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.
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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.
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.
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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."
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.