a conversation with Darius Barnes, Jeroboam Bozeman, Nigel Campbell and Ephraim Sykes
Since March 12, 2020, I’ve made up everyday as it has come to me, rarely with a structure or a schedule; rarely with more thought than the day ahead of me. Some days I won — waking up, putting on clothes, being creative and making something happen. Many days I lost — being paralyzed by marijuana induced stupors that kept me floating above myself in a beautiful haze of nullity. Life was easier there. After a hard year of saying yes to anything that kept me afloat and creative, in the fall, everything came to a head. I fought to be positive daily, but the weed started to produce paranoia and dark and questioning spaces filled my mind. The looming prospect of survival arrested me. What next? How will I sustain? What happens now? Thoughts of having to leave New York City, the city I’ve called home since sixteen and move back to Baltimore gave me an extreme sense of failure. I sobbed one morning to my mother. It was too real, too overwhelming.
Dancing is what used to make me breathe.
I was fortunate to carve out and scrape together work. I gained new skills. I developed virtual projects. I stretched myself in ways I never thought possible and used all of my talents attempting to replace my breath, my life source: my income, social life, day-to-day schedule, and discipline. I was grateful to work, but I had a sense of guilt. I was merely surviving while so many others around me seemed to be hitting rock bottom.
So I disappeared from social media and I spent time with my family and tried to pour into myself and dream again towards the end of 2020. I needed to dream new dreams. Then on New Years Eve, during my pastor’s sermon, he charged us with a mission I didn’t know I needed: Declare everyday — I AM RESILIENT!
Magically, it was January 1, 2021 and by the grace of God, I was still walking, breathing, thinking, dreaming. This shifted me to more positive thinking and I decided to fight, to aspire, to galvanize myself, and continue to step out on faith. I had somehow managed to last for nine months through my wins and losses, and in spite of not knowing what lay ahead from day to day, I had survived! If nothing else, 2020 provided a clearer vision, a stronger sense of self, and a renewed hope for my future and the life I want to carve out for myself.
I AM RESILIENT!
I believe that and declare it for myself daily!
I entered into 2021 with what felt like a new sense of purpose, hungry for all the possibilities the new year could bring my way.
But what does resilience look like for my contemporaries? How are they weathering this unpredictable storm? Where are their minds focused now?
On a beautiful crisp, Saturday afternoon in January, I sat down with my peers to ask them these questions. I interviewed three men: Jeroboam Bozeman, Nigel Campbell and Ephraim Sykes.
Jeroboam Bozeman, Nigel Campbell and Ephraim Sykes are men I met in my youth. All of our lives have been intertwined at different moments as we have matured. Jeroboam and I met as young teenagers gallivanting around New York City. I was always drawn to his freedom. He’s always had an ability to be present in his truth, regardless of the world around him. Nigel Campbell and Jeroboam trained under the same tutelage at the Creative Outlet Dance Theater in Brooklyn, NY and I met Nigel — my first week at the School of American Ballet — his freshman year at Juilliard. Nigel introduced himself to me in the cafeteria and invited me to sit with him and the other older Black students at the school. He became my brother and gave me community. Nigel and Ephraim met as young teenagers training at the Alvin Ailey summer intensive and I met Ephraim a couple years later when he was a student at the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University BFA program. In an audition for the Lines Ballet summer intensive, I distinctly remember being blown away by his magnetism, his hunger, his drive, and his star quality. He is the reason I transitioned from concert dance to theater.
I asked them about their experience dealing with COVID. This was our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. View the full conversation here.
Nigel: Well Alright!
Jeroboam: Well Damn!
Me: I know… What a room we have. Hello, Nigel, Ephraim and Jeroboam! Thank you so much for saying yes to this, especially when time is the BIGGEST currency right now. I’m very grateful that you’re all here. I love and respect you all so much.
What were you focused on in January of 2020?
Ephraim: Alright. So. January of 2020 I was focused on — I was focused on not dying! I was still doing Ain’t Too Proud. That show was very hard. Very, very hard! And I had just finished doing the workshop for MJ, the musical. I was dog-tired. I was focused on getting out of Ain’t Too Proud and trying to understand how to wrap my mind around entering and transitioning from one legend to the next. So, trying not to shit myself with that kind of nervousness, but also trying to figure out how to rest. I was going to have a month off between the hardest thing I had ever done, before tackling on something else that was probably harder. I needed some time and space to just sit and go to zero, go to nothing. Let my own heartbeat wake me up again to figure out who I am, what I needed to say, how to not be afraid. So yeah, January was yikes, man! It was a tough time. A really tough time.
