“There’s Nothing I Can’t Do”: Harlem’s Jerrie Johnson on Tye’s Self-Discovery and Breaking the Binary

Jerrie Johnson is a Black actor with short cropped blonde hair, they are looking to the camera from a side profile in front of a white and blue background. They have on a black turtleneckPhoto of Jerrie Johnson by Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb

Jerrie Johnson is very grateful for the opportunity to play Tye on Prime Video’s Harlem, but they know that it wasn’t just luck that got them to where she is. “I manifested this exact thing, and I was so happy and excited that my manifestations met with Tracy’s [Harlem creator Tracy Oliver] manifestations and also the manifestations of the girls all coincided in a way that we can be co-collaborators and co-conspirators in bringing this thing to life,” they told me over Zoom. We talked on a sunny afternoon and Jerrie as always looked flawless in a patterned jacket from their beautiful apartment in New York City.

This is an interview that I’ve been trying to make happen since before the season aired, and I was worried it wouldn’t happen. I met Jerrie last year after Harlem season two was announced and I told them during that time that I would love to interview them for Autostraddle when the time came. Despite playing a queer female character, she shared with me that they had never been interviewed by a queer female interviewer. It isn’t hard to believe, but I knew that I had to use my platform to amplify their voice, because it is a voice that everyone should hear.

With Tye, the go-getter, entrepreneur and all around boss running her own tech company, who doesn’t have time for love but also loves to have sex, Jerrie realizes she has an opportunity to change the television landscape. For so long, Black women in Hollywood haven’t had the chance to evolve how the world views us. But in playing a character like Tye, who is “able to be free and able to be nuanced and able to like, have some of that feminine and a lot of that masculine energy,” they can subvert preconceived notions. “What I love is that we’re dismantling what a leading lady is, what an ingenue can be, especially for Black women,” she explains.
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“No one’s trying to make any commentary on queerness,” they say of Harlem. “It happens because we never see a queer person living so freely as a person on TV. So then people are like, oh my God, I’ve never seen this. We have so many different reflections or depictions from shows like Friends and Sex and the City where not only is there no Black people, there’s no queer people. But this is New York and I’m like, I can’t go to Starbucks without seeing a queer person, let alone a Black queer person.”

There is still a narrow view of what it means to be an out, queer woman in the entertainment industry. Think about many of the queer female actors we can name off the top of our heads. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to present themselves in any kind of range. Jerrie pointed out that many queer male actors are allowed a spectrum of expression that queer female actors haven’t gotten to yet.

“My experience of queer women is, if they’ve presented this feminine thing, then they feel like they have to continue presenting this feminine thing, or they’re only gonna get certain roles and vice versa, right? If I’ve presented this masculine thing, I have to keep this up. And so even in the queerness we see so much binary for women.”

Through their portrayal of Tye, but also in life and how she portrays herself, Jerrie is challenging what it means to be an out queer, Black actor in an industry that doesn’t yet know what to do with people who don’t fit neatly into a box.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna be wearing or who I’m gonna be in the next hour. You know what I mean? And so, I think clothes are an expression of that,” they say. “This binary is so new and so American and so beneficial to the patriarchy and white supremacy, that I feel like it would be a disservice for me and my legacy for me to feed into any type of binary,” she adds.

And as Jerrie continues to carve her own path in this industry, one thing remains clear, they are going to do it their way. “I just hope that we are getting to a place where we allow black actors to be transformative! I’m just asking that I can play the full spectrum of what I have to give. And if there’s something that I don’t know how to do, there’s nothing that I can’t learn how to do, period. I think it’s all about having people out there who are thinking more expansively about how we’re presenting people, how we’re writing things, how we’re casting things so that people can see people like me in more of a nuance across different mediums in the industry.”

Read more of our conversation below.

Sa’iyda: Let’s just start with a basic overview of Tye’s arc this season.

Jerrie: Tye, this season is in maybe a dark night of the soul. Like there is a person who loves structure… who has benefited from knowing in work, right? Like, if I take this step, it’s gonna lead me here, then if I take this step, it’s gonna lead me here. And there may be some, you know, nuances or some things along the way that lead to maybe that direct thing not happening.

