By Jake-ann Jones
Erica Sutherlin Directs
Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas
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Erica Sutherlin is a familiar face in St. Pete – from being a current artist-in-residence at The Studio@620, to directing the education of theatre artists while teaching at Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) at Gibbs High School from 2009 to 2017.
Now she’s hoping that when her prime-time TV film debut, Lifetime Television’s Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas airs on Saturday, December 4, as many homes as possible will tune in.
“In television, for the Neilsen ratings, the first night that a show airs, the more eyes you have on it – the more devices turned on to that channel – the higher the rating number is and the more successful the movie is, according to the network,” said the multihyphenated creative. “So, if you want your movie to be successful, you want a lot of people watching it at the time it airs.”
While she’s spent the last 20 years acting, writing, directing, teaching theatre artists (nationally and internationally) she’s making her directorial debut with A Gospel Christmas – which, she calls “magical.”
“When we first had the initial idea for this project, we wanted to take Kirk Franklin’s Christmas album and use that music in the story. He came on board and agreed to do that, and we rearranged about eight songs on that album so that they would work inside our story,” shares Sutherlin.
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The story centers on Olivia, a young pastor trying to find “her voice as a woman, a pastor, a leader – and ultimately as a singer.” Living in the shadow of her megachurch pastor mom, Olivia leaves to pastor a small church in Texas, following her journey to recover from “church hurt” and reclaim her family’s generational gift as a singing pastor.
Olivia’s journey to self-awareness is one many people can relate to – and while there is a romantic aspect, along with Kirk Franklin’s high energy gospel songs, Sutherlin notes that it’s not the familiar Lifetime Television narrative. “That’s what I think is so sweet about it,” she acknowledges, but says audiences will still experience it as a feel-good Christmas story.
Sutherlin’s own journey has been both extremely blessed and full of sacrifice. Born in St. Louis, she got her B.A. in Theatre and Dance Performance at Southern Illinois University.
Landing in St. Pete in 2008, she taught at PCCA while also working with Herbert Murphy and Alex Harris at the Boys and Girls Clubs at the Royal Theater. It was there that she made contacts that connected her with an international job directing in an arts program in St. Thomas.
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As the first Black theatre and acting instructor at PCCA, Sutherlin shares, “I would have to say teaching at PCCA helped forge me into the director I am today.” She had to learn to interact with “numerous personalities and learning styles” while figuring out how to encourage students to perform at their highest level and with their “best selves.”
Before leaving St. Pete to get her MFA in Film and Television Production from the University of Southern California (USC) – the highest rated film school in the country and third in the world – Sutherlin also directed at St. Petersburg City Theatre. “I directed three shows for them and had a wonderful time working at the theatre. I was always able to choose my team, which meant I got to work with truly talented friends.”
While she was St. Pete City Theatre’s first-ever Black director (it opened in 1925), Sutherlin notes, “I didn’t take that with me as I directed. I was focused on doing my best work at the time. And because of that focus, when I directed Memphis, the Musical, which was an amazing experience, I believe we broke some box office records.”
In 2017 she headed west to film school, where she assisted in the development and writing of the award-winning Voodoo Macbeth, produced by Warner Brothers and USC. Earlier that year, Sutherlin played Lady Macbeth in The Studio@620’s 2017 production of Voodoo Macbeth.
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While working on the project she became friends with Tracy ‘Twinkie” Byrd, an executive producer and casting director on the film. They knew they wanted to work together in the future, and Byrd arranged a meeting for Sutherlin with former Lifetime Television executive Mychael Chinn (currently an executive at CBS/Viacom).
“One of (Chinn’s) super-powers is about finding new talent and cultivating new talents. We met, had lunch, and he was like, look, I believe in you. I appreciate your art. I’m working on some things, and when I have it together, I’m going to come back around. And he did,” Sutherlin recalls.
The pandemic forced Sutherlin off USC’s campus, but she finished her degree back in St. Pete, online. By this time, she had also held a fellowship with the Blackhouse Foundation and Sundance.
But, remembering the talented filmmaker, Chinn made good on his word, and she was selected for the 2020 Lifetime Network’s Director Shadow program. By the beginning of 2021, she was hired as director on the team that would develop A Gospel Christmas.
Looking back on her own path, Sutherlin shares, “When I was in grad school, I knew that after listening to filmmakers discuss their journeys, and how different each journey was, there was no blueprint.”
She acknowledges her own fears at taking on the film world after so many years as a theater veteran. “I just felt like, oh my God, I don’t know how I’m gonna do this. So, I just kept asking God – I was just like, hey, I have no idea how to navigate this system, I don’t know what I’m doing – you got to lead me through this.”
Having gone back to school in her late 30s, she also knew she couldn’t “network all over the place. Because I’m older and didn’t have the energy of my youth like my 20-year-old counterparts.”
She has words of advice and realism regarding the journey to the success she’s currently experiencing. “The first piece of advice is never give up. I went back to school at 37, I graduated at 40 and I am having my directorial debut.”
But, she admits, “It’s hard. I’m not gonna lie. It’s not comfortable. They’re great moments. Many uncertainties. But I think the question is, how much are you willing to invest in yourself?” Walking away “from everything,” cashing out her 401K to go to film school, she muses, means there’s “a lot of debt.”
There are also sacrifices, says Sutherlin, “I don’t have children. I’m not married. These are choices that I made. Now, not all artists make these choices. And I ask myself, was it worth it, Erica?”
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Sutherlin said there are some important lessons she’ll take forward from her experience on A Gospel Christmas – one of them being how hard it can be to “hold on to your vision.” Being in the throes of production, she says, requires endless pivots and changes due to the nature of the beast.
“It took a minute for everybody to buy in to my rules, my rules of the world. Once they did, they took off with it. But just holding true to that,” she notes, “I like to tell people I’m just a shepherd to this project. Yeah, I’m the director, but I just shepherd an idea. And I still have bosses, and my boss has bosses – so there’s a lot to answer to, and there are a lot of different creative ‘how abouts?’ coming your way. And you just have to figure out what is worthy of protecting.”
Another great lesson, adds Sutherlin, is the endurance required for the 15-day shoot at 12 hours a day – which took a toll mentally, emotionally and physically. Sutherland says she prepared for it by starting a physical regime which included walking an hour a day to build up stamina and endurance.
Building up a “tough skin” was also required, shares the filmmaker – and not being deterred when people “look at you crazy.”
“Because you can’t be like… like, that can’t hurt your feelings right now…because you got to get to the other side of this project. Being the director, you have to helm this ship. I got anywhere from 50 to maybe 80 on my crew – and that’s a small group. . . looking to me to have all the answers. So, if you don’t like answering questions,” she laughs, “directing is not for you.”
Sutherlin is a recipient of Facebook’s SEEN initiative for Black filmmakers. As a poet for as many years as she’s worked in theatre and film, her written works are also published in Dr. Gary L. Lemons’ books Building Womanist Coalitions: Writing and Teaching in the Spirit of Love and Hooked on the Art of Love: bell hooks and My Calling for Soul-Work.
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Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas
airs December 4 at 8 pm on Lifetime Television
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You can explore Erica Sutherlin’s work here