Me: I totally understand. I was doing double duty like you. I was going home after my show and notating MJ until 3am, so I could teach it to you. So I could teach everyone. I got laryngitis going on for the principal role I covered in the last two weeks of the lab. Then I couldn’t speak for the last two weeks of the lab.
Ephraim: I remember.
Me: I was stressed. January was really rough and it didn’t slow down.
Nigel: You know, January 2020 was a lot. We had just announced that the Gibney Company had gotten this new multi-million dollar funding to expand the company. I was going around to all the different schools to see the [college] seniors, to get the word out about the new company, but also because we were hiring six new dancers, I was really trying to go around and see what was out there and get people excited about the audition. At the same time, 2020 was Year 5 of MOVE NYC. With that, we embarked on a major rebranding and planning all of these kinds of epic celebrations for our 5th year. So I was doing all of that at the same time and I was really tired. I was doing it and my level of productivity was pretty remarkable, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable.
Jeroboam: Yea, I agree and feel the same as everyone. I was just worn out from 2019. Ailey had just finished our City Center season in December. The three weeks that I had off after, I went and did a project in London. Then I got back maybe like a Saturday and started work that Monday. So not only tired from the tour, but also in my personal life. I felt like I was just trying to grab onto something. Just trying to find my grounding.
Nigel: (laughing) And that’s how we lived. Just keep going and doing everything. Produce. Produce. Produce!
Me: What did you do the first three weeks of the pandemic?
Nigel: For the first three weeks of Covid, I literally was a puddle of nothingness on my couch. I did nothing; part of that was mourning. I was doing so much and then it all came to a screeching halt. I realized, “Oh my God, all of this momentum is stopping.” Where do we go from here — the uncertainty of it all? It took me some time to sort of get back on the horse and I felt guilty about that, especially seeing how quickly everyone else was activating.
Jeroboam: We were in Dallas, TX, I believe, and my mother got sick. I had a discussion with the artistic staff and I said, “Look, my mother’s not doing well, so I’m not staying here anymore. I have to go.” I booked my flight out that night and the travel ban happened two days after. When I got home, I immediately went to see my mother. What I realize now is that she did have Covid and my first two weeks were spent with her. I remember being in big PPE. I never spoke about this, but the first two weeks, I remember being really on edge. I had anxiety. I was praying. I wasn’t sleeping. I was in my apartment. I wouldn’t go outside. Then, after my mother recovered, I went ghost.
Ephraim: I remember days leading up to March 12th, all of the Broadway community was texting each other like “Yo, are you going to work? Cause we ain’t doing this shit. This is crazy!” And we were starting to hear that certain people were getting it in the theaters and we were waiting to hear them tell us when they were going to shut down to protect us. We were feeling like the producers were being kind of greedy and there was a lack of humanity. We felt like, “don’t force us to make the decision whether we should come to work and risk it all” type of thing.
Me: When was your lowest point during the pandemic? How did you sustain?
Jeroboam: Mine was when my mom had Covid. Coming from tour and having your mom deal with Covid, it was just overwhelming. Once she recovered, I realized how serious it was. I needed a moment to reconnect with myself and I felt like that’s what I had been yearning for.
So I was just home. But in my apartment, I felt confined. I didn’t like the idea that I couldn’t go outside. So, I decided that I was going to buy a house. I just wanted some space where I could go out and be in the backyard and not have to wear a mask. So, the rest of Covid I spent my time trying to buy a house. In the midst of chaos and calamity and people losing their homes and losing their jobs and dying, The Spirit, Ancestors and God were watching over me and still making a way. So, I’ve been in a place of gratitude.
Me: I had no idea that’s what sparked the idea for you. That’s amazing that your confinement inspired you to get more space, buy more space for yourself. And how blessed you are to be able to get more space for yourself. I think as an artist, that’s very rare.
