GLAAD x Noah's Arc: A Conversation with Creator/Director Patrik-Ian Polk and Darryl Stephens

By GLAAD |
July 8, 2022

 

By: Julian J. Walker, Communities of Color Associate Director and Kayla Thompson, Communities of Color Junior Associate

 

In June, to celebrate Pride Month, BET+ streamed Noah’s Arc, bringing a Season One marathon of the show to a new audience and platform. Although the show only ran for two seasons after its premiere (from 2005-2007), it continues to be a ramifying achievement in making visible, and celebrating, Black LGBTQ+ stories. 

 

In many ways, the show was the first of its kind. Before Noah’s Arc came to be, there was a clear industry gap in entertainment, television, film, and media that targeted Black queer audiences. The show, its cast, and Director Patrik-Ian Polk were some of the first to offer more complex and honest Black queer stories and dedicate themselves to unapologetically showcasing black queer joy.

Simultaneously, in addition to accelerating the acceptance and representation of Black LGBTQ+ people and stories, the show addresses social issues and advocates for greater awareness surrounding a multitude of topics such as the marginalization of Black LGBTQ+ voices, violence directed at LGBTQ+ people (and specifically Black LGBTQ+ people), homophobia, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

 

For the past 17 years, Noah’s Arc has been a powerful testament to the power of Black queer stories and their incredible, and undeniable, potential in altering the culture of our world. 

 

For many individuals like myself, this was an introduction to endless possibilities. The show encouraged me to believe that I too could one day live freely, have a group of loving friends, navigate a career that I deserve, all while welcoming love from the man of my dreams.

        - Julian J. Walker, Actor, Author, and GLAAD’s Communities of Color Assistant Director

 

Following the BET marathon, and to commemorate the historic acclaim of the show, we asked Noah’s Arc Director Patrik-Ian Polk and star Darryl Stephens to answer a few questions reflecting on their experience. Check out what they said below.

 

 

GLAAD x Patrik-Ian Polk:

 

GLAAD: Where did you find the inspiration for Noah’s Arc? Was there a key goal you wanted to achieve or message you wanted to communicate through the show?

 

Polk: On July 4, 2003, I attended the kickoff party for LA Black Gay Pride. While surveying the packed crowd of Black LGBT people, I was struck by the notion that there was no entertainment programming aimed at this community. The idea came to me on the spot-- to do a Black Gay "Sex & The City". That was a Friday, and on Monday I put casting notices out. Fun fact: the initial working title of the show was "Hot Chocolate", and the lead character's name was Jermaine. Once I settled on the name Noah, I already had Alex and Ricky. But the other character was originally called Solomon. It hit me that if I changed Solomon to a 'C' name, then I could call the show NOAH'S ARC...and that's how Solomon became Chance, so I could rename the series NOAH'S ARC. My main goal in creating this series was to make the show that I wanted to see on television. And I wanted to see myself. A mentor told me at the start of my career: "Write the story that only you can tell." I have employed that model my entire career, and it has served me well.

 

GLAAD: How did Noah’s Arc pave the way for your future work? Does the show and its messaging inform your current work?

 

Polk: My career has really followed a more independent filmmaking model. My biggest influences are maverick filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Cassavettes. They employed the do-it-yourself model. And because I was making work that was Black and gay, that meant mainstream Hollywood was not interested. I knew this. So most of my work I generated on my own, independently. What the success of NOAH'S ARC did was give me a good calling card-- so when I went out raising money to do the next project, I could find people willing to bankroll me because they saw what I could do, the quality of my work. Thankfully, the landscape in the industry has changed drastically over the last decade. Now being Black and gay is seen as a plus, because diversity is sought after. I've been working in TV consistently for the last seven years. And I have been able to tell a variety of Black queer stories on mainstream shows like "Being Mary Jane", "The Chi" and "PValley". All of this would not have been possible without the success of NOAH'S ARC.

GLAAD: The show streamed on BET+ at the end of June, do you see a difference now in the reception of Black and Black LGBTQ stories compared to when Noah’s Arc originally aired?

 

Polk: A lot of people don't realize this, but NOAH'S ARC aired on BET many years ago. They would air it in blocks in the middle of the night, like 2-5am. And they wouldn't promote it at all LOL. But they did air it, a few times. Certainly there is more tolerance for Black LGBTQ stories now than when the series first aired. But we still have more ground to cover. Recently, an episode of P-VALLEY that I wrote featured a very explicit same sex love scene between two men. A lot of people were taken aback to see a scene like that in a show that they think of as mainstream. For a series about a strip club to feature gay men is a bridge too far for some. But the pushback just proves how desperately we need to include these images and stories in mainstream entertainment. Those people NEED to see us. The more they see us, the more they accept us. People are comfortable with certain types of gay imagery, but now that the images are becoming more diverse, less stereotypical, it's rubbing some the wrong way. But change and growth is uncomfortable. It's like a teething baby- you have to go through it to get to the other side.

GLAAD: How important is it to you to be able to tell Black LGBTQ+ stories openly?

 

Polk: My entire career from the very beginning, from my first films in film school, has been devoted to telling Black gay stories. I don't know anything else. I was always very clear with myself what my mission was as an artist. And I have not strayed from that. 

