Harlem just arrived on Amazon Prime and it's the newest show you must add to your watch list. From the genius who brought us Girls Trip (Tracy Oliver), the 10-episode series follows four Black women who have been best friends since their college days at NYU. Now taking on New York City in their 30s, the quartet are learning to navigate sex, relationships and chasing their dreams all while living in Harlem. Ahead of the premiere, LA Confidential sat down with Jerrie Johnson, who plays fierce, queer, successful tech developer Tye. Here, Johnson speaks at length about Harlem, Tye and the power of vulnerability and unconditional support in the workplace.
Harlem is your first show as a series regular after spending years studying your craft (Johnson has a BA in theater from Penn State and an MA from the American Conservatory Theater). How did it feel when you booked the role?
It was divine. So I was telling everybody before I graduated, I was like, “When I graduate, I'm going to book a series regular in six months. And everyone is like, “No Jerrie, it takes 10 years, you haven't been out, you don't have a SAG card, you don't have a reel.” And I'm like, “No, I just feel like I am.” And also maybe, and this is something that I realized in retrospect, my 10 years did happen. It just wasn't out in the industry, it was learning. So when I auditioned for the job and I got the job, it all felt great, but I was in surrender mode. I had let it all go because four months in, I was like “Oh my god, what's gonna happen? I need money. I haven't booked anything.” And I actually went in for this show and Good Trouble on the same day and ended up booking them both. But when I got the contract for Harlem, I think I was the first one of all of the women to be hired. And it was on November 14, [2019,] which is six days before the six month mark of me graduating.
What drew you to Tye? How do you think audiences will react to her story?
First of all, [Tye is] a brilliant queer woman who owns a tech company, which is actually unheard of here now. So already, you're giving name to something that doesn't exist, which in order for us to be able to imagine, we have to see images of things so that we can know that it's possible. Two, her love for these girls, and also just the way she's a straight shooter. And I'm from North Philly, so I understood this masculine, guttural, swaggy energy that she has. And I think that that women, straight or queer, are going to go crazy for Tye. I think that men are also going to go crazy for Tye. Some people might call her toxic, in terms of dating, but I think that this is a Black woman navigating an industry where black women don't exist and Black queer women don't exist, and so there are some sacrifices that she may have to make because of that. So I think that Tye will definitely be a conversation starter, but I'm also hoping that Tye will be a queer icon.
Why do you think it's important for TV to highlight that being in your 30s doesn’t mean you have to have it all together, particularly from the perspective of Tye?
Well, one, I think we've all been peddled the American Dream. And so with that comes a certain level of anxiety when you have not done whatever the reflection of the American Dream is. But really, that's unrealistic for life because it's a journey and not a destination. Somebody has told us that in your 20s, you go wild and crazy, but in your 30s you need a picket fence, you need to be married, you need to have your kids you need to have good credit, you need to have a car, you need all of these things that just create so much mental turmoil when you realize that you're in your 30s and that has not happened yet. And so I think this will give people comfort, but also give people the space to explore what actually do you want your 30s to look like?
We won't have it all figured out and as soon as you have it all figured out, something else comes up and you're like, “F***, I don't know anything.” And so I think that it's essential for healing to know that you don't have to present perfect because also perfect is perception. Perfection is a form of white supremacy and it actually doesn't exist in the way that we've been taught that it should exist.
What do you think audiences can learn about vulnerability from Tye?
Not a lot [laughs]. I think that what they can learn through Tye’s story is that vulnerability is important. I think Tye has had to come up in this white space for so long as a woman and the things that we learn about women when they are in their emotions and what emotional women mean, especially in male dominated spaces, especially especially in white male dominated spaces, as we have seen in the election with Hillary Clinton and different things that we see in politics or in mass media— it's almost like you have to be such a hardened version of yourself.
So Tye is hardened in a way where she feels like maybe vulnerability might cost her her job or her work or her status. And what I know is when we don't express those things, they come up in a different way. They come up in sickness, in illness, mental illness or disease...Tye gets a really hard wake up call because she doesn't really express her feelings or her vulnerabilities, but she probably is the most vulnerable with these three women [Camille, Quinn and Angie].
On your Instagram post you wrote about how this show has forever changed you. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
It's interesting because when I manifested the show, I wrote down how I want to feel.
I decided to get really specific about how I wanted to feel on set, how I wanted to exist with the other characters, who I wanted to be around, the kind of people I wanted to be around, how I wanted them to make me feel, how I wanted to make them feel. So then, getting this job, being in a space with these women, we naturally all just were like, “Oh my god, I see you, I love you,” and in a real, authentic way.
What I realized getting on set is that we all have been waiting for this moment, no matter where the other people have come from or how many jobs that they've done. Something that was said to me a lot on set was, “This isn't how it usually is.” People have had traumatizing experiences on set and in an effort to protect me from having an expectation that this is how I'm gonna feel on every set, they would try to remind me that it's not [always like this]. And I think that's so sad. I think we should normalize this experience for Black women to be able to have a conversation about your hair where you're not looked at like you have three heads or something like that.
On all levels, people are wanting us to feel taken care of: the producers, the network, the people who are on set, the directors. Everybody is like, “What do you need? How can we help you? How can we best serve this project?”
I think it’s a testament to Tracy [Oliver] and Megan [Good] and Grace [Byers] because they set the stage. They already had such an amazing resume and portfolio, and so for them to come and be so kind and sweet, just right off the bat, was already something that allowed everybody to just be like, “Okay, I can be me in this space. I can say this in this space. I don't have to compartmentalize.” And I feel like I have existed in a lot of spaces, a lot of white-dominated spaces where I've had to compartmentalize who I am as a person and I didn't have to do that on this set.
The release of Harlem is a monumental moment, but is there anything else important going on in your life?
Lately I've been manifesting a farm because I truly believe in living sustainably and living off the land and starting an artists commune, and also this space that Black people can come and learn the skills to cultivate their own food and to build their own sustainable houses. One part is having healing pods in underserved neighborhoods—a place where you can go and have fresh foods. These are greenhouses in the middle of the hood where you can learn to grow from the land, but also you can learn tech. We're going into this new phase of what tech is going to mean for the world, and I think Black people feel like sometimes that we don't have access to tech, that we can't be in tech spaces. It's because of who we see in tech spaces. It's also because the requirements to be in tech spaces can be anti-Black or can make it so that Black people don't feel like they can be in tech.
Children are already doing it with TikTok, editing videos, all of these things, but there's nobody saying, “You can do this. You're already doing that thing.” And so it’s like a thought incubator for people to be able to go to those places. You can meditate if you like or have a free space to think about what wellness means to you. And then the farm is a place that is somewhere in the middle of nowhere that exists where everything is off the grid. People can come to learn how to build off-the-grid housing, people can come to learn how to cultivate their own land, to start their own farms or farm-to-house community or tiny-home community so that we can begin to really learn the things that we already know, the things that are ancestral to us, the things that are in our bodies because capitalism exists because so many people are willing to be or have been put in the position of consumer. So if we transition how we've been existing in this space, then we can start to transition where the power is and who has power.
I have found a farm, so I'm manifesting investors interested in investing in an artist's commune, in a thought incubator. I've been looking for spaces specifically in North Philly, where I'm from, to start the healing pod, and then, hopefully, have a direct connection where in the summertime, the kids who who frequent the healing pods can then go live off the land at the farm and learn things more hands-on in a space that is conducive to growing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Harlem is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Photography by: Cecile Boko