Empire star Howard also will make his directorial debut on the project, which is currently out to showrunners.
Howard has signed on for the pilot of Delta Blues, a one-hour drama based on true events that chronicles the story of W.C. Handy, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Blues. He will be joined onscreen by Star actor Ross. Neither Howard nor Ross will play Handy.
This comes after Howard said last year that he was quitting the acting business.
He said that the script was “better than bacon,” forcing him to change his mind. “I was done. But I am putting retirement on hold to tell this story,” he said.
The story begins in 1903 in the Mississippi Delta, a land wounded from a Civil War that freed slaves only to shackle them once more under Jim Crow. That’s where W.C. Handy first heard the rhythmic strains of a lone bluesman at a train depot in Tutwiler, MS. At the time, minstrel shows were the main form of popular entertainment, and Handy led one of the most famous troupes, Mahara’s Minstrels. But Handy soon would discover a new African-American folk music echoing across the cotton fields, prisons and watering holes of the Mississippi Delta. And when a black Masonic group, the Knights of Pythias, asks him to lead its brass band, Handy quits the Minstrels and moves to the Delta.
It is then the classically trained Handy begins to document, perform and publish the music that would become known as the blues. By altering melody lines, changing words and musical notations of the songs he composes, Handy makes old materials new and seemingly his own. In 1914, he becomes world famous with his No. 1 hit, “Saint Louis Blues.” Having amassed an excess of material from his fellow Delta musicians, Handy settles in New York and eventually builds a copyrighting and publishing empire.
But as the blues permeate white culture, Handy becomes tormented by his own success, as he watches one friend after another ruined through the usual devices: digging ditches, picking cotton, drunken knife fights, racist nooses or prison – and sometimes a little bit of everything. Compounding his tribulations are fellow artists who accuse him of selling out, working for the white man and, perhaps worst of all, stealing their music without sharing in the fame or financial bounty.
Delta Blues will be Howard’s directorial debut. “This story is about our history and has to be handled very carefully,” he said. “I am committed to telling the truths of the times, even the uncomfortable truths.”
The show is being exec produced by Zero Gravity Management, which is behind hit Netflix drama Ozark that recently scored a fourth and final season, and Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
Zero Gravity’s Eric Williams said: “We are excited to be working with Terrence and Evan on Delta Blues. Their vision for this project is inspiring. The stories are rich in history, and the music is timeless.”
Ross, who is starring in Kelly Oxford’s Pink Skies Ahead, also will co-star and exec produce, “When I read this script, it spoke to me and I knew I had to be a part of it,” he said. “This is a timely project with what is transpiring in our country today. To tell our history and our music history and to be able show the horrors that we have overcome to succeed is powerful, and I am excited to be teamed with Terrence and Zero Gravity to make it happen. The characters in this project are real people that should be household names, but history has erased them from the schoolbooks. Delta Blues is a musical celebration of our people as much as it is a celebration of our strength and fortitude.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.