But I can get close. In terms of personal life and love. It’s like, okay, “I don’t understand this because I’m doing this, this, and this, and technically it should leave me here, but I’m not there.” And I think really with the big, moment of reflection was what Brandon said to her in the apartment in season one about her not having love in her life. And I think she spends season two contemplating that, and maybe being in denial about it. There’s like an air of being in denial, but also there’s an air of I can fix this — I can fix things because that’s what I do. I don’t think she’s coming from the most healthy place.

Sa’iyda: Absolutely not.

Jerrie: She’s just grasping at straws. Literally, that’s what the season is about. “Oh, I can try this!” “Oh, I can date this person and then do this.” “Oh, I can find love if I just do this.” And it’s just like, but you have no guides. You have no love guides. There’s nobody that you are conferring with to let you know that these are the steps actually to take for you specifically. Not what you saw somewhere, not what you’ve read in a book, not what your friends are doing, but what you need to do. So I think that is the missing link. So right now she’s just… Trying to make it better. Trying to prove him wrong and yeah, grasp, grasp, grasp, grasp, grasp.

Sa’iyda: I mean I love how naturally it progresses. Especially because Tye being Tye is so like, “I have to do this” and “I have to do this, and this is how it’s gonna go.” Like she decided to go spend the weekend with her married couple friends and was like, “oh God, is this what my life is gonna be like?” Spoiler alert: Honey. Yes. That is exactly what your life is gonna be like.

You could see that she was like, oh no. Oh no. This feels too, too comfortable. I can’t sit in the comfort.

And I think that said a lot about her character. Comfort is not a place that she operates from naturally. So then to see the comfort that she feels with Amy because there’s no pretense — how it creates a very seismic shift in her that doesn’t come off as seismic.

Jerrie: I was gonna say too, she’s benefited in her life from not being comfortable. And her idea of comfort comes from this small town in the South where people aren’t doing anything. You know, people are stuck. And so like, that is what comfort to her means. “Well, if I’m comfortable then I could have stayed home.”

But she sacrificed her home life and sacrificed her comfortability. Now she’s in this maybe unhealthy relationship where she doesn’t identify the need for comfort when it comes. And so it’s like, oh, if it’s not, “go, go, go get, get, get” or chaos or even like easy, because sometimes comfort and easy aren’t the same thing. So if it’s not that, then not only do I not want it — I don’t see it, cause I don’t recognize that I need it or that there is a need for it.

Sa’iyda: Yeah, absolutely. And it was so heartwarming because Tye is not the character to have the meet-cute moment, to have the like, “oh, do you wanna come over and cuddle?” 

So to see that, that’s kind of where she ends up, because she was so determined to find it, and went about it the wrong way… to then have it kind of sneak up on her and give her a one, two sucker punch at the end was really satisfying as a viewer.

Jerrie: I thought it was beautiful, too! Because I feel like, what I love about the writing is that just like in life, everybody gets to experience everything.

So whereas we might assume that Quinn or maybe Angie will have a meet-cute moment, not Tye, Tye gets that [other thing]. And… and we’re satisfied. Just as we might assume that only Tye gets the queer moment and then Quinn gets it and we’re satisfied. Right? Because it shows complexity, it shows dualities. It shows the dichotomies that we aren’t used to seeing, especially in Black storylines, where it’s like, you are serving this purpose.

And if you’re not serving this purpose, then… I mean, a lot of storylines, but specifically Black storylines, we are finally becoming more expansive on a more macro scale and not just like the three shows that have these certain characters where it’s still very hetero.

Sa’iyda: I’d love to talk to you about the relationship between Tye and Brandon.

One of my biggest gripes this season was that they were not more deeply explored. I think there was something so interesting there, because why did what he said to her, send her in this existential spiral if she didn’t care about him as much? There was room for conversations of compulsory heterosexuality, where we kind of live in these spaces. Especially as Black women where queerness isn’t something we see modeled and thusly we can’t conceive of life that way. So we fall into these kind of situations, but then she has to get out of it.

Jerrie: We went from, I mean, they wrote 10 episodes. And then Amazon said sike, it’s eight. Because they have a new comedy order where, you know, all comedies are going down to eight episodes.

Sa’iyda: I hate the eight episode season! It’s not enough to develop.