Nigel: For a lot of performers it’s been very hard with the fact that our profession evaporated in a couple of days. But in my roles running an organization and a dance company, there was a lot of work to do to try to figure out how we wouldn’t evaporate. So it became a lot of zoom meetings. It was a shift from when we had our lives in the world and then you can come home as a refuge. Suddenly, my home became a prison and my work place and I couldn’t escape it. I was just always here. So home became something else to me and I started to resent it and feel stir-crazy. I was alone and I couldn’t go outside. I started to feel as if my mental health was spiraling. So in the summer, I took a trip to Mexico not knowing if it was appropriate, maybe being irresponsible… I don’t know. But if I’d stayed in that apartment any longer, I felt like I was going to lose my mind. But just the act of participating in the world safely was a shift for me and as the months ran on, I realized Covid wasn’t going away. The shift helped me realize there is a way to live in this new world. It was a shift in my mindset — this is the world and you’re still an artist anyway. You’re not just an artist when it’s convenient. You’re not just an artist when things are happening in the way that you’ve been culturalized to believe that art should happen. You can still create. You can still birth. You can still have positivity and joy AND you need to reprioritize yourself and not allow yourself to be overworked and run ragged.
Ephraim: For me, it was George Floyd’s death and all of the Black death we were experiencing from that time and throughout the summer/experiencing our entire lives. I found myself fucking infuriated at the actual instances, but more so at the silence around me from the m’fuckers out there clapping for me, who had nothing to say about the brutal death of people who looked like me. That juxtaposition was hard. Then it became “OMG, what can I do?!” “I didn’t realize!!” “What books should I read?!” And I realized I was having to do their work for them. The next phase was knowing my limit. No, I won’t help you, in your white fragile state, figure out these issues. I’m going to go find my joy, find my peace, and not feel bad about it. I’m going to find what’s valuable to me: my safety, my family, my close friends, and I’m going to let the world burn around me and I’ll let y’all figure it out.
Me: I think I became numb. I think I tried to block it out because it was too much for me to take in and let reside inside of myself.
What skill have you learned since the pandemic?
Jeroboam: I learned how to birth babies. I became a birth doula because I recently lost a friend after giving birth and that pushed me to become an advocate for women and in particular, Black women. I just thought, “How can I support Black communities?” I believe in supporting Black women. I believe if you support Black women they will liberate us all. I figured out how I could be an advocate for them and that discovery speaks volumes to me.
Ephraim: Superficially, just speaking of craft, I’ve been getting back my instrumental music game because I have a passion for creating my own music. So, how to record, how to write, and how to produce tracks are the new skills I’ve never had time to put into practice. A larger skill I’ve gained is how to prioritize myself and not take anything for less. I think that’s the biggest skill that I’ve found.
Nigel: Adaptability. I mean I had it, but this is a new level. This is next fucking level! I’ve learned to make things up in real time. Now, there’s always this possibility of finishing a thing and then everything changing and you figure it out. Doing that over and over again, it’s taught me to let go of some control issues. It’s washed away the false notion that we have any control over anything.
Me: Letting go of control… that’s huge! Good for you. Good job friend. What effects do you think the pandemic has had on your imagination?
Ephraim: For me, it’s starting to feel like I’m seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Everything that’s shifted the world like jazz and hip-hop were birthed out of something that was seemingly impossible otherwise. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a renaissance or be a part of a revolution of artists who come alive and shift the culture again. I think we’re just at the precipice of that. We’ve been wanting our industries to change, our stages to change. How do we work in more diverse ways? All of these things we were hungry for even before the pandemic started and now it’s necessary. So what will we develop to blow our minds? I’m looking to blow our minds once again.
Jeroboam: Now, my imagination is remaining open to possibilities. I think my concept of dance only happening in a studio — not true! Nor is the idea that “working” or being active means I’m happy. I really want to create what it is that I want. I’ve always had this feeling, but it’s amplified. I feel that I can really call things into fruition and build and work until it’s manifested.
Nigel: Y’know, every great thing has come out of hardship, has come out of limitations. I, too, am excited by what’s possible. We’ve all complained for so long about how cracked and flawed the way that we’ve been working has been, but we were all just moving along because “this is the way it is.” It would be too disruptive to start something new, but now everything has been disrupted. It’s completely broken. That created space for us to rebuild in a way that is more equitable, that’s more sustainable, where more voices are heard. That’s a large silver lining to me. We are resilient, we will get through this. But our field, the arts field cannot look the way it did. We cannot operate the way we did. We all, collectively, must say we have no interest in going back to that. We must rebuild an arts sector of this time, that’s working for artists and looks like the world we live in. I think it’s thrilling! We never would’ve gotten here unless there was a global pandemic.
