Essence Atkins: An Impactful Black Actress
When it comes to the top Black actresses of her time in Hollywood, Essence Atkins is not usually mentioned. Names like Octavia Spencer, Regina King, Viola Davis and even the newly minted Zendaya often top the list of the best Black actresses of the past decade. But just because her name hasn’t always been up in lights, on the marquee, headlining the most recent blockbuster movie, or mentioned among the bevy of some nominations for some prestigious Hollywood award, does not mean that she hasn’t had impact on the movies, the industry, the people, or even herself.
Because impact, even for someone an actress who plays roles on movies and TV shows, isn’t just measured by the number of episodes you put out or the dollars you collect at the box office. It’s also measured by the memories you create, the people you inspire, and the diverse range of stories you tell. For Essence Atkins, she knocks it out of the park with each of those three categories. She’s made countless memories for us all, especially Black viewers, for her major roles in “Smart Guy”, “Half & Half”, and “Deliver Us from Eva”. She has been an inspiration for young, aspiring actresses of all sorts, but in particular, little Black girls. And of course, the stories told in Essence Atkins movies and TV shows span the range of the big sister and best friend, to the obsessive doctor and unadulterated wife.
Thus, for me the impact can’t be denied, which is why I want to take you on a journey of her illustrious career as one of the most impactful Black actresses of our time.
Essence Atkins Movies and TV Shows
We’ll go through her filmography, but I wanted to start off with some Ms. Atkins early shows.
The Cosby Show
If you blinked, you missed it, but according to IMDb, Essence Atkins first Hollywood role came as a guest on “The Cosby Show” as a friend of Vanessa Huxtable. She appeared in both Season 3 and 6 as Paula Young, in 1986 and 1989.
In 1992, Essence Atkins would get her next role on a major Black TV show: “Family Matters”. In this episode, Eddie is introduced to his family roots with the Tuskegee Airmen, and Essence plays a student interested in the history the pilots and the war they fought in.
Only the real OGs of 90s television are going to remember this, and you probably had to be a pre-pubescent teen to really appreciate it, but “Malibu Shoes” was the jame for 10 episodes of it. While short lived, the teen drama chronicled what happens when upper-crust Malibu students mix with working-class San Fernando Valley ones.
Other Early Roles
Of course, there were other early appearances for Essence. Some of those included
- Sunday in Paris
- Charlie Hoover
- Here and Now
- Saved by the Bell: The College Years
- The Wayans Bros.
- The Parent ‘Hood
- The John Larroquette Show
Essence Atkins: Smart Guy, The Cast
“Malibu Shores” was supposed to the big one for Essence. NBC put a lot behind it, almost looking for it to be a more dramatic replacement for “Saved by the Bell” (a show that Essence had made appearance in). The show even had a 2-hour series premiere on a Saturday night, so games were not being played. Unfortunately, the show simply did not resonate in heavily crowded 1996-TV landscape, and it was cancelled after one season.
But when one door closed, another opened for Essence Atkins, who found herself with a main character role in “Smart Guy”, the Tahj Mowry-led Black family sitcom on The WB, the notoriously Black-centric broadcast network of the 90s. The show would last 3 seasons and 51 episodes, of which Essence’s character, “Yvette”, was the strong, woman’s rights fighting, older, high school sister to T.J. (Mowry) and Marcus Henderson (Jason Weaver).
Essence was the lone female among the main actors on the show, which led to her character often carrying the water for stories about young, Black, teenage girls. Throughout the show, she’s often having to deal with being the only woman in their immediate family, thus putting up with typical male shenanigans. We also see her character fall victim to peer pressure of her friends when gets a fake I.D. And she has a very teenage girl moment when she becomes head over heels infatuated with a jock on the swim team.
Still, throughout most of her 51 episodes, Essence’s character is the moral compass for the show. She’s a guide for her overachieving, but immature, little brother. She’s an academic leader who ends up applying to prestigious schools like Georgetown and Princeton. And she’s the one exhibiting the most thought and care into her actions, particularly as the editor of the newspaper.
