Quinta Brunson does what she does—currently, creating, executive-producing, co-writing, and starring in the comedy series Abbott Elementary—for everyday people, taking inspiration for the characters from teachers in her own life. The showrunner’s mother, Norma Jean Brunson, was a teacher for 40 years in the Philadelphia school district where Abbott is set. And the woman who gave the fictional school its name, Joyce Abbott, was Brunson’s sixth-grade teacher, who recently retired after 25 years.
The mockumentary’s satirical yet loving portrayal of teachers, janitors, principals, and parents trying to make ends meet at an underfunded public school is a homage to their real counterparts everywhere. Reflecting the diversity of West Philadelphia, the sitcom’s teachers include a queer man; an Italian divorcée; and Brunson’s buoyant yet bumbling Janine Teagues, who just wants her second-graders to have a fair shot. “All people have the ability to be both powerful and fragile,” Brunson says. “Showing that helps to create more equality.”
Abbott Elementary has been a smash hit, drawing praise from critics and viewers alike. The show, recently renewed for a third season, picked up seven comedy-series Emmy nominations and three wins this year: Best Writing, Best Casting, and Best Supporting Actress (for Sheryl Lee Ralph in her role as Janine’s wise mentor Barbara Howard).
Brunson, 33, attributes much of the show’s success, and the development of its characters, to her writers’ room, which is staffed primarily by women. “We hear each other out on what we think makes these characters layered,” she says. “Everyone’s open to taking the lead and taking charge on these stories.”
As a rising leader in Hollywood, she hopes she’s setting an example for Black children everywhere, showing them that they can achieve their goals, no matter where they come from. And for fans of the show, she wants to underscore the value of school communities. “Through Janine and the rest of the characters, I hope to be able to help people love themselves a little bit more,” she says. “And give themselves grace and appreciate the hardworking people in their lives.”
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