Darius Barnes is a dancer, actor & choreographer who most recently co-executive produced the inaugural ANTONYO Awards in honor of Juneteenth and in collaboration with Drew Shade of Broadway Black & the Black Theatre Society. His career began dancing with the New York City Ballet. He has also danced with the Metropolitan Opera, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. As an actor, his seven Broadway credits include: Mean Girls, Kiss Me Kate, and the upcoming MJ: the Musical. His Off-Broadway credits include: The Black Clown (Lincoln Center); Sweet Charity (The New Group), and Cabin in the Sky (Encores!). On TV, he’s been featured on Katy Keene (CW); the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New Year’s Eve with John Legend and SMASH (NBC); the Tony Awards (CBS); and Estelle’s (GRAMMY® Award-winner) “Conqueror” music video. Darius began choreographing by participating in the New York Choreographic Institute and created a work on the New York City Ballet for the Institute’s 10th anniversary. He is currently the dance captain and Assistant choreographer on the MJ: the Musical developmental labs. He was the Associate choreographer of Broadway Bounty Hunter at Barrington Stage. Darius is on the School of American Ballet’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. He has taught master classes for the Baltimore School for the Arts, The Broadway Collective, Broadway Dance Center, and Operation Triple Threat in Barbados. He is on the teaching staff and adjudication panel for MOVE(NYC).
Jeroboam Bozeman is from Brooklyn, New York and is a gold medal recipient from the NAACP ACT-SO Competition who began training with Creative Outlet Dance Theater in Brooklyn, NY and on full scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School and Dance Theatre of Harlem. He performed in the International China tour of Broadway’s Aida and was featured in Bud Light’s NFL 100th commercial, as well as Vanity Fair, Double Magazine, The Brooklyn Reader and The New York Times. He has danced with Philadanco in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, Washington, and Ailey II in New York. In 2018, Dance Magazine named him “Top 25 to Watch!” He’s been a guest artist with The Royal Ballet in London, England and is currently a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
Nigel Campbell was born and raised in the Bronx, NY and is a Princess Grace Award Winner, Director, and Entrepreneur based in New York. He received his BFA from The Juilliard School and went on to dance with Saarländisches Staatstheater in Saarbrücken, Germany, Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago, Illinois, the Gothenburg Opera Dance Company in Gothenburg, Sweden, and as a guest artist with Kyle Abraham’s Abraham In Motion. In 2015, he joined the Gibney Dance Company as a dancer and Artistic Associate and co-founded MOVE|NYC| with his partner Chanel DaSilva, with the mission of cultivating greater diversity and equity in the dance field and beyond. In 2017, he was named Co-Director of the Gibney Company. In 2019, he received the Martha Hill Mid-Career Award, joined the faculty of The Juilliard School as an adjunct professor, teaching “Essentials of Entrepreneurship in the Arts” and joined the faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase Conservatory of Dance as an adjunct professor teaching contemporary. In 2020, he graced the cover of Dance Teacher Magazine’s May/June issue: Changing the Face of Dance with an article entitled, When you’re the Only Black Dancer in the Room, outlining the growth and impact of MOVE|NYC|’s first five years.
Ephraim Sykes is a native of St. Petersburg, Florida. He was last seen on Broadway in his Tony nominated role as David Ruffin in Ain’t Too Proud. He was last seen on film as George Eacker in Hamilton: the Movie, in Kathryn Bigelow’s feature film Detroit, and on TV as Seaweed J. Stubbs on NBC’s Hairspray Live! He graduated from the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University BFA program with honors and toured with Ailey II. His TV/film credits include Marvin in HBO’s Vinyl, Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes, Marvel’s hg series Luke Cage, Leave It on the Floor, Dance Flick, NBC’s Smash, and 30 Rock. His theatrical credits include his Broadway debut: The Little Mermaid and the original Broadway casts of Memphis, Newsies, Motown: The Musical, Hamilton and starring as Michael Jackson in the upcoming, MJ: the musical