 

GLAAD: Do you have any advice or experiences to share with Black LGBTQ+ producers and filmmakers who are trying to break into the industry?

 

Polk: I will tell any Black LGBTQ+ producers and filmmakers trying to break into the industry what my mentor told me when I was breaking in myself: "Write the stories that only you can tell." And learn your craft. For God's sake, learn your craft!

 

GLAAD x Darryl Stephens:

 

GLAAD: What was it like to be part of a show that authentically and unapologetically centered Black LGBTQ+ stories and experiences (when such representation was lacking on-screen and in most spaces)?

 

Stephens: You know hindsight is 20/20. It's hard to imagine how the experience of working on the show would've been different had we known then the way the series would eventually impact the culture. You know, at the time, we were really just having fun and trying to make television that 'the kids' would get a kick out of. It was exciting to be working, as any young actor will tell you. And it was thrilling to be inhabiting this Black queer world that could barely be bothered to consider the feelings of the people who might not "get it." But because the subject matter was so specific and niche, there was always (for me anyway) a sense that we were doing this for the kids and that no one else would even see it... and I think that turned out to be the show's saving grace. Because there wasn't a big mainstream network giving notes on "what Middle America would find acceptable," the show got to be bold and unapologetic in ways that gave everyone watching permission to take up space we hadn't previously believed we could access. Noah's Arc has been the most gratifying work of my career. Not my best acting, not my biggest paycheck, but the gig I can look back at and say, "That meant something to people. It changed lives for the better."

GLAAD: What did it mean to you to be able to play Noah Nicholson? What did Noah stand for or represent for you?

 

Stephens: Noah was such an unlikely choice for a romantic lead in the early 2000s. We'd never seen a character who dressed like that, with his voice, who moved through the world the way he did, get to fall in love. He was ballsy and sensitive at the same time. Unapologetic and uncertain all at once. He was effeminate, dressed like a teenage girl, and truly silly at times, but he was never the butt of the joke. Again, playing him at the time, I didn't realize how starved the culture was for a character who represented those qualities. But I have been blessed to learn over the years that he gave so many people permission to forge unconventional paths toward self-acceptance. That's a huge thing for a character to represent. I'm constantly humbled to hear from people who think of themselves as "the Noah" of their group of friends. Noah is a hero to the queer kids who were told they weren't masculine enough to matter... but who decided to take up space anyway.

 

GLAAD: Do you have a favorite episode, scene, or storyline from the show that stood out or was particularly meaningful?

 

Stephens: The drag episode was so fabulous. All of the series' focus on HIV/AIDS awareness was crucial. And the time we saw Noah get gay bashed was heartbreaking. But the storyline that seemed to me to have the most profound impact was the episode in season one when Wade was scared to bring his femme boyfriend around his straight friends. Truth be told, when the show dropped in the fall of 2005, there had been a contingent of Black gay men who felt like the show's main characters were ridiculous and didn't honestly depict the down-low/straight-acting culture that was so prevalent in gay spaces back then. They felt like centering "four flaming queens" on a show about Black gay men was like airing our dirty laundry. And then three or four episodes into the season, Noah said to Wade, THIS IS WHO I AM! I shouldn't have to apologize for being myself. Especially not to the man who's supposed to love me! And I think Patrik's decision to so candidly address effemiphobia got a conversation started that led to a seismic shift in the Black gay culture's celebration of unapologetic femmes. That shift could obviously have nothing to do with the show, but the timing has always seemed remarkable to me. 

GLAAD: Do you have any advice or experiences to share for Black LGBTQ+ people who are trying to break into the entertainment industry? What advice would you give to upcoming LGBTQ+ actors as they embark on their journeys in television/film?

 

Stephens: LGBTQ+ actors and folks trying to break into entertainment today are inheriting a very different industry than the one I found when I started acting. I had agents who advised me not to accept the offer for the show that would eventually become Noah's Arc. And I don't think their concern was as much about the fact that we weren't going to be paid much (this was years before Logo was involved, and they didn't pay us much either), but more about the professional perils of playing gay. It was a deal breaker for a lot of reps, who had been around long enough to see actors who'd been too closely associated with "the lifestyle'' lose their careers. But today, queer artists are everywhere. The more authentic and fearless the better!

 

Do I have any advice for young actors? Baby, I'm watching actors twenty years younger than me do essentially the same thing I've been doing since 2002. And they're having MUCH more success than I ever did. So at this point, I'm looking for advice from them! But seriously, this new generation of queer actors has embraced every opportunity to share their beautiful, complicated, multifaceted selves with the world. And it makes me so happy, so proud to have been a face on the TV screens that these beautiful artists watched as kids, often in secret, that affirmed for them that their stories, their lives mattered too.

 

There are a lot more queer characters and actors on TV these days and every single one of them will change someone's life for the better. Someone out there will see that queer face on the screen and finally have confirmation that they belong, that they deserve to be loved, and that the things that make them different also make them beautiful.

 

So what I would like to say to young queer actors? NEVER STOP SHINING BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE FINDING THEIR WAY BY YOUR LIGHT.

 

 

If you missed the BET+ marathon of Season One of Noah’s Arc, the show is available for streaming today on Logo TV, Sling TV, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video.