Upcoming BET drama “The Quad” held a private premiere for JSU students in the theater room of the university’s Student Center last Thursday. Many in attendance had no idea that “The Quad” actor and JSU Alum Erica Michelle, would return to her alma mater for the event.
The weekly series, debuting Feb. 1, aims to tell a multi-faceted and candid story of HBCU life through the lens of the fictional Georgia A&M University (GAMU) and their Mighty Mountain Cats Marching Band.
Tony Award-winning actor Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) stars as GAMU President Dr. Eva Fletcher; Jasmine Guy (A Different World) as Professor Ella Grace Caldwell; and Rueben Santiago-Hudson (The West Wing) as band director Cecil Diamond.
The show dives headfirst into complex issues like substance abuse, sexism, race relations, and hazing. It also does not shy away from the political power struggles that can sometimes occur within a university’s administration.
According to Michelle, who plays, freshman marching band member Ebony Weaver, “The Quad,” hits every aspect of the HBCU experience – good and bad.
“Some people may say we’re blowing the lid off of it, but we’re not. We’re telling you a true, genuine, authentic story,” she shares. “We’re showing you the friendships, the relationships and the culture at the HBCU that makes people want to go.”
Dressed in a sleek, black mini and rocking a short “Nia Long” inspired haircut, Michelle exudes confidence and smiles as she patiently takes pictures with every student vying for her attention. She then slips into the theater room and takes a seat in the very last row.
“I’ve seen it with industry professionals and the cast and the crew, but to see it from an actual audience standpoint – it was surreal,” says Michelle, after the viewing.
Throughout the screening, an audible mixture of oohs, aahs, laughter and gasps emerge from the spectators.
“To be able to sit in there and hear what they’re excited about and to see that they were invested and connected with the characters, it was amazing,” she says in an exhilarated tone.
Bit by the bug
Born in Meridian, Michelle moved to Eldorado, Ark., with her family at a very young age. But, she never forgot her roots. When it came time for her to attend a college, she knew two things – that she wanted to go to an HBCU and it had to be in Mississippi. All it took was a visit to JSU and “it felt like home,” she says.
Michelle initially majored in mass communications but says she always wanted to be an actor. Her inspiration growing up was Greenwood native Brandy Norwood who starred as the lead character on the sitcom “Moesha.”
“Whatever she would wear on the episode that day, I would have my mom buy it and wear it,” she laughs. “All my life I always knew I wanted to act.”
When Michelle enrolled at the university in 2004, her heart was not in academics. Promising her mother, she would try college before moving to L.A.; the freshmen took a job that offered to transfer her to the City of Angels after one year of employment.
“I was working 40 hours a week, and I wasn’t going to school,” she admits. “My grades failed from a lack of attendance.”
Placed on academic probation, Michelle dropped out of college and moved to California only to re-enroll at Jackson State as a theater major in 2010.
“When I went to California and life got bad, I always knew, no matter what, I could go back to Jackson State because Jackson State was home,” she reiterates.
Determined to complete her degree in less than four years, Michelle would sometimes take up to 30 credits a semester. She concedes the courseload was challenging but not grueling because she was finally pursuing her craft.Michelle asserts that Dr. Nadia-Bodie Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, taught her that nothing in life was ever free.
“Nothing was ever given in that department. You had to work for every inch. It gave me tools to be successful on many different levels,” Michelle reveals. “It gave me a work ethic that I didn’t necessarily care to have, but I needed to have.”
Her acquired work ethic paid off when Michelle landed a role in “The Exorcism II” during her final semester of school. Initially finding the genre unappealing, she declined until her agent said: “You don’t have the right to pick and choose what you want. You’re not at that point in your career.”
Michelle then began making a daily commute from Jackson to New Orleans – the filming location – and then back to JSU for classes. The following year, she would go on to win a role in an episode of the popular television thriller “American Horror Story: Coven.”
In 2012, the one-time failing student graduated with magna cum laude honors and was the first theater major in the university’s 137-year history elected as the College of Liberal Arts Grand Marshal.
Of her time at the HBCU, Michelle discloses, “I was taught how to have friendships. I was taught how to have stability. I was taught how to be responsible. A lot of people think that HBCU’s are a bird walk and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. They hold you accountable. And at the point I was in my life, I needed that, and I got that especially from my department.”
Becoming Ebony Weaver
After graduation, Michelle moved to New Orleans and eventually opened a talent agency, Blue Talent Group, and the Actor’s Playhouse – a school for aspiring actors – which won a “Best of New Orleans Award for Specialty Schools and Programs.” It is an award that she defines as a “great accomplishment.”
In November 2016, she closed the playhouse after receiving her role on “The Quad.”
Due to several mishaps Michelle encountered during auditions, she declares that winning the part of Ebony Weaver was an act of God.
Still living in New Orleans, Michelle recorded and submitted audition tapes for four different characters. Soon after that, the casting director called requesting to see her in Atlanta at 4 p.m. the same day.
“And they gave me five new scenes with 10 pages of new dialogue,” she adds.
Undeterred, Michelle began learning her lines en route to Georgia. “I’m asking random people in the airport, ‘hey, can you go over these with me?’ and they’re telling me: ‘You got this. You got this,” she says.
Once Michelle landed in Atlanta, she made a mad dash from the terminal to her awaiting publicist, Ronnika Joyner, a former Miss JSU. “She’s screaming my name, and the heel has broken off my shoe at this point,” she explains.
Michelle made it to the casting site on time and was greeted by casting director, George Pierre, who took one look at her and said, “You look beautiful, but I need you to remove your makeup and put your hair up in a ponytail. This character is about 18 or 19 years old,” she recalls.
Michelle rushed to the bathroom and obliged.
“I walked back into the room with a tank top on, barefoot and my hair in a ponytail,” she says.
Ready to rehearse all five scenes, the director stopped her after scene two and informed the JSU grad that he didn’t need to hear any more. “I said, no, no, no, I learned these 10 pages, you’re going to hear this,” Michelle confesses, laughing.
Pierre assured Michelle that she was definitely on his radar and with that, she flew back to New Orleans. The next morning, she received a call asking for her to return to Atlanta and meet with the producers of the show at 1 p.m.
Immediately, the series hopeful purchased a ticket, but due to a mix-up with the airline, she was unable to get on the flight. Michelle says, “I’m screaming, ‘y’all trying to ruin my career.’ It was all bad.”
Disappointed, but not defeated, she went to her office, recorded the audition and sent it to the producers. A short time after that, Michelle was back in Atlanta preparing for a meeting at the movie studio when her business partner called.
“She’s crying, and I’m like ‘girl, what is wrong with you?’ and she says, ‘they offered you the role. Check your email.’” Michelle exclaims. “That was all God; it had nothing to do with me.”
She began filming in October 2016; the series wrapped last week.
“It was truly amazing. A lot of times in films, it’s difficult to get a cast and crew that work seamlessly together