When Silas Cooper was in college, he and his friends spent their summers vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard by pooling their money together and sharing hotel rooms in a nearby town. They would take the ferry over to the island in the morning, grab a box of pizza in Oak Bluffs, and spend the day partying and making memories. At the time, Cooper didn’t realize he was starting a yearslong tradition that would ultimately lead to the Bravo reality series Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard.
Following in the tradition of Bravo’s Summer House franchise, Martha’s Vineyard takes a group of people in their twenties and thirties, puts them in a house together, and allows viewers to watch as the group navigates conflict, themed parties, and the trials and tribulations of friendship at this point in their lives. According to Lorraine Haughton-Lawson, SVP of programming at Truly Productions, Bravo approached the production company two years ago about wanting to develop a show in the area. Haughton-Lawson, who’s worked on Real Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac, says she immediately understood the appeal of wanting to film a show in the Martha’s Vineyard area.
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“When you go, you see all the history, and you meet all these amazing Black people whose families either lived on the island or summered on the island year after year, and you see the Black-owned businesses and how it really is this kind of idyllic enclave that a lot of people didn’t know about,” she says.
It was just a matter of finding the right cast, which is where Cooper and his circle come in. Jordan Emanuel, a friend of Cooper’s, has another friend who works at Bravo and happened to see an Instagram photo he’d posted about one of the group’s trips to Martha’s Vineyard, a picturesque island seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, which got the ball rolling on their collaboration. Cooper and his wife, Jasmine, are the glue of the group who brought old and new friends together for a few weeks last summer to film the new reality show, including Emmanuel, Nick Arrington, Bria Fleming, Shanice Henderson, Amir Lancaster, Jason Lyke, Summer Marie Thomas, Alex Tyree, and Preston Mitchum.
The show premiered May 7 on Bravo, and there are some major differences between Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard and the original Summer House series. For one, the new show features an all-Black cast, adding to the diversity and representation of the Bravo universe. Due to the difficult nature of traveling to Martha’s Vineyard by way of ferry, the group also spent the entire few weeks together in the same house without going back and forth to their homes, unlike the Hamptons-set Summer House where people take breaks from their cast members during the week when they travel home to New York City for work and other obligations. Plus, cast members say their friendships, relationships, and connections are genuine and organic dating back many years, making all of the drama authentic.
“When you put any group of folks in a house together for a few weeks and there’s nowhere to go, whenever there’s conflict, you have to hash it out. If you get into a major argument the night before, you’re still making eggs together the next morning, and it forces you to deal with the conflict and move on,” Silas says. Because of all the themed parties they hosted last summer, she adds, “Having an argument over something petty is already funny, but having to do it in a toga is even funnier.”
Mitchum is a longstanding Silas friend as his fraternity brother; he was even a groomsman in the Coopers’ wedding. Mitchum, who was already a fan of Bravo shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac, Vanderpump Rules, and the original Summer House series, says it was a no-brainer for him to opt into joining the cast because he was excited about the opportunity to shift the landscape of representation on reality television.
“For me, one of the things I wanted to think about specifically as a Black gay man is what representation did I or did I not see happening generally on the shows I watch,” Mitchum says. “I knew that hopefully I could be a role model for so many Black gay kids growing up.”
In terms of the show’s representation, Silas says he hopes Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard brings a different kind of portrayal and perspective to the network.
“It’s important to note that, and we all know this already, that Black folks are not a monolith, and all we can do is be a representation of who we are, our backgrounds, and our collective stories,” he says. “I like to think that makes us individuals.”
Mitchum echoes Silas’ sentiments about how Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard shows that Black people are not a monolith.
“We could never pretend to represent the entire scope of the Black community,” Mitchum says. “There’s a lot of range and depth to who we are based on a number of things. One thing I always wanted to represent myself as is someone who is a multidimensional person who cares about many things and many facets of my own community, someone who loves to read and study and occasionally debate but also someone who loves to turn up, loves to dance, loves to have a good time.”
Haughton-Lawson says diversity and representation are important factors for her when she’s developing a TV show and was especially true when filming Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard.
“Black excellence is my thing, and watching these young people see different versions of us being presented on television is really a passion of mine,” Haughton-Lawson says. “We’re not just all one way and to be able to show this iconic, exclusive area and to show viewers different hues and versions of us is one of my most favorite achievements.”
During the group’s first night together in Episode One, the cast members have a discussion about their different opinions and feelings about the term “Black excellence.” Mitchum says for a long time he’s wrestled with the phrase because he says it’s rooted in standards “that are not set ordinarily by us, they’re set by society around us.”
“Someone is excellent because they cured a disease which is accurate, for sure; someone is excellent because they’re millionaires; someone is considered excellent for all these things, but I think it misses the everyday stories and details from the vast majority of Black people — people who quite frankly can’t achieve those lofty goals and amazing feats because of all the issues and social ills around us,” Mitchum says.
“What I always want to do, especially as an activist and an attorney, is ground us in who we are and not let who we are be defined by other people. It might not be the most popular opinion at dinner parties, but I do think that’s part of what makes me unique. I am going to challenge the room in a loving way. I am going to want us to sit and reflect on who defines us and why we’re allowing anyone but us to define our greatness.”
When it came to filming, Mitchum says he felt a “natural difference” spending time with his friends when cameras were present, but the camera crew wasn’t necessarily nerve-racking.
“I think the first couple of days you’re figuring out what all of this is, and you’re having so much fun you begin to just ignore it. They just begin to also become your friends,” Mitchum says. “I felt so many emotions: nerves, excitement, and a little bit of ambiguity in just figuring out for myself what is the role I want to play in all of this.”
Haughton-Lawson is a veteran in the realm of unscripted television and she says a “new cast is the best cast in the world” to work with because they’re more excited and open while filming since they’re not jaded by past experiences in reality TV.
“Oftentimes people can get on these shows and as years go by, social media gets in your ear, the fans get in your ear, the noise overtakes the enthusiasm that you had initially,” she says. “I loved working on a new show with younger people, younger people of color. This younger, newer cast are just so excited, and you get to see over time what this show is going to do for their lives and how it’s going to change things for them, hopefully in a better way.”
Jasmine says she was happy to document her first married summer in Martha’s Vineyard with her friends with cameras and that despite the bouts of drama that popped up, she has no regrets.
“It was quite a roller coaster. You don’t really know what to expect and you can’t prepare for it, but one thing Silas and I both agreed on was we were just going to be ourselves, the good, the bad, the ugly,” Jasmine says.
For the cast, the setting of Martha’s Vineyard is just as important to the show as any person who appears on screen. Not only does the island hold personal significance in the individual lives of the people in this friend group but as new episodes continue to air, viewers will learn about the significance of Martha’s Vineyard and its place in history as a vacation home for “the Black elite,” according to Haughton-Lawson, from politicians like former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee.
“It’s long been a place where the Black elite, so to speak, can go and let their hair down and be who they are and not feel judged,” Haughton-Lawson says. “You can just be whoever you want to be and you’re accepted.”
The Coopers say last summer was a different experience from others they spent on Martha’s Vineyard, but whether they return next summer with Bravo cameras or not, they’ll spend the rest of their lives vacationing in this special place.
“What we want to do is celebrate Martha’s Vineyard because it deserves to be celebrated,” Silas says. “We want the community to enjoy this show and to be able to see themselves.”
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