Correction: This story was corrected Wednesday, March 23 at 1:32 p.m. Irene Matz’s title was misidentified in the article below as the “former interim dean of CSUF’s communications department.” The title is now corrected and reads: “Irene Matz, Ph.D., former interim dean of the College of Communications and negotiator at the time of Sparks’ hire, said, “I am proud that he was hired under my leadership; I’m grateful that he said ‘yes.'”
Anthony Sparks, Ph.D., lives a double life. By day, he’s a producer and writer for “Queen Sugar,” a new TV series on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN, and by night, he’s a professor at Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts.
As a young boy from the neighborhood of Morgan Park in Chicago’s South Side, Sparks created his own success despite hardships of growing up with a single mother.
He was heavily involved in theater during high school. Sparks won many awards for his acting and writing, predominantly in theater. As fate had it, Oprah’s company Harpo Films was also based in Chicago.
“When I was in middle school and high school I would often ride the public bus past her studios,” Sparks said.
Sparks’ talent was highlighted by the many scholarships awarded to him in high school before graduating and heading to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California. As an undergraduate at USC, he studied theater but found himself hanging around the film school, he said. While conversing with his peers, he began to consider television screenwriting as a potential profession.
After receiving his B.A. and M.F.A., Sparks took his talents to New York where he was given the opportunity to perform in the Broadway production “STOMP” for five years. While starring in “STOMP,” Sparks began to take writing more seriously. He performed in seven to eight shows a week while writing his own plays during the day.
A huge turning point in Sparks’ career was when he caught the attention of an NBC executive Lou Viola, who saw Sparks’ solo play “Ghetto Punch” and told Sparks, “You have something.”
“I am a big believer in walking through the door that’s open even though it might not be the exact door I had in mind when I started. As an African-American man, it’s generally a very closed door,” Sparks said.
Coincidentally, Sparks took a trip to the local library at the time to check out every book it had on television writing. Sparks said that the NBC executive’s interest in his work was the affirmation that he needed to continue down this path. He decided to teach himself how to write for television and left playwriting behind.
Sparks started developing speculative screenplays that eventually led him back to Los Angeles. Sparks earned his first writing job in 2003 for the CBS drama, “The District.” His career in television quickly took off afterward.
After working on “The District,” he wrote and contributed to television hits such as “Lincoln Heights,” “Undercovers” and “The Blacklist.”
Sparks is currently working on a new project, “Queen Sugar,” which is set to air on the OWN network in October 2016. “Queen Sugar” is a series based loosely on Natalie Baszile’s novel about a successful young woman living in Los Angeles whose life falls apart after the death of her father. She inherits her family’s sugar farm and must move back to Louisiana, where she grew up. She then embarks on a journey of “rediscovering her roots with reconnections,” Sparks said.
Sparks was chosen to work with film director Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey through an introduction by his agent. “It was a pleasant surprise when I got a call last fall that they were interested in having me as writer/producer on the show,” Sparks said.
Sparks has come a long way from his roots in the South Side of Chicago and understands that he is very fortunate and blessed, he said.
“What’s really special is being able to work with someone who is breaking down barriers … to be a part of a project with these two powerful creative minds is my own little dream come true,” Sparks said.
Growing up in Chicago wasn’t necessarily easy. Sparks grew up in a working class family home with a single mother. Instead of letting that hold him back, Sparks’ passion comes from contributing to works that have a message challenging viewers to think critically.
“I am a person who honors my beginning on the South Side of Chicago by trying to be a part of projects that have something to say,” he said.
Irene Matz, Ph.D., former interim dean of the College of Communications and negotiator at the time of Sparks’ hire, said, “I am proud that he was hired under my leadership; I’m grateful that he said ‘yes.’”
Sparks’ advice to his students who want to be screenwriters is to write until the outcome of the work is exactly what was imagined. He said that the most important thing is to stay educated and learn as much as possible.
“The biggest thing: be as educated as you can, take writing seriously and build up muscles of discipline and structure,” said Sparks.
Department Chair Garrett Hart, a key player in Sparks’ recent hiring at CSUF, stressed how he appreciates the fact that Sparks still actively works in the field in which he teaches.
Sparks plans to keep learning through his work in television writing and producing while changing the lives of the students he teaches and guiding them through his own real life experiences.
“To continue to learn and bring it back to the classroom, that’s the goal,” Sparks said.
Thus far, Sparks has been beyond successful in all his achievements, perfecting his skills as a writer, a producer, an actor and a professor. He not only teaches and shapes the young minds of his students, but also delivers a message to those who watch the shows he’s written and produced. “I believe in entertaining people while educating people,” Sparks said.