Ephraim Sykes has already been to the Tony Awards. He performed there in 2016 with the cast of Hamilton, in which he had a small role and danced in the ensemble.
The next time he goes to the Tonys, though, he'll be a nominee.
The St. Petersburg native scored his first career Tony nomination on Tuesday for his role in Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Sykes was nominated for Best Featured Actor in Musical alongside his castmate Jeremy Pope, an Orlando native. A third co-star, Derrick Baskin, was nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. In all, Ain't Too Proud racked up 12 nominations, including Best Musical.
Sykes got the news during a morning massage therapy session, a must for the physically demanding role of talented but troubled Temptations singer David Ruffin.
"I was laying in my bed in the darkness, and started to cry as they called my name out," he said by phone Tuesday. "It's been surreal, like an out-of-body experience. I could not have dreamed this. It's an honor, to say the least."
Within hours, he had "170-something messages waiting for me," including several from his family back home in St. Pete.
"I'm really pinching myself," said his father, Rev. Manuel Sykes. "This is really a surreal moment. I'm not saying that he doesn't deserve it, but I can say that I'm amazed that I'm watching this child who grew up in my presence reach that kind of plateau."
Sykes, 33, has seen his star rise higher and higher over the past decade, going from the stage at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School to a featured role in 2016's Hairspray Live! on NBC. He appeared in the 2017 Kathryn Bigelow film Detroit.
Ain't Too Proud is Sykes' sixth spin on Broadway, including roles in Hamilton, Newsies and Motown: The Musical. As Ruffin, who sang lead on songs like My Girl and Ain't Too Proud to Beg, he's earned raves across the board. The New York Times called him "smoking hot" and praised his "spectacular scissor splits," and the Daily Beast wrote that he "burns up the stage as the colorful, never ego-shy frontman."
"We don't just talk about or highlight the big and flashy aspects of his life, we get into his darkness and demons as well," Sykes said. "It's not just fun. It hurts sometimes. It's kind of like life that way."
His father saw Ain't Too Proud in development and when it premiered on Broadway, and said the complexity of emotion behind each performance sets it apart.
"It's the lives and times of these gifted men who, in many cases, ended early or tragically, and I think they do a great job of letting us see inside what their lives were really like," said the elder Sykes. "Even at the apex of their fame and fortune, it just reminds us no matter how gifted people can be, they still have demons."
Sykes said he's only beginning to get a sense of how much his nomination means in his hometown.
"I just got off the phone with my dad, who was talking to me about a few people from St. Pete that have called him, because their young, black kids are looking to move to New York and give singing and acting and dancing a try," he said. "It almost brings me to tears, being able to be sort of a light and encouragement to 'little mes', seeing that something like this is possible for us."
Ain't Too Proud's 12 Tony nominations were second-most behind Hadestown with 14. Other top-nominated shows included Tootsie (11), The Ferryman (9) and Beetlejuice (8).
Other big names receiving acting nominations this year: Bryan Cranston (Network), Jeff Daniels (To Kill a Mockingbird), Adam Driver (Burn This), Elaine May (The Waverly Gallery), Annette Bening (All My Sons) and Laurie Metcalf (Hillary and Clinton).
James Corden will host the Tony Awards on June 9 on CBS. Sykes and the cast of Ain't Too Proud will almost certainly perform.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.