Actress and author Grace Byers is lending her talents to another sister circle-centric project created by writer Tracy Oliver. Harlem, which premieres on today’s Prime video, follows a group of four women who met in college and are now chasing their dreams against the backdrop of New York’s historically black enclave.
ESSENCE met Byers who plays Quinn, an American West Indian fashion designer struggling to keep her business afloat, in the new comedy series. We discussed what makes Harlem different from similar shows, portrayals of the joy over black women and her brotherhood with the show’s cast, which includes Meagan Good, Shoniqua Shandai and Jerrie Johnson, on and off screen.
What is it about Tracy Oliver’s writing that makes her characters so endearing and so interesting to watch?
GRACE BYERS: Its transparency. It’s the only thing I really like about Tracy. She’s not afraid to bring up things we wouldn’t normally want to share. Especially with the world we live in. With social media, marketing, etc., we live in such a technical world and there are a lot of aspects of performance and presentation. We are really afraid of showing parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and that are not perfect, thoughts that might make us nullify or judge us.
Tracy just doesn’t allow any of this to affect the way she writes. She is extremely transparent about the experience of a black woman sailing in her thirties. I think if you’re a woman in your thirties, and especially a black woman – although it’s not limited to that – you will absolutely find resonance in this piece.
You said recently that with your character Anika [from Empire], you haven’t had many opportunities to portray joy. I wonder if you think things are different with Quinn.
BYERS: Absoutely. I think due to the fact that a big part of Anika’s role was to stay on the conflict side, in these cases there weren’t many happy moments written for her. And if they were, it was like an episode. Then after that it was like ‘raarrr!’ Of course, I like dramatic roles. I come from the theater world. I don’t run away from these kinds of roles. But in doing this for four years, there was a desire and a desire to complete it, to lean into spaces of joy. I totally believe Quinn is giving me the opportunity to do this.
Many of her circumstances are not particularly joyous, but the way she embraces and views life through the lens of optimism and with an âI can and I willâ attitude provides spaces for joy.
Do you think it’s important for black women to see portrayals of joy in our media?
BYERS: Extremely important. To exist, to exist honestly and to exist through spaces of joy, all of this is in a way a form of resistance. We absolutely know that as women of color there are so many branches of systemic racism. And there are ways to remind ourselves to be small, not to take up space. And I love the concept of joy being something that bursts through that ideology and says, here I am. I make no apologies and I live life in the present.
Your teammate Jerrie Johnson spoke about how well your actors get along on and off the set. What do you think contributed to this report?
BYERS: I feel like we were all in a space of real vulnerability and excitement when it comes to the show. Jerry is there. She and I immediately hit it off during the callbacks. Then we met Shoniqua. And of course, Meagan and I had been in a relationship before that. We were so excited to be in a room where we felt we were seen, where the roles represented us. The camaraderie and the idea of ââblack sorority was really exciting because we all buy into it. Being in a space where we can experience this, portray that, and then potentially encourage other black women and women to participate, has a lot to do with us being like, âYes! As a group.
There are now several different shows on the networks that feature black friendship. How would you say different Harlem?
BYERS: I feel like when it comes to the story of what you’ve seen on TV and in the movies, we see so many people who are not of color who have the opportunity to exist and to be. They can describe things as they are written. We are less likely and less inclined to compare. We give them the space to play as many roles as they want and it doesn’t matter if there are any similarities in all of these things.
I feel like just because we’re individual people, we bring a different experience to the characters we inhabit. That alone makes it different. If you were to trade one of us with someone else, the dynamics would change completely. It’s different because we are different.
I’m really excited to play a Caribbean American character, who I don’t think you see a lot. We are witnessing a saturation of the Caribbean culture that lives in New York and Harlem. Those things that are intrinsically a part of who we are will also make the show stand out. These are the isms that I fell in love with when it comes to Harlem.
You can start streaming Harlem starting today, December 3, on the Prime video.