Perhaps, more important than anything, she was a cornerstone of humor on “Smart Guy”. In the show’s three seasons, while often in the role of the “straight man”, Essence played her role flawlessly, and turned what would’ve have otherwise have been an all bro-show into a historically important Black sitcom that has endured and had impact for ages.
Essence Gets “How High”…?
“Smart Guy” was a great role for Essence, and it helped her break out of the “guest appearance” cycle she had been on. And after the show ended in 1999, she would go back into the “Hollywood dating world” of guest roles on TV shows. Roles that included “Moesha”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, and “For Your Love”. But it would turn out to be a movie that would break her out of being just Black famous and into the zeitgeist.
“How High” was the “Method Man” and “Redman” starrer that kind of shocked the world. In the comedy film, hip-hop luminaries Redman and Method Man star as two charismatic cannabis aficionados. Their lives take a hilarious detour when they partake in a zany ritual involving the ashes of their recently departed friend, inadvertently summoning his ghost. This spectral buddy, joined by the quirky and lovable character Jamie, played by Essence Atkins, becomes an unconventional ally, helping the duo ace their exams with otherworldly wisdom. This leads to a series of laugh-out-loud misadventures as they score scholarships to the esteemed Harvard University. While it may have received a thumbs-down from critics, ‘How High’ stands out with its unique mix of supernatural antics, collegiate comedy, and the memorable antics of Jamie, offering a light-hearted escape for those in search of a ghostly giggle.
Also, if you were a stoner in 2001, this was 100% your favorite movie.
Despite the movies mixed reviews, Essence emerged as a star for her the range she showed in the movie as both the studious and lovable friend to the two main characters. As a cult classic, and for many in the mainstream, the introduction to one of hip-hops more extrinsic duos, “How High” helped put Essence on the map—one that she’s been on for over two decades now.
The “Half & Half” TV Show Selects: Essence Atkins
That new map that Essence Atkins landed on helped get her what was maybe the role of a lifetime. For 4 seasons and 91 episodes, Essence would star as “Dee Dee Thorne” on lovable, Black sitcom, “Half & Half”. She, of course, was not alone, with big names like Rachel True, Valerie Pettiford, Telma Hopkins, MC Lyte, Lamman Rucker, Joey Lawrence and Obba Babatunde making central or regular appearances.
For me, “Half & Half” spanned by entire college career from 2002-2006, and it maybe embodied it just as much. The show was built around the premise of two half-sisters finding each other in their young adult lives and trying to figure out how to develop a close relationship. Strangers? Finding each other as “adults”? Becoming friends? Sounds like the college experience to me, which is probably why it connected with me, and so many other Black millennials, throughout that time period.
With Essence Atkins and Rachel True as the co-stars, the show would go on to become one of the top shows on UPN. Unlike Essence’s first stint as a main character on “Smart Guy”, this show was all about the girls…Black girls! And it was amazing for that, often diving into topics that weren’t often talked about on mainstream television, like being “black enough”, interracial dating and being a Black woman in the workplace. “Half & Half” also played on dichotomy of the 2 main characters’ different personalities. While Rachel True played the more “street smart” and cynical character, Essence Atkins’ character, Dee Dee, was the more charming and optimistic one with a touch of naivety. Ultimately, the show was about two sisters trying to find their way past their childhood resentments that were a result of them growing up separately and living very different lives. The two leaned on and learned from one another throughout the series, showing their viewers an image of Black sisterhood, family and love that was sorely needed. For that, “Half & Half” will always go down as one of the more underrated Black sitcoms of all time.
Essence Atkins’ IMDb / Filmography
“Half & Half” ended abruptly in 2006, as it was seriously considered for renewal, but was ultimately bumped due the merger of UPN and The WB into “The CW”, which moved ahead with “All of Us”, the first season of “The Game”, and a contractual obligation to renew “Reba” at the time.