Jerrie: And the crazy thing is, I’ve revisited the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and I’m like, oh, they had six seasons, but each season was like 22-26 episodes. And it’s like, you really get to see these characters develop.

So I think there’s a part of that, like, I think there was gonna be, some more introduction of other people so that we could explore the Brandon thing more. So I think it all had to happen for Tye in a shorter time, but also as backstory. Because Tye’s love story had to take precedence.

But I feel like Tye loves the life that she has now. It’s a very curated life, though. And so I think there’s something about somebody who may know you more deeply than these people —  who you’ve been through from maybe kindergarten to high school — which is more years than, than you have spent with, with these… this group of people right? That’s 18 years or so.

And so, instead of the thought of like, “what are people back home thinking about me? Are they proud of me, or do they see that I’m killing it?” Where it was just an idea, just a thought. To have that be right there and for it to be like, this is actually what we think. We don’t care about your business. We don’t care about that. We care about if you have love in your life, if people are looking out for you or why did you leave and not have conversations.

And so I feel like there is a little moment of that when he comes to the house… I think for me as an actress, there’s a way that I can get really deep into stuff. But also it’s like they remind you of the comedy too, right?

It’s finding the balance of: this can be a really dramatic moment for me, and I feel like going there with you, so I’m gonna go there. Then let the people [behind the scenes] tell you, okay, well less emotion about this or whatever.

I think, I personally am still trying to find the balance of like, knowing maybe we’ll get that satisfaction, if we get a season three where Tye can really go there, right? I think that’s always the thing that I’m working with, is knowing that we don’t get a lot of on camera time. Having that backstory be present, but also not trying to pour all of it into the times that we do see each other. Especially if it’s not serving what is actually happening now.

Sa’iyda: I think with Tye, we’ve always seen the go, go, go. The busy, busy, busy. My personal favorite was the Puerto Rico trip where she kept trying to reclaim her lost youth, and to disastrous effect.

Jerrie: Give her some drugs!

Sa’iyda: I never tried to chase drugs on vacation, but as a person who is now entering their late thirties, because that’s kind of where the characters are sitting, it felt a little too real. Your body’s like, no, you can’t.

You haven’t gotten there yet! [Jerrie turned 29 in January]

Jerrie: There’s stuff that I — I’ve always really had an old soul, so there’s stuff in college that I was like, I’m not doing it. I didn’t drink until I was 22. Okay? I was like, whatever this rubbing alcohol that y’all poisoning your bodies with, I don’t want it. I’m not doing it. I’m not getting into that habit. So I was never that kind of person. [On vacation] you see people are like, I bought the drinks! Then it’s like after the first night, everybody’s like, yeah, last night was crazy, so we’re just gonna chill. And don’t let somebody be going through a break-up because then they want you up all night.

We see that Tye needs this just as much as Quinn does, right? Because now something also is escaping her. And so to go on this vacation and to expect these girls to also be the same high energy or you know, whatever. It just feels like, oh girl, girl.


We could have talked forever, but all good things must come to an end. Season two of Harlem wrapped this weekend on Prime Video, where you can watch all the episodes.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 124 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I’m so glad I go to know Jerrie better via this interview, thank you Sa’iyda! I feel like, especially for Black queer actors, and those who are most famous for work in Black shows, they don’t get the chance to have a platform for us to get to know all aspects of them, like you provided here. So often our intersections end up chopped into pieces of different magazine’s POVs (ie/ a Black media source isn’t asking Jerrie their thoughts on the gender binary, or a gay magazine isn’t talking about the pressures on Black women to “go go get it”).

    I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for actors! And I’m really grateful you made that space for Jerrie here.

  2. Loved this! Some really wonderful insights on both sides of this interview. Thanks for keeping the faith to make it happen and knocking it out of the park. Hope we get to see more of Jerrie and Tye with a s3!

  3. I adored this! Thank you Jerrie for being willing to go there about society and Hollywood and of course infusing the show with authenticity.

    I already love that people around the show have made it so that Tye is not the only queer character and not only that, we saw a very real analysis of several parts of Black queer/trans culture as it relates to femmes of all backgrounds and AFAB folks of all backgrounds, along with the whole sisterhood. I hope we do get a season 3, but I will cherish this season 2.

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