For Travis Coles, being of service is in their blood. The child of an Air Force father and a mother who was a teacher, their foundation was about giving of oneself to the people, places, and circumstances around them. That’s why landing the role of Mx. Elijah on OWN’s David Makes Man, the show’s gender nonconforming neighbor and confidante, was so important. Not only did Coles intimately know the story of its main character David, a Black child just trying to survive in communities that often try to restrict him, they knew they could bring something to the project.
What they didn’t expect, however, is that the role — and a bad case of imposter syndrome — would be the catalyst to their own coming out as genderqueer.
“I remember being like, ‘I just want to be perfect,’” Coles told Out. “Because this show means so much to me because I relate to it, but also because the people involved are so incredible… I’m in my own head and inside it's like, ‘No, you're an imposter.’ Outside Oprah [Winfrey] is like, ‘You're a talented person with beautiful almond shaped eyes.’”
After some self reflection, Cole realized they felt like they were unworthy of the role in the Michael B. Jordan-produced series from Oscar-winning Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney because they were hiding a part of themself. It was time, they said, to come out or they wouldn’t be able to truly be of service to and live in the moment.
“I identify as genderqueer. And that's just what it is,” they told themself and the world. And the journey since doing so has been one Coles won’t soon forget.
David Makes Man is an hour-long lyrical drama about a 14-year-old prodigy named David from the projects (Akili McDowell), who is haunted by the death of his closest friend. Bussed out of his community to a mostly white school, David is forced to don two personas: one to navigate the streets that raised him and another to succeed in the education system that may offer him a way out. Set in South Florida, it also stars Alana Arenas, Isaiah Johnson, and icon Phylicia Rashad. Coles plays Mx. Elijah, David’s gender nonconforming neighbor, who doubles as both a mother to lost souls and the all-seeing eye of the community.
Ahead of this week’s episode, which airs Wednesday night, Out spoke with Coles about their start in acting, how the show has personally impacted them, and why the Mx. Elijahs of the world deserve their flowers.
We’re also premiering a clip from this week’s episode, which you can watch below:
You’ve spoken about how your high school years in Prince George’s County, Maryland were very formative for you. Is that when you discovered a love of acting?
I have been acting since I was very, very young. I remember there was a traveling community theater company called Missoula Children's Theatre, and they would go to different cities. If you were really good, you would get chosen to go to their summer camp. The first one that I did with them was Jack and the Beanstalk in San Antonio, Texas. I will never forget [when] my dad took me to that. My very first audition and I got a callback on the spot. We went to Jack in the Box and then came back and we started rehearsing and I was just like, "Oh, this is where I'm supposed to be." And I was a very active member of the church and I was always Jesus Christ in the Passion Play. I did impressions of our bishop, to a t, which was really funny to me looking back on it because they should've paid me.
I’m fascintated by how so many of us Black queer people found a home in church when we were younger.
That's where Ifind the hypocrisy in that there was such a beauty being a part of the church when I was younger and not really understanding. And then when I came to adults and said, "You know, this is who I am. Am I OK? Am I loved? Should I be worthy of love?", I was just really confused. I needed some love, help, attention, or guidance and to be met with, "You're an abomination to God,” was probably one of the first catalysts and turning points in my life. That's when I started hiding pieces of myself because it was easier to be a people pleaser then to rock the boat. Then I went to a conservatory and I remember I was the only Black person. So I went from [the historically Black Prince George’s County] to being the only Black person in these communities, and I was like, "Oh, well, they accept me for being queer. I love this." They introduced me to whiskey and Adderall and all these types of things, you know what I mean, and I'm like, "Oh my goodness, yes."
I really turned to drugs and alcohol because… I had gone through so much by this point in my life that I was just ready to numb out or have a breakdown. So I chose the latter, which a lot of people do.
You then move to Los Angeles and are doing that L.A. hustle thing we all do. What’s the first thing you do when you get the call that you booked David Makes Man?
I remember I got the call and I was standing across the street from where I used to work at the Standard Hotel downtown. I was literally looking at the host stand that I used to work at, and I was like, "OK, this thing that I have wanted for so long is real." And I remember I felt immediately like an imposter. "I should not be here. This is not something that I deserve or should have. They made a mistake." And I went there with that attitude and I didn't tell anyone. And that's the problem because the more I tell people now, everyone's like, "Oh, me too. Yeah, all the time."
