Originally published on GayCityNews.com.
By the early ’90s, actress and maker Jasika Nicole (“Fringe,” “The Good Doctor” and “Punky Brewster”) already cornered the market on radical and resourceful creativity: She had lengthy and rich manuscripts about cats; a trove of pencil-drawn illustrations; and a commercial jingle writing about fictional products, played to the tunes of a used organ piano she’d received for Christmas.
Fast-forward three decades, Nicole is still fiercely creative. She’s performing, turning looks, throwing clay, and spawning artwork that would make her younger self proud.
Suffice it to say, Nicole envisioned a career on Broadway. Peek closely at her Instagram and you can see why: high kicks, twirls, karaoke, and dance numbers. After studying theatre, dance, voice and studio art at Catawba College, she moved to the Big Apple to pursue her acting career, appearing in several stage productions, including “Chasing Nicolette” and “Café A Go-Go.” She then made her film debut in the dance drama “Take the Lead” (co-starring Antonio Banderas) and found work in television, but theater is what’s closest to her heart.
“If we’re talking about making money, television is my favorite,” Nicole said in an interview with Gay City News. “If we’re talking about a performative creative experience, then it’s absolutely going to be theater. I moved to New York City to do musical theater, specifically. I always imagined that I would be a chorus girl, but I just ended up getting more television and film work. I’ve had a pretty exciting career for somebody from Birmingham, Alabama, but I definitely miss the collaborative process that is found in the theater. There’s just nothing quite like it.”
Fashion and design are also very close to Nicole’s heart. She is an avid sewer who flaunts bespoke skirts, dresses, blouses, coats, and shoes crafted with her own hands, creating garments both out of necessity and flights of fancy. Inspired by beautiful fabric, a print, or color, Nicole has made at least one of everything but is particularly fond of making coats, jeans and clothing that fits her body and style.
“I love making jeans because it’s so hard to find ones that fit my butt and fits my waist at the same time-because they’re never in the same size,” Nicole said. “So much of making clothes is making something that actually works for my body. When you shop ready-to-wear, you’re kind of beholden to what is available in the stores. I’m not stuck in this standard, mass-produced, commercial sizing that works for like 3% of the population. If you know who I am and look in my closet, you would say, ‘that is Jasika.’ It’s a lot of animal print and a lot of wild stripes and polka dots. No one else in the world is able to see you if you can’t see yourself in how you present to the world. I want my home. I want all my stuff to feel like inanimate versions of me whenever I have the opportunity. And sewing has been a great way to make that happen.”
Nicole has made light work of long quarantine days by leaning into hand-building and wheel-throwing pottery. Introduced to clay a few years ago at Toros Pottery, a welcoming studio space in Los Angeles, she quickly found that creating under the gaze or attention of others was the enemy of creativity. After receiving a pottery wheel and tools from a friend just ahead of the pandemic, Nicole now has a little pottery studio built out in a storage space where she can do things that genuinely look like her. Often, Nicole pulls items from her sewing kit to embellish and imprint her clay. Utilizing texture, lace, and leather, she personalizes and elevates the charming pieces she creates.
“When I look back at the stuff I made several years ago, it was totally cute stuff, but it didn’t look like what I would create. The stuff I make now looks, well, like me,” said Nicole. “Pottery is such a huge world, and there’s no end to what you can create with clay. I feel like it offers me a freedom that sewing doesn’t offer me, and I love sewing, and I make all of my own garments. With sewing, there’s obviously a lot of rules and restrictions if you want your garment to fit on your body and not fall off on a very gusty day. I operate really well with rules and restrictions. Clay is so different from that. There aren’t really rules or restrictions. You can put clay in front of someone who never worked with pottery in their life, and they’d still be able to create something really cool.”
In 2016, Nicole and her friends tried their hands at creating something else entirely — a dark comedy film dubbed “Suicide Kale,” which premiered at the Queer Hippo International LGBT Film Festival in Houston, Texas. The group took five days out of their lives and brought to life a 30-page script drafted by comedian and writer Brittani Nichols, filling in the blanks with improv. With a negative budget, the movie was filmed in Nicole’s home.
“It was different from any project I’ve been a part of,” Nicole said. “We got to do it our own way, and it was one of the most exciting filming experiences I have ever had. Anything where my opinion counts — which is rare in network television, and obviously anything that’s on the stage — feels like a more artistically fulfilling experience. It was a safe space, which is amazing.”
Another exceptional career experience was being cast as narrator and truck driver Keisha on the acclaimed fictional podcast “Alice Isn’t Dead.” Created and written in 2016 by Joseph Fink, the “Welcome to Night Vale” co-creator approached Nicole, letting her know that he’d written the role for her. Drawing inspiration from personal long trips across the United States, he chronicles a dark stateside adventure packed with quasi-human murderers and mystery and a woman who excurses across the nation searching for her wife, Alice. Cinematic American gothic stories, such as the one “Alice Isn’t Dead,” aren’t often shown through the eyes of queer Black women.
“We talk a lot about creating other characters that exist outside of your experience, and Joseph is a straight white cis man, and he wrote this entire podcast that turned into a New York Times bestseller about a queer Black woman,” said Nicole. “Anybody who makes the excuse, ‘there are no people of color in my scripts because I don’t know how to write them’ is just sad. They’re afraid of messing up and being criticized, but I think it’s important to be criticized.”
