’d always want more. I felt like there wasn’t enough of her.”
“How rare and beautiful it was to see us on screen depicted so realistically and allowing these characters to be messy. ... It meant a lot to me to know that it was possible. That’s the type of television that I wanted to see out there.”
“Jodie,” written by Edwards, is coming to Comedy Central in 2022. The animated coming-of-age series will follow an early-20s Landon navigating life after college and the challenges of the workplace, dating and more. While Jessica Cydnee Jackson voiced her in the late-1990s sitcom, Tracee Ellis Ross will be taking up the revisited role.
Edwards said that in the reboot, viewers see the world wholly from Landon’s perspective rather than from her being a secondary character on someone else’s show.
“We’re gonna see Jodie Landon, who used to be the perfect Black teen, come to a whole other environment and realize that she was the big fish in the small pond. And now she’s a small fish in the ocean. It’s about her just growing into being an adult in a different environment than Lawndale where we get to see the 360 degree, full, three-dimensional character.”
Despite the naysayers, Edwards never thought following her Hollywood dreams was impossible. And “Insecure” has proved her right.
“What people were saying for a long time ― ‘Oh, the reason why we don’t have a lot more diverse things is because people won’t watch and it doesn’t sell overseas.’ Well, I think that ‘Insecure’ has proved that is not the case. We have something now to point to, like, ‘Look, this is something that happened and it was successful.’ I’m just excited that we have this beautiful piece of work, which will last forever and I think will go down in television history as one of the most significant comedy shows that has ever been created.”