Robin Givens, Brian White and Essence Atkins Serve Up Ambitions for OWN

Photo: Guy D’Alema (OWN)

Are you ready for some Ambitions? That’s the question super-producer Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along, Think Like a Man and OWN reality dating show Ready to Love) and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN ask with their brand-new primetime soap starring Robin Givens, Brian White and Essence Atkins. With a lead-in from Tyler Perry’s The Have and the Have Nots, quietly one of OWN’s highest-rated shows, the network is betting that you are.

Not a fan of Perry and his The Have and the Have Nots? No worries. Ambitions is so not that. Yes, it’s got that rich folks-versus-poor folks steez, but it also serves up a whole lot more bourgeoisie. Thanks to her daddy’s law firm arguably being the most powerful in Atlanta, Stephanie Carlisle Lancaster (played by Givens) had clout way before her husband became mayor. In fact, it’s her husband, Mayor Evan Lancaster (Brian White), who has had to level up. In trying to do so, he may have run a tad bit askew of the law and Essence Atkins’ Amara Hughes from the U.S. Attorney’s Office is out to catch him.

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During a set visit to the massive, still-newish Tyler Perry Studios a couple of months back, Ambitions creator Jamey Giddens, a self-professed Texas country boy whose grandmother raised him on a healthy diet of soap operas, shared that Evan was the first character he created for the show. Evan, he said, “married into this high-powered black Kennedy family with this ice queen woman who is just seething because she’s smarter than everyone in the room, but the patriarchy keeps holding her down.”

And Stephanie just ain’t having it. She is fighting everyone, including her daddy Stephen Carlisle (Steven Williams), who just needs to step aside and let her run the family law firm.

“I love kind of making her more than even I think they thought of her initially, not just putting her in a box,” Givens shared. “I think, sometimes, especially with black people, [we] think ‘oh somebody is educated so they behave like this or they’re affluent, they behave like this.’ We just put people in boxes and I love kind of making her round and robust and layered and a little bit of everything and strong but really vulnerable. I just love it.

“I grew up watching old movies, with like Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth, and I love women that can hang out with the guys, play pool with the guys, drink whiskey with the guys but still look good in a dress, you know what I mean? And that’s who [Stephanie] is to me. I had that experience with A Rage in Harlem with Imabelle. So, to me, she’s almost like a modern-day Imabelle went to law school.”

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Stephanie can get ruthless in other ways—and she holds grudges. Case in point: her former friend and soror Amara who married Stephanie’s college boyfriend Titus (played by relative newcomer Kendrick Cross). Atkins admitted that “there’s definitely a girl code, and Amara broke it,” even if it’s 20-something years later.

“In her mind, when she comes to Atlanta,” Atkins explained, “she’s like, ‘girl that was like 20-something years ago, you ain’t over that?’ And the fact of the matter is she’s not. She’s not over it; success aside, husband aside, and that’s real. People do get in their feelings about something that happened 20 years ago and it can just...really be this blinder [by] which you live your life.”

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And if that weren’t enough, Amara and Titus have come back to Atlanta, their college stomping grounds, to hopefully heal their marriage from infidelity and emotional neglect. So Titus, who once ran his own law firm doing mostly pro bono work, has taken a high-powered job as private counsel for the family-owned, big pharma company, Purifoy, with whom Stephanie has beef because she believes they killed her sister.

Evan is just swimming in drama. Because he’s from the Banks, a fictional Atlanta neighborhood in the vein of T.I.’s real-life Bankhead (where is this? Outer Banks?) where his family owns a soul food restaurant, high expectations are placed on him, especially from his sister Rondell (the vivacious Brely Evans who played Nichelle on Being Mary Jane). She is adamantly against gentrification and particularly white developer Greg Peters (Gino Anthony Pesi), a big client at his wife’s family firm. He also has an ambitious Latinx mistress, Bella (Erica Page), who is a fashion designer.

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However, during the set visit, White claimed that mistress and all, Evan is “desperately” in love with his wife. Givens even offered that Stephanie is falling in love with her husband though their union is one of political expediency.

“They have a Beyoncé and Jay-Z type of love, a Bill and Hillary type of love, but it’s just that there’s competition there,” White argued. “She’s the first woman that he saw on a pedestal and he’s always been chasing that pedestal to be worthy of sticking out his arm and having her be right there to his right, so I think one of the thorns in his side is trying to figure out how to elevate himself to be worthy to be at the top of the wedding cake with his black Barbie.”

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Later, he added that leveling up had been Evan’s “motivation since he met Stephanie in college. I mean, it’s like, when Barack met Michelle, you know, he knew how amazing she was and he needed to fortify himself. And I think that is...what motivates [Evan] and what wakes him up at night, what wakes him up in the morning, and he’s still not all the way there. You know, he can’t just have her the way he wants. She has too many ambitions. He can’t just keep his wife to his right, because she’s way up in front of him, you know, leading the race.”

What makes Ambitions work for Atkins is its realness. “It would be great if we all moved with integrity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But even people who have great intentions and make good choices, and even if you have a relationship with a higher spirit, fall and that’s the beauty of this dynamic... There’s no villain really….And I think that’s what makes it complicated. And I think and hope that [the] audience will attach themselves to that.”

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So, again, are you ready for some Ambitions?

Ambitions premieres Tuesday, June 18 on OWN at 10 p.m. ET and airs every Tuesdays at the same time.

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About the author

Ronda Racha Penrice

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer who resides in Atlanta. She is the author of "African American History for Dummies."