“I’ve created expectations of myself based on what I imagine others expect of me. Noah was the poster child for black gay hopeless romantics and it just so happened that Darryl desperately wanted to be in love, too. When people were writing to me on social media, asking me how to find a boyfriend like Wade Robinson, I wanted to have answers for them. I wanted to offer them an example of how happy and fulfilled gay men could be if we stopped limiting our sexual encounters to shame-based trysts with strangers.”–Darryl Stephens, Required Reading: How To Get Your Life For Good
It has been a decade since the first episode of Noah’s Arc aired on Logo TV. Darryl Stephens exploded on the scene in 2005 as the lovable, sexy, hopeless romantic Noah. The show, which was the first of its kind, featured the lives of Black gay men living and loving in Los Angeles. Now, almost a decade later, Darryl opens up in his tell-all book that delves into love, loss, dating, sex and acting as an actual gay Black man living in Los Angeles.
Darryl is currently starring in a new film named, From Zero to I Love You, which is set in Philadelphia. Don’t be surprised if you spot Darryl downtown Philly filming this summer, boys! It was nice to catch up with Darryl for a one-on-one interview before the premier of his new show and right after the publication of his new book, Required Reading: How To Get Your Life For Good.
In your book, you talk a lot about dating, which I love! Does your profession as a gay Black actor add a layer of complexity that you wouldn’t necessarily see attached to other professions? For example, do guys have a hard time separating Noah from Darryl? That has been a big issue for me. For years after that show [Noah’s Arc] I was getting, you know, approached very aggressively by men who thought I was going to bend in the same way Noah would.
Like … literally? In a sense, yes! So, I have had to be sort of be on guard a lot. It’s more about negotiating what information people are approaching me with. Are talking to me because you saw me in a coffee shop or is this about something you are assuming based on a character? It does sort of keep you alert. It’s just an added layer due to being visible.
How do you think working as an actor has shaped your self-esteem? I will say this … I, for some reason, have been able to walk the world with very little negativity directed at me. I did hear from a number of people at the very beginning [of Noah’s Arc] who didn’t think we were accurately depicting Black gay men, that we were somehow belittling or diminishing the progress that we had made as Black gay men by sort of playing at these old stereotypes of overly effeminate or flashy dressed men. I took a lot of that to heart. I took that personally because for me it was about the characters. In your mind, you don’t think this character is going to enter us into a national discussion. You think, this is a character and I am working as hard as I can to make this character real for me and to the people who are watching the show.
People were responding with these negative ideas about Black effeminacy. My feelings were definitely hurt but not just because they were talking about me but more about the fact that, why is that what you are seeing? Why are you not seeing that there are Black people on television, Black men on television falling in love? Why is that not what you walk away from this with? I did understand that we had never seen people like this on TV. I got a little hurt about that and I would say that people, uh, people eventually came around. We did begin to address directly issues of masculinity versus femininity with gay men. That particular show [Noah’s Arc] was positive, really positive for me.
I will say as an actor, however, we are dealing with rejection all the time. What being an actor has taught me and this is possibly another reason why I am sort of more strong willed than others, is that most of the time it has nothing to do with you. You go in there and present who you are and you either work for the role or you don’t. You go in there, you do your best. You match with what the director, or the casting people or producers or whatever, with what they had in their mind. If you don’t, you won’t. There is nothing you can do to change that. What that’s taught me is that I can be myself with no apology. Some people will get it, some people won’t but that doesn’t change the value of what I brought to the room in the first place. In that regard, it strengthens me and my self esteem because I have had to learn that whether people accept me or don’t, it is my responsibility to stay true to who I am because at some point, who I am is going to work.
Q: Would you say you use your profession to try to challenge the rigid boxes of masculinity around media representations of Black males?
In terms of the roles I have taken, subsequent Noah’s Arc, I have been deliberate in trying to pick as many gradations on that scale, as many colors from hyper-masculine to, you know, maybe a little soft here and there to queen. For me, it is all about playing as many gradations of a Black gay man as I can possibly be allowed to play in the time that I am allowed to. Its not just about depicting, it’s also about changing, like offering variations in terms of what I can do.
What do you think about the landscape of Black heterosexual men playing roles that bend gender-norms or something outside of being a heterosexual male? I think it is shifting today. I think it is shifting right now. I will say that Anthony Mackie, who has been working for many years, one of his first films was a movie called Brother to Brother and I, you know, Anthony is straight. He’s a heterosexual man. I thought it was really brave, I want to say this movie came out possibly 12 years ago. I think it predated Noah’s Arc. He was up and coming and he has been working non-stop for all these years. I don’t think anybody questioned him: He was convincing, he was committed. I was really impressed with that. I think its safe for Taye Diggs to do Hedwig on stage rather than on film. A lot of his demographic audience that he has secured sees him as a sex symbol, but that demographic probably won’t see him on stage. I do think that it is shifting a bit. I do think that there are still a number of Black actors who would not test those waters. I can say I think we are slowly evolving on this topic.
I think its really a matter of shifting the depictions of gay men. I think that more straight men would be comfortable playing a comedic gay queen than would be playing a romantic lead. I don’t see a lot of straight Black men lining up to play a character like Noah. That character challenges us on so many levels.
Rather, like an Omar on The Wire? Yes. Those types of roles. Brave. But I feel like its still allowing these men to maintain that hyper-masculinity that seems to be so precious to Black culture.
In your book you talk about religion and sexual orientation. How do you reconcile religion and sexual orientation as a gay Black person? I open a chapter of my book with saying I was never indoctrinated. I think I would be a very different person if my mother had raised me Christian. I would be dealing with a completely different set of insecurities. As I see it, the Black church in particular is sort of slow to progress on this particular topic. There is a quote by Pastor Dewey Smith, in which he says, “You cant evangelize and antagonize at the same time.” [There are] all these Black folks who are talking about how you need to come to God, but then in the very next breath saying you are unholy unless you change who you essentially are. The church really has to come to grips with the fact that no one chose this and this is something that we are all blessed with. For you to decide someone’s sexuality is worthy of condemning someone to hell, if this is what your religion is teaching you, you really have to question where the Christ-like teaching is in that dogma because it is really contradictory. The Black church has been about community building. For there to be this random point that you need to divide us on, who are you serving? I think its really a matter of Black folks questioning how are you being Christ-like or loving by condemning people who are not hurting you in anyway?
Sheena C. Howard is the author of “Black Queer Identity Matrix and Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation.” She is also an educator and film producer in the making based out of Philadelphia. Follow her on twitter @DrSheenaHoward