Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Human Interest

Ephraim Sykes' painful St. Petersburg past fuels his performance in NBC's 'Hairspray, Live!'

Getting kicked out of the mall for a sideways baseball cap was one of the worst things that ever happened to Ephraim Sykes.

It might also be one of the best. The painful memory has given Sykes the fuel to succeed in what has been an already outstanding career as a dancer and actor. Sykes had a role in the original cast of Hamilton in Broadway. And on Wednesday, Sykes, 31, appears in NBC's Hairspray Live!, bringing the St. Petersburg native before a TV audience of millions.

 

 

The incident at Tyrone Mall in July 2000, when Sykes was celebrating his 15th birthday, became a flash point in tensions between teenagers and authorities at local malls. Days away from his performance on the NBC live show, Sykes told the Times in a phone interview that he has embraced the musical's inclusive message.

It counters the lingering aftertaste from that event at the mall.

"It will never leave me," Sykes said. "It was one of my very first experiences of discrimination, of unwarranted discrimination on the day I was celebrating my birth."

Seaweed J. Stubbs, his character in Hairspray Live! introduces the bitter realities of racism to white classmates in his song, Run and Tell That:

I can't see/Why people look at me/And only see the color of my face.

• • •

The son of a prominent minister and a teacher, Sykes grew up dancing. He performed on the stages of Perkins Elementary, Johns Hopkins Middle and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High, where he danced ballet and played football.

He was shopping with friends at Tyrone Mall when a security guard confronted him about his cap.

The guard said the cap, emblazoned with the word "pimp" and turned sideways, violated a posted mall regulation against "clothing commonly recognized as gang-related."

He was ejected from the mall. His father, the Rev. Manuel Sykes, found him walking that day on 22nd Avenue N.

The Rev. Sykes returned to the mall with his son in tow. At the food court area, he saw white kids with their caps turned sideways, some of them walking in front of security guards.

The guards did nothing.

When the Rev. Sykes angrily confronted mall authorities, he, too, was escorted out by a uniformed police officer working security.

Times files

Ephraim Sykes. then 15, stands with his father Rev. Manuel Sykes while holding a press conference on the street in front of the Tyrone Square Mall in 2000. Ephraim Sykes was wearing the same outfit he was wearing the day he was ejected from the mall.

The Rev. Sykes, who has a long history of activism, returned to the mall with a camera. He took photos of young people wearing sideways caps openly. He also called a press conference in the mall parking lot.

His congregation from Bethel Community Baptist Church turned out. So did the Uhurus. The conflict was splashed across local media, including the Times.

"It showed that I would not let discrimination stand without a fight, and let my children know that they had a village behind them," the Rev. Sykes said.

Sixteen years later, the Rev. Sykes still has nits to pick with the mall's version of events. The cap, he said, was not really sideways but turned "maybe at a 20-degree angle."

The word on the cap, over which his son's critics had made so much, was a brand name, he noted, commonly found on caps and T-shirts.

As for wearing it at the mall?

"He told me he bought it at the mall," the Rev. Sykes said. "They kicked him out for wearing their own merchandise."

The Rev. Sykes took his complaint to the city of St. Petersburg, which had a board handling alleged discrimination. He also sued the mall, settling for a nominal amount.

• • •

Ephraim Sykes went on to graduate from Fordham University at Lincoln Center, then to dancing in four Broadway productions. In three of them, he earned Astaire Award nominations for outstanding male dancer in a Broadway show.

That list included Hamilton, an opportunity forged through previous work with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sykes danced in the ensemble and played the role of George Eacker. In October, Sykes joined other original cast members who left the show to take new work.

In Hairspray Live!, he works alongside the likes of Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Rosie O'Donnell, Ariana Grande and Martin Short.

"It's a dream come true," Sykes said. "I can't accept it in my mind, this opportunity of being here with this extraordinary cast, telling this story in this time that is relevant and powerful."

Values he learned from his parents stayed with him "100 percent, through their own example, every person they meet, every conversation they have," Sykes said.

"What we learn to do and teach our children through generation to generation and religion is that we can lead with love, not fear — to embrace somebody first, give them a chance to show who you are."

NBC

Sykes as Seaweed J. Stubbs in "Hairspray, Live!"

The baseball cap incident left a mark on his memory.

