Jerrie Johnson's mission to book a series regular role six months after finishing graduate school came to fruition when they (Johnson uses they/them pronouns) were cast as Tye, a lesbian dating app creator/CEO (who uses she/her pronouns), on Amazon Prime Video's Harlem in late 2019.
"People told me how unrealistic that was," Johnson told Windy City Times. "I did not have a SAG card or reel, and people did not know who I was. They said it would take 10 years. I did not receive that. I went to a performing arts high school so, at that point, it had been 11 years. I used that timetable instead. I started to write down and manifest how I would feel on set, the kind of people I wanted to work with and the freedom I wanted.
"The next day I got a call that they wanted me to audition for [the Freeform show] Good Trouble and then, later on that day, the Harlem role. I said, 'This is great. This is amazing.' I was in such a place of surrender that to me it did not matter the outcome. I was just happy to get to read a script that was this good. I booked this job six days before my six-month window was up. When I booked Harlem, I had to let the guest-starring Good Trouble role go."
Great writing is what makes a role satisfying for Johnson, and they found it with their Harlem character and the show as a whole. Johnson said when the scripts are bad it makes the job very difficult because they are editing the dialogue and not fully immersing themself into the role.
Harlem began shooting scenes in January 2020 and went through the middle of March 2020. This was when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its earliest stages. Johnson said everyone on the show thought they were taking a two-week breakbut that was not the case. The show did not start filming again until January 2021.
"For the rest of 2020, I was thinking about what could possibly happen and wishing that my show would have come out before the world was ending," said Johnson. "By the time we came back, everybody had protocols and that included a COVID-19 team. I was getting tested five times a week. They were constantly on top of what was going on with our health and we did not have any issues in that regard."
As for Tye's story arc, Johnson can only say the person viewers meet in the first two episodes does not reflect who the character is as a whole.
"It breaks down all of the assumptions that can be made about this person that you initially see which is masculine presenting or an androgynous queer woman," said Johnson. "There are so many things that she experiences, which to me is a testament to the writing because it could be very one-note or you serve as our diversity character, but this is also a person who goes through some things so let's explore what it means to be in this type of situation for a queer person. Let's say a barbershop or hospital. Those experiences are real and we do not talk about them a lot because they are complex."
Johnson was instrumental in how Tye was presented to the audience, including the rolled beanie they wore to the audition that made it into the show. They said costume designer Deirdra E. Govan was insistent on Tye not being a typical lesbian stereotype.
"The goal was not having her go to such a masculine place because she is this CEO; or a super-casual place; or a super-butch lesbian place, with her style and mannerisms," said Johnson. "Deidre wanted to re-create the conversation of what queer people can be through the clothes/fashion choices. The character is a world traveler because she has to be due to her CEO role so what type of European styles does she adopt; also, some Brooklyn and Harlem designers to have a conversation about the place where she resides. It really was a collaborative effort."
In terms of Johnson's favorite scenes, they said the one that comes to mind is the one in the first episode where the four main characters are sitting around a round table talking about what kind of women Tye likes to date. This was one of the first scenes they shot as a groupand one that Johnson said was a "laugh riot" because of the ad-libs involved. The other scene Johnson particularly enjoyed filming was one in which their character unloads on a male character "because it was really relieving to stick it to the man."
An intimacy coordinator was present on the show to create realistic queer sex scenes since the sex partner was not a part of the LGBTQ community. Johnson called this process "a great experience."
As for working with the showrunner/creator, Tracy Oliver, Johnson said it was "amazing and collaborative" and they were able to shape how Tye was presented to the audience. Johnson worked with Oliver and the writers (some of whom are queer) to "spice things up" with the storytelling.
Johnson called all of their co-starssuch as Grace Byers, Meagan Good, Shoniqua Shandai, Whoopi Goldberg and Jasmine Guya "sisterhood" that she loves and is obsessed with.
When asked what drew Johnson to the role of Tye on Harlem, they said there is a need for this character because it is important to show that a Black queer woman can not only work in the tech field, but can also succesfully run their own company. Johnson said that someone reached out to them on Twitter and said Tye is their story, adding how great it was to see their life reflected back to them on a TV show.
The statistic that shows only 4 percent of Black women, as a whole, are working in the tech field troubles Johnson, they said. They hope Harlem spurs more Black womenspecifically, Black queer womento work in tech. Johnson said this starts with proper school funding in every part of the country, especially in underserved neighborhoods. They want those students to be ready for the kinds of jobs that await them as adults, including in the tech sector. Johnson added that of the 12 million tech jobs in the United States, only about 600,000 belong to people of color.
"Tye, like many other Black people who are creators, [is] doing this out of a need for queer people to be able to date safely and I think that this starts a lot of conversations," said Johnson. "People who are not queer do not have to think about how it is not safe for queer Black people to date. People who are Black might not have to think about how unsafe it is for queer Black people to date. These are the different components of the conversation we should be having now. These spaces are triggering for anyone who is not a cisgender hetrosexual white male. How are we shifting the conversation? How are we creating a safe work culture for everybody and not just perpetuating the same things that have been done in the past?"
This is where Johnson's art activism comes into play. They are looking to help create equity for queer people of color, queer women of color and underserved neighborhoods like the ones she grew up in Philadelphia so they have the resources necessary for everyone to achieve their goals in life.
Johnson's journey began in Philadelphia, where they went to high school as the fifth of eight children. Johnson was the first in their family to go to undergrad (Penn State University) and graduate school (American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco). They did this without any financial, emotional or mental support from their family. Johnson knew this was the right thing to do to achieve their acting and change-maker goals. One way they did this was to also focus on African American studies and art entrepreneurship at Penn State.
"Sometimes, as artists, we do not think of ourselves as the CEOs of our business," said Johnson. "It is the starving artist mindset that does not have to be a reality. It was very important for me to learn about the business of me and the history of being Black on this soil. To really understand the oppressions and traumas that my mom had to navigate in America so I could understand her and we could have a better relationship."
Johnson said that, as a first-generation educated person in their family, there was a desire to dismantle the generational trauma that was in their family. They added that the pressure they felt to keep going on to the next thing "is a form of white supremacy" and it was important to recognize that and take a moment to appreciate their accomplishments. This feeling was a direct result of Johnson growing up poor and having to wear their older sister's shoes.
When Johnson is not acting, they spend time writing poetry, teaching classes at Penn State and developing "healing pods" for underserved communities.
The healing pods idea has been in Johnson's head for a long time. They have a mission statement written to help the Philadelphia communities where it is most needed. Johnson said that the high crime rate in Philadelphia is what spurred them to do this because it hits close to home. Their family has experienced gun violence and they want to combat that with these pods.