He’s organized film festivals, facilitated panels, got a novel-in-progress and recently staged a live reading of his screenplay while procuring a traveling art show. The 36-year-old’s also a sailor, and has done all those things outside of his day job.
But whether grinding at his nine-to-five or promoting his production company, Kobie Nichols will tell you he’s never off the clock.
In fact, the Richmond, Va.-native has been on the clock since he left his hometown for D.C. more than 10 years ago, after receiving a phone call from Eric Hudson, a childhood friend who had already relocated to the nation’s capital.
Nichols recalled Hudson’s question, “Yo, what you doing?” At the time, Nichols was a year out of school, having graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University in 1998. He was back in Richmond, working as a graphic designer for a pharmaceutical company. His contract would be up soon. Then afterwards? “Nothing,” Nichols told Hudson, who replied: “Yo, why don’t you move to D.C.”
It sounded like a good idea. Nichols would be closer to his then-3-year-old daughter, who lived with her mother in Maryland. And wasn’t D.C. where he ultimately wanted to live? he wondered. Hadn’t the city stolen his heart those undergrad years, when he watched Chocolate City’s finest strolling A&T’s campus? “We had a lot of Maryland and D.C. girls,” Nichols said, “and all of them were my favorite girls on campus.” So much so that Nichols and his friends had a Fab 5 list of “Maryland Chicks,” similar to Michigan’s Fab 5 list of top college basketball players. With his mind made up, Nichols told Hudson, “Cool!”
He was 26, when he came to D.C. in 1999. Three years later, he would be on a metro bus going to and from work, when he would pen the first draft of a screenplay about sex in D.C., a story loosely based on his experiences since his arrival. “I went to Bar Nun”—the lounge later called PUR—“a lot,” Nichols recalled. “There were just so many beautiful women around.”
That script, which he wrote the entire first draft of on legal pads, won’t have a title until its second draft. That title will come from Nichols browsing his bookcase and spotting Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,” which would influence future versions of the script “Merser Piece Meets O.”
Screenwriting is a passion that goes back to Nichols’s childhood. With his mom working to make ends meet and his father living out-of-state, “TV and movies were my primary baby sitters,” Nichols said. “We always had cable, so HBO and Cinemax were my uncles.” But it wasn’t enough to just be passionate; he also had to learn the industry. In the process of creating an outline for his script in 2002, Nichols enrolled in a workshop at DCTV, a public access television station dedicated to building communities through telecommunications.
Since 1988, the member-based non-profit has allowed D.C. residents the opportunity to create and telecast their own shows for the local communities on cable television. That’s where Nichols learned TV production, which encompassed scriptwriting and technical skills such as stage lighting and operating a TV control room.
That’s where Nichols found a support group. “A place where I can talk to folks who were interested in the same things I’m doing,” Nichols said. That’s where he got an opportunity to produce a monthly TV show called Hot Topic with Marcus Jones and Krushea Starnes. DCTV also contracted Nichols to do sound for shows like More Room on the Outside, Most TV and YAP TV, where he’s script supervisor.
That collaborative approach is what Kimberly C. Gaines, Nichols’s friend of more than nine years, appreciated when they collaborated a year ago with Hari Jones on the traveling exhibition for the African-American Civil War Museum.
Jones, the curator, compiled the exhibit’s text from his lectures, the first-hand accounts from military letters, Harper’s weekly, and information from the National Archives, according to a January 2009 post on Gaines’s blog “Sondai: Tale of a Visual Goddess.” Nichols researched the images and assisted with the layout. “He’s quite the thinker,” she said. “He challenges those around him to do the same.”
When he enrolled at DCTV in 2002, Nichols founded Fresh Produce Entertainment Group (FPEG), a production company focused on providing “intimate views of urban life” through film, stage, and print media. Not long after, Nichols teamed up with Ayo Okunseinde, co-owner of Dissident Display Gallery in D.C.’s H Street corridor, and began a series of film festivals around D.C. called Fresh Produce Film Festival.
The first one took place in 2003. He and Okunseinde served wine, showed their films and opened the floor for comments and suggestions. Three more events followed at venues around the city including the former Blue Room (now Bourbon) in Adams Morgan. Submissions came from filmmakers in the city, around the country and overseas. “It grew,” Nichols said. “We showed 12 films.” The last film festival was held at the Visions Bar Noir, an independent movie theater at the crossroads of the city’s Dupont Circle, Kalorama and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.
The theater, a redesign of the old Embassy Theater on Florida Avenue, opened its doors in May 2000. At the time, “We entered a marketplace when there wasn’t anything going on,” Visions president Andrew Frank told the Washington Post in a 2004 article. “We filled that specialty niche and revived it for a while at a time when the city was under-screened.”