"It will always be a true example in my life of the sort of ignorant way people act upon us when they pre-judge," he said.

His father views those days as a potential turning point in a young man's life.

"I think it just shows that there are certain incidents that can turn a kid's life one way or the other, for good or for bad," the Rev. Sykes said. "This could have scarred him."

Making his way into our living rooms as Seaweed J. Stubbs "shows the kind of resilience he has, that he doesn't have to be broken by that and let these things define you," he said.

Baseball caps won't be an issue again either, his father said.

"He wears fedoras now."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

 
Comments
Colombia-based body shapewear boutique, Sexy Skinz opens second location in South Tampa

Colombia-based body shapewear boutique, Sexy Skinz opens second location in South Tampa

After listening to the needs of men and women desiring and personally desiring to look slimmer without having to exercise, Colombia native, Elizabeth Muñoz spent years designing top-of-the-line body shapewear at her undergarment shop in Colombia...
Published: 09/21/18
Updated: 09/24/18
I was hospitalized for my eating disorder. Here's what Netflix shows get right and wrong about it.

I was hospitalized for my eating disorder. Here's what Netflix shows get right and wrong about it.

It took me a year and a half to watch Netflix’s To the Bone. The movie, which debuted in January 2017, portrays Ellen, a 20-year-old woman battling anorexia nervosa, and her experience being in and out of various treatment programs. When it w...
Published: 09/20/18
Updated: 09/21/18
'Game of Thrones,' 'Mrs. Maisel' and a proposal highlight Emmy Awards

'Game of Thrones,' 'Mrs. Maisel' and a proposal highlight Emmy Awards

LOS ANGELES — Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel became the first streaming series to win top Emmy comedy honors and HBO's Game of Thrones recaptured the best drama series award Monday at a ceremony that largely slighted its most ethnically di...
Published: 09/18/18
Lens on Pasco wildlife: Park supervisor shares encounters with his pictures

Lens on Pasco wildlife: Park supervisor shares encounters with his pictures

NEW PORT RICHEY — For Mark Berlinger, getting the best shot is a matter of serendipity. Being in the right place. Looking up at the right time. Hearing a rustle and following a notion to take the lens cap off your camera and shoot.Often, the right pl...
Updated one month ago
New Miss America glad she didn’t have to don swimsuit to win

New Miss America glad she didn’t have to don swimsuit to win

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The first woman to win the Miss America crown without having to don a swimsuit says she’s glad she didn’t have to. Nia Imani Franklin, who won the title Sunday night in Atlantic City while competing as Miss New York, said the ch...
Updated one month ago
Judy Garland’s stolen ruby slippers from ‘Wizard of Oz’ are found

Judy Garland’s stolen ruby slippers from ‘Wizard of Oz’ are found

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal authorities say they have recovered a pair of sequined ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz that were stolen from a museum in her northern Minnesota hometown 13 years ago. The slippers were taken from the Judy ...
Updated one month ago
Local Loudmouth Lip Attire founder makes a colorful statement, and you can, too

Local Loudmouth Lip Attire founder makes a colorful statement, and you can, too

TAMPAAmber Parker loves to stand out in a crowd.And with a vivacious personality and a funky personal style, the petite 32-year-old certainly makes a bold impression.So it’s only fitting that her makeup line, Loudmouth Lip Attire, features vibrant an...
Updated one month ago
‘What the hell did you do to my daughter?’ He was accused of a crime he swore he never committed; she believed her 4-year-old

‘What the hell did you do to my daughter?’ He was accused of a crime he swore he never committed; she believed her 4-year-old

ST. PETERSBURGOn the evening of the accusation, before the police came, Austin Holcomb walked to his neighbors’ house to get his son.The boy, who was almost 4, had been playing there all afternoon.The neighbors’ house was a wreck. That Saturday, they...
Updated one month ago
Zephyrhills High rallys to support ‘the greatest kid,’ who’s in a fight for his life

Zephyrhills High rallys to support ‘the greatest kid,’ who’s in a fight for his life

ZEPHYRHILLS There was a swelling of Bulldog Pride as students, many donning orange and black school colors and "I Run For Zack" T-shirts, flocked to the gymnasium for the afternoon pep rally at Zephyrhills High. • The marching band played rousing...
Updated one month ago