She added, “Joseph said, ‘I’m creating this Black queer narrator, and if I fuck it up, please let me know.’ The truth is he was writing about his own love story, knowing that love is universal. It’s not like queer people or Black people experience love in a different way; the world treats us a different way. We have the same needs; we’re all looking to belong, we’re all figuring out our place in this world. We’re all looking for love, whether it’s romantic or not — some kind of companionship within our lives. That kind of thing is universal. He so easily could have written this story for a white woman, and that would have been the end of it, and I’m just really grateful that he didn’t. He specifically wrote it for me, and that’s just very special.”
The podcast didn’t pay much, but the independent production was rewarding in several other ways. Fun, creative, and engaging, Nicole’s appearance on the series convinced others in the industry to see that she was well-suited for voice acting. Before her “Alice Isn’t Dead” experience, Nicole was often sent out for cliched “urban roles” that had a very specific idea about what “urban” should sound like and failed to acknowledge the vast array of urban or Black voices. The inverse of that was when the diversity-indifference Nicole experienced when auditioning for and later portraying FBI Junior Agent and lab assistant Astrid Farnsworth on the FOX TV series “Fringe.”
“Astrid was one of only three women on the show, and the only Black woman on the show, and one of only two Black people on the show,” Nicole recalled. “And she was clearly written on the pilot episode just to tick off a box to say, ‘all right, we have a non-white person.’”
During her “Fringe” audition, Nicole received a character breakdown with a short blurb on it explaining who the character was. The first thing listed was “non-white,” which was vague and broad. That attitude was reflected in the way the character was written. At a time where there were not very many Black women in sci-fi, Astrid received few storylines, was unfinished, and didn’t receive the characterization or development she deserved. The depiction of people of color as “ raceless” and uncomplicated by unwilling writers yields inauthentic or stereotypical characters who don’t wield their own narrative, which is the case with Astrid.
“Everybody loved Astrid; she was a magical negro on the show,” Nicole said. “She didn’t have her own opinion. She didn’t have a background; she didn’t have a history. The first thing you ever learn about anyone in her family is in season four when the two Astrids, from this and the other universe, meet. She was there as a glorified babysitter for a white man who could not get her name right. No, he could get her name right, but he wouldn’t get her name right. I booked that show on the earlier side of my career, and it was very exciting, and I thought, ‘Oh my Gosh. It looks like my dreams are coming true.’ Still, it was a little bit of a reality check to realize that the higher you climb up the ladder, you still end up facing a lot of frustrating stuff, such as microaggressions and marginalization; it’s just that it’s talked about even less because it seems that the stakes are much higher.”
Nicole acknowledges the lack of Black queer women in film and television, so she has leaned on the experiences of other Black women and taken note. Nicole cited the treatment of Cerise Castle, a multimedia journalist and author who recently went public about her time at the Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), an NPR affiliate. Castle accused KCRW of blatant racism, stating her time at the station was “marked by microaggressions, gaslighting, and blatant racism starting when I was physically prevented from entering the building multiple times within my first month of employment.” According to Nicole, Castle worked for the station for a little over a year and was frequently treated as if she was lost or had ill intentions.
“Cerise, personally and career-wise, put herself on the line, and that made me feel I couldn’t support people going through those things if I wasn’t also open and honest about my experiences,” Nicole explained. “And the stakes are much higher for her than they’ve been for me because I’m talking about a show that was on the air over a decade ago, but I still get so many hate messages from people when I say this is what my experience was. I think Cerise Castle is brave, honest and makes me want to be brave and honest, too.”
In her latest role, Nicole portrays lawyer Lauren, who is in a committed same-sex relationship with Cherie Johnson’s character on the reboot of the popular 80s television series, “ Punky Brewster “ (now streaming on Peacock TV). Nicole’s portrayal of Lauren is the first time in her career in network prime time TV she’s been cast to play a queer character despite being out and willing. Rightfully so, her expectations for “Punky Brewster” and its character are lofty.
“I think there’s a tendency for people to pat themselves on the back when including a diverse character, and I just want more,” Nicole said, frankly. “I don’t want to operate for the lowest common denominator. I want to make sure they’re writing for people like myself and my friends who have been queer for a long time and not stunned and excited every time a queer person is on screen. We want a little bit more than that. Maybe try to address the differences when Punky tries to adopt with her husband because they have a more traditional relationship. I want to see what work-life is like for Black people who are also queer. There is so much stuff that can be mined from these storylines, and I just really hope Punky Brewster does something good with it.”
Nicole continued, “I feel lucky that the things that make me feel good as an individual and an artist make other people who are like me feel good. There are a lot of queer people who see me on television and say, ‘Oh, you can be successful, and you can make your dreams come true, even if your skin looks like this, or even if you’re a queer person.’ Those things don’t have to hold you back, and those are some things I lacked as a kid. In a lot of ways, I feel like so much of my career is just trying to show up for my younger self and saying, ‘This is what you needed to see when you were a kid. You didn’t have it then, but now you can be it.’ That’s personal, that’s not for anyone else, but it’s fantastic if other people are able to benefit from that or envision a different life for that’s free of shame or fear.”
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Originally published at https://www.gaycitynews.com on April 5, 2021.