But in 2002, the two-screen theater faced competition from newer, better-funded theaters that caught on and entered the niche marketplace of independent and art house movies, the Post reported. Among them were Landmark Theatres’ multi-screen Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, Regal Theaters in Rockville, Loews Cineplex Georgetown, the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and the Avalon. The number of screens within a six-mile radius of Visions jumped from 89, in 2002, to more than 130.
Add to that the mounting debt, and the theater’s owners knew their days were numbered. After Vision’s final event, Nichols moved on to collaborate on other endeavors. His most ambitious among them was the staged reading of his script “Merser Piece Meets O,” inspired by “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” by Shel Silverstein.
In Silverstein’s story, a circular creature realizes one day it’s missing its wedge-shaped piece. So it sets out on an adventure to find it. Nichols, whose script — loosely based on his life — started out as a story about a guy addicted to sex in D.C., saw the potential for improvements in his script. Nichols saw his main character, Merser, through his sexual escapades, also searching for something to complete him.
But if you ask Nichols who’s the big O or the missing piece he’ll smile, consider your question, and then tell you: “It’s all about perception.” To the women in Mercer’s life, he was the big O only because they were in pieces. But Merser was in pieces too. Oya, the woman Merser chases, is named after the Yoruba goddess for change. She’s Mercer’s big O.
The script, itself, works as a commentary on dating. “The conversation about relationships is interesting,” Nichols said. “A lot of people are looking for something specific in relationships when they need to look for themselves” first.
The script went through several edits, a process that took Nichols seven years to get it to the version staged Nov. 20, 2009, at the Goethe-Intitut/German Cultural Center near downtown Chinatown. Melani N. Douglass saw the entire process. “I feel like I saw sketches of this play go from a thought to a draft to the stage,” said Douglass, Nichols’s friend of more than seven years.
That process was possible because of sponsors such Carafe Wines in Alexandria, Va., and Universal Flowers. Others included Dr. Eleanor Traylor at Howard University, Lorraine Brown, Diane Brander and Nichols’s mom.
Douglass jumped at the opportunity to play Xi when another woman selected for the role couldn’t do it. The character Xi is one of Mercer’s love interests. Xi also represents energy and is the element for fire. (“Every time she comes into the scene something hot is going on,” Nichols said.) Douglass said, “I love what he did with that character. So I was excited.”
A major edit was when Nichols removed five sections from the first draft. “He keeps working at it,” Douglass said. “As a fellow artist, it was an honor to be a part of one of the stages of completion of this play.”
The night of the reading was a cold one. But that didn’t deter Hadiya Williams from being among the 80 people who packed out the auditorium in the Goethe-Institut. “The reading was excellent!” she posted on his Facebook page the next day. “The readers were great.”
With a review like that, why push the script to go on the big screen instead of a stage? “The energy of D.C. dictates that this be a movie that takes place on the streets of Washington, D.C.,” Nichols said. “That’s why I was specific about locations.” To put it on the stage, he added, would take away from what he wants his audience left with. “When people see it in a different city,” he said, they should “feel Washington, D.C.”
Williams had to appreciate that. “Thank you for the experience,” she said, “and much success on the next phase”—which includes Nichols introducing the screenplay in other cities through live readings. “One reading per city. I don’t want to over-saturate,” Nichols said. It’s enough if people are talking about it, which he hopes will keep it fresh. “I would rather them talk about it than keep seeing it.”
Nichols is also busy wrapping up a novel-in-progress he started back in Richmond. The story’s a speculative fiction about a guy who has three dimensions of living. The story chronicles the day of the guy’s death, from when he wakes to the time he’s killed. In each dimension, the guy – a prototype of Merser’s character – dies the same way, which alters the course of the character’s life. At the end, the main character remembers a conversation he had with God while in the womb. “We all have a path with God before we’re born,” Nichols said. That path determines “how our life plays out before we die.”
At the moment, Nichols is more alive than ever, especially after getting his sailor’s license in September 2009. “I have a strange love for water,” Nichols said. “I’ve always liked boats.”
After film, he said his next move is to offer the bed and breakfast experience on water, with boats at various ports around the world. Meanwhile, Nichols will settle for sailing his 19-foot boat, the “Flying Scott,” out at the Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria, Va., when the weather permits. He’s licensed to sail nationwide.
Considering Nichols’s journey to the person he’s become, perhaps his love of the water isn’t so strange after all. “I’m a where-the-wind-blows kind of guy,” he said. “That might be why I like sailing,” which has a rule, he added: “Know where your destination is first, then let the wind take you there.”
Nichols is riding an even bigger wind since that November night at the Goethe-Institut, when he watched his friends bring his characters to life. And to know that seven years worth of sweat equity wasn’t wasted, to see a dream on the verge of coming to fruition, could overwhelm anyone. “I don’t usually show my emotions,” the director said. “But that night, I was moved to tears.”