As we all know, Essence Atkins’ career did not stop there. In the time since “Half & Half” went off the air, Essence has starred in 6 different TV shows, been accredited for 168 episodes of television, performed in 28 individual movies, and perhaps most importantly, has made appearances on 9 Black TV shows. Below, are just a few of the most notable gems she has been a part of since the end of “Half & Half”.
Preacher’s Kid (2010)
In ‘The Preacher’s Kid,’ Essence Atkins plays Peaches, friend of Angie King. Angie is a spirited young woman in her twenties, grappling with the constraints of being a preacher’s daughter. Craving adventure and eager to carve her own path, Angie makes a bold move. She steps out from under her father’s shadow for the first time, embracing a new journey. Her quest for independence leads her to the vibrant world of a traveling gospel show, where she discovers life beyond the church walls, setting the stage for a story of self-discovery and the pursuit of dreams.
House of Payne (2011)
For 5 episodes, Essence played the guest role of Janine’s close friend, Monica, on “House of Payne”. In one of the more captivating episodes, Monica brings a wave of change to the Payne household. Having recently moved in, Monica embarks on a transformative journey, not only reinventing herself but also leaving her unique mark on the house’s ambiance and dynamics. As Monica adjusts to her new surroundings, her presence brings fresh energy and challenges. Meanwhile, the plot thickens as Tracie sets her sights on Calvin, stirring up a mix of emotions and intentions. This episode is a blend of transformation, personal growth, and complex relationships, making for an engaging and dynamic watch.
The Bachelor Party (2011)
In ‘The Bachelor Party,’ the scene is set for an unforgettable night as 30-year-old Lance prepares to marry his dream woman, Michelle, portrayed by the exceptionally talented Essence Atkins. Michelle’s presence in Lance’s life is a beacon of love and hope, making their upcoming nuptials a highly anticipated event. Lance’s close friends, Trey, Reny, and Akeem, plan to send him off in style with a bachelor party. However, what begins as a night of lighthearted revelry soon spirals into a whirlwind of drama. As the evening unfolds, hidden vendettas come to light, old wounds are reopened, and the strength of friendships is put to the test. At the heart of this storm is the love story between Lance and Michelle, a tale that is scrutinized under the weight of secrets and lies. This film is a rollercoaster of emotions, celebrating the ups and downs of love, friendship, and the journey to saying ‘I do.
Are We There Yet?
Did y’all watch “Are We There Yet?”, a TBS sitcom that puts a fun twist on blended family dynamics. Starring Essence Atkins as the ever-busy party planner Suzanne Kingston-Persons, this series explores the amusing trials and tribulations of family life in Seattle. Suzanne’s husband, Nick Persons (Terry Crews), a former athlete turned IT professional, navigates the complexities of step-parenthood with her two tech-savvy kids, Lindsey and Kevin. From texting marathons to video game escapades, everyday family situations take a humorous turn. Adding to the mix are Nick’s skeptical mother and Suzanne’s ex-husband, creating a recipe for laugh-out-loud family moments. ‘Are We There Yet?’ portrays the joys, challenges, and occasional chaos of a new blended family, all while keeping the spirit of fun and love at its heart.
A Haunted House (2013 & 2014)
Join Essence Atkins in ‘A Haunted House’ and its sequel, where she shines as Kisha, the center of paranormal hilarity. In these uproarious spoofs, Kisha and her partner Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) navigate a series of bizarre and comical supernatural events. From possessed girlfriends to ghostly encounters, the duo faces each absurd challenge with a blend of wit and disbelief. Atkins brings a delightful energy to Kisha, making her an unforgettable character in these laugh-a-minute horror parodies.
More Recent Essence Atkins Movies & TV Shows:
- A Black Lady Sketch Show
- Family Reunion
- The Ms. Pat Show
- The Company You Keep