MEET THE DEVELOPER
How Jesse Williams’ party game Blebrity celebrates black culture.
The party has all the trappings of a Hollywood cliché: a rented multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills crib, a doorman, a DJ, a corporate sponsor, and a guest list that ranges from the world-famous to the once-famous to the wannabe-famous.
Unlike most see-and-be-seen events, however, this one also has Blebrity, a charades-inspired parlor game where you hold an iPhone to your forehead so others can read an onscreen phrase. You frantically try to guess the phrase as others shout out clues.
“It’s the great equalizer,” says actor, activist, and entrepreneur Jesse Williams, Blebrity’s cocreator. “It kind of brings the famous down. And the people who would be intimidated by that, it brings them up.”
Dressed in a tartan shirt jacket and old-school Nikes, the Grey’s Anatomy star is welcoming 150 friends to a celebration of his app’s one-year anniversary and a demonstration of its leveling powers.
“I care about if you’re a good clue giver,” Williams says, “not how much money you make or what movie you were in.”
The app is inclusive in another way: Blebrity is the rare game that showcases black cultural references, rewarding participants fluent in categories such as Momma Phrases, Baby Makin’ Music, and Gentrified: Things That Could’ve Been Left Alone.
Given how much of American pop culture is shaped by the inventions and achievements of African Americans, Williams says, this really just means that Blebrity is a trivia game that doesn’t go out of its way to exclude blackness.
“Being black is, in many ways, exhausting: watching your culture demonized and ghettoized, but then later borrowed from/stolen/appropriated, and then monetized while you’re still poor,” says the biracial Williams, who previously coproduced Ebroji, a “culturally curated” GIF-centric mobile keyboard app.
“We’re really proud to be making something that’s both for us and by us,” he adds, “and that doesn’t require us to change the way we move, speak, or live to be able to make some money and make some people happy.”
I care about if you’re a good clue giver, not how much money you make or what movie you were in.
Before long, the crowd reaches a giddy mass. It is impossible not to notice that Jay-Z has wandered in, the planet’s top-earning rapper apparently down for a game night. Two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is soaking it up. So is choreographer extraordinaire Debbie Allen—Williams’ onscreen mom in Grey’s Anatomy—accompanied by her real-life husband, Norm Nixon, the retired L.A. Laker.
There are also sculptors and designers, models and executive assistants, the A-listers and the undiscovered, all packed together in the same living room.
“It’s that good old-fashioned idea of shared space,” says Glenn Kaino, the Los Angeles conceptual artist and former Napster executive who cocreated Blebrity. “You can be next to people, you can rub elbows with people, you can smell people. It’s not virtual.”
Wading through the crowd with an iPad Pro, Williams announces that the time has come for a guys-versus-gals contest, which instantly triggers flurries of trash talk.
“So, we need a category,” he continues. Would it be Bad and Bougie?
“That’s a lot of y’all!” Williams drawls.
“White Folks Invited to the Cookout!” shouts Colin Johnson, whose company, Caged Bird Legacy, oversees the intellectual property of Maya Angelou (Johnson’s grandmother). “That’s always a classic!”
Approving of the choice, Williams volunteers to go first, pressing an iPad against his forehead like a magician trying to intuit a mystery card. “We have two minutes, guys, let’s get these points,” he says. The screen flashes a phrase.
We’re really proud to be making something that’s both for us and by us.
“Stealing Marvin Gaye songs,” someone yells.
“Robin Thicke,” guesses Williams.
“First black president! First black president!” Johnson calls out.
“O—,” Williams starts to say.
“First black president,” Johnson repeats.
“Oh, uh, Bill Clinton,” says Williams, as the room collapses in laughter.
The women choose The ’90s. Xosha Roquemore, a regular on The Mindy Project, does the guesswork. Entertainment Tonight cohost Kevin Frazier counters with The ’80s. With each round, the chorus of clues grows more frenzied, the attempts to decipher the cries and shrieks more impaired.
Soon the DJ takes over: Game night becomes a house party. Blebrity producer Deon Jones, who doubles as a digital marketer for the Oprah Winfrey Network, breaks into freestyle verse. Jay-Z settles into a game of spades.
Even after hosting half a dozen similar events around the country, Williams is still marveling at Blebrity’s capacity to build something authentic, a convergence at once simple and elusive.
“Black culture is probably America’s biggest gross domestic product,” he says. “Sometimes we have to remember that about ourselves.”