“The American Dream is called that because it’s a beautiful dream, and nobody wants to be woken up from it,” says Ephraim Sykes, who’ll play the rhythmically inclined charmer Seaweed Stubbs in NBC’s December production of Hairspray Live!, based on the hit musical and 1988 John Waters film. While the young triple threat seems to be living out his greatest fantasy — he’s appeared in five Broadway shows, including the Tony-winning juggernaut Hamilton — he never had the option of willful ignorance growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Confederate paraphernalia was on sale at gas stations on the other side of town. The harsh realities of the world still follow him. “I walk down my street at night and am automatically frisked because I’m wearing a hoodie and I’m black,” says Sykes, who’s now based in New York. “That’s something I live with every day of my life.”
His response has always been to push forward. He credits his preacher father and choir director mother for keeping him focused on his love of performing, a passion that led him to Alvin Ailey, where he studied concert dance, and later to roles in 30 Rock, Smash, Vinyl, Woody Allen’s Netflix miniseries Crisis in Six Scenes, and Kathryn Bigelow’s forthcoming drama about the Detroit race riot.
“My parents said, ‘Always remember somebody’s better than you,’” says Sykes, whose Hairspray character teaches his smooth moves to heroine Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Maddie Baillio) and her best friend, Penny (Ariana Grande), while attempting to integrate a 1960s Baltimore dance competition. “But they also said, ‘Just be where you are and do your best. Just keep fighting.’”
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