And I remember listening to Dave Chappelle, and you can quote this, when he was talking about trans rights and how we have to wait because it's hard for people. I listened to that and I was like, "He's right. We have to wait our turn because it's too much for people. It's not palatable." And then I was like, "Wait a minute, no, no, no, no, no, no." This happened after my father died. He also had his struggles with his sexuality, and then when he passed away, I was just like, "I don't want to do this anymore." It was the day before our South by Southwest premiere and I just remember [considering not doing press]. And I was like, "Yes, I have to. Now I have to. I must. And I also have to step up. There cannot be any more fear because I know how it ends.”
And I just remember when I heard that Dave Chappelle bit, I was like, "I am tired of allowing other people who are afraid and don't want to actually put in any work tell me and other people what I can and cannot do as far as expressing myself and just being a person on this planet. No, we're not doing that anymore because the people who are trans women of color have been doing so much for the community and for civil rights. So you need to sit down. You don't get to just go to Africa and Eat, Pray, Love and come back and start talking about stuff you don't know about.”
You say being of service is important to you. In what ways have you been able to do that for the role of Mx. Elijah?
Knowing what's on the page is already so helpful. I'm telling you with the script, it's so easy to know what's happening with the character that it almost feels like I'm cheating. But I think that allowing myself to fully go to places that I haven't been to as a fear of not turning it into this stereotypical caricature of what a person is is important.
And then also really being able to be of service on the set. Pretty much Logan [Rozos who plays Star Child, whom Mx. Elijah takes into their home] and I have the most time together, and Logan and his mother actually saved me a couple times. Because I got to see a world in which there is a generation where parents just love their children no matter what, especially parents of color. Because we get to see the Love, Simons. I have not seen the Love, Logans. I got to be a part of that and it really did inspire me — it helped me come out as well.
I feel like we don’t often get to see the Mx. Elijahs of the world reflected in stories about the places we come from. The thinking goes that Black people are so homophobic and transphobic that Black LGBTQ+ people don’t exist in our hoods.
Well, definitely not in a community that's mostly cisgender and heterosexual, but that is reality. Everyone knows Mx. Elijah. So many people came up to me after we did one screening and they're like, "Mx. Elijah, we called her ‘auntie’ in my neighborhood” or “Everybody went to get their stuff fixed by Mx. Elijah. Mx. Elijah had all of the goodies and treats.” And that's true.
Also [to the point of] being of service, our costume designer had a person in his life who was Mx. Elijah, the character. He based all of the designs and everything off of them. I was trying to be of service to them as well because they had just passed away.
I was thinking, like, there are a lot of people who are going to watch this and they're going to have a reaction and they're going to be able to see someone who had an impact on their life. Being of service low and behold, even though people want to say what they have to say about the [LGBTQ+] community, you're still there to help. And we take people in and we help others.
We found out in last week’s episode that Mx. Elijah is, let's just say “involved,” with one of the neighborhood drug dealers. And this week, we see how that relationship continues to evolve. But through it all, Mx. Elijah has a power that I think Black LGBTQ+ characters are void of, if and when they show up in other Black narratives. Where does that come from?
I think about my life, right? I do not have the authority on pain. I will say that first and foremost. But I will tell you that my experience as a genderqueer person of color in America, I’ve dealt with so many different kinds of trauma, but I think that there is power in the community and there's strength. I believe that it takes a warrior aspect to survive sometimes — in order to survive and thrive, because Mx. Elijah is also thriving. You have to have power and you literally have to be kicked down and you have to realize that that is a part of life. We're not always going to be on top, but how do you get back up? I think there is power and I love the idea of saying, "OK, the world is literally against me right now. Fine, but just because I'm on a journey by myself doesn't mean that I'm not on the right path."
And I think that's a lesson that we learn pretty quickly. If you have experienced trauma in a community, that's your foundation of living. So if that's your foundation and you're immediately like, "We're going to have to work hard and that's OK” because that just means we're going to be fabulous, we're going to have power. And we're also going to be warriors and we're going to be of service to others when the time comes.
While there is so much to chew on from the show, what do you hope people are taking away from Mx. Elijah’s presence in it?
I want people to realize and understand that it's time that we acknowledge that we do have respect and we do look up to and believe that people in the community who are in the LGBTQ+ community who we consider “other” are actually a part of the community. Because that's the truth.
I just want people to understand that there is no putting anyone in the shadows anymore, especially someone as fabulous as Mx. Elijah. We're going to sew your outfit and tell you about what you're doing wrong. And sell you drugs.