There's a line outside the club. Inside it's packed as patrons throw back drinks, groove to the beat and grind up on each other. Three teens, two girls and a dude, appear on stage to rapturous response and sing a song that includes lyrics about being touched tenderly deep inside. The refrain: "This is how we get high." A dreadlocked man in a baseball hat makes his way through the crowd, finds his mark and lifts a gun. He fires multiple times.
These are the opening minutes of Soul, now airing on Vision, "Canada's multifaith, multicultural television network," a channel with a wholesome, family-friendly lineup of church services, reruns of The Waltons and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and documentary series like Extreme Clergy and Supernatural Investigator. Soul, with its gang activities and street language, is pretty heady stuff for a channel whose edgiest programming choice has been Everwood.
"Very early on, we just said, 'What can't we do? Tell us what we can't do, and then we won't do it,'" says executive producer Floyd Kane of Halifax Film. "There's always been that full and open exchange. I think what we had to be mindful of was that the tone that we set didn't exclude their audience, their typical audience. It's key to invite them into the show."
The show, known as Mahalia when it was shooting in and around Halifax last fall, is an ensemble drama about Mahalia Brown (the R&B singer Keshia Chanté in her acting debut), the star of her church choir. When the choir wins a national gospel competition, the record labels start sniffing around. Complicating matters are her father (Michael Anthony Rawlins), who's the pastor of her church and distrustful of the dodgy music industry; her brother Malcolm (Ish Morris, a standout), who wants to make it as a producer so badly he'll be a gang leader's errand boy; and her boyfriend Samson (Halifax's Eli Goree), who's struggling with his sexuality.
Kane came on board after siblings Andy and Abi Marshall had been developing the project for two years with Vision's head of programming, Joan Jenkinson, through Vision and National Screen Institute's DiverseTV initiative, "designed to offer visible minority and Aboriginal writers the chance to create a television drama for national broadcast." When he read the pilot, it focused on the West Indian, Seventh Day Adventist aspects of the Brown family make-up, two things he suggested should change.
"In Canada, no one has done an hour-long drama that has had a primarily black class," says Kane over a coffee a few days before Soul's premiere February 11. "There's Da Kink in My Hair, which is about a very specific community and very specific experience. My heritage is not West Indian. I'm black Canadian, several generations back. My feeling was that I don't want to do a show that excludes me. We're all black Canadians, we all have shared experiences even though we may come from different parts of the globe. And I wanted a show that was accessible to that experience, and inclusive, as opposed to exclusive."
Though the six-episode series was shot here and features many local locations (the Royal Bank building on George Street), actors (Goree, Andrew Bush) and musicians (J-Bru, Chelsea Nisbett), it's set in Toronto, represented by stock shots of street signs.
"It was written to be set in Toronto," says Kane, who also wrote the series' fourth episode. "It was supposed to be set in Regent Park, which the truth is it looks very much like Dartmouth, or Fairview. Look, my goal is very simple: I'm a Nova Scotian, I grew up here, I earned my professional stripes here, I like working here."
So he made a deal with Jenkinson, Andy Marshall and head writer/producer Peter Lauterman: "'I can do it, but we have to shoot in Nova Scotia.' A part of that is financial, because we have a great tax credit, but the truth is I could've gone to Hamilton, not have had to fly the actors in and still it would have equalized the cost. I just think there are a lot of talented people who work here, and they don't work enough."
Soul airs Wednesdays (until March 18) at 10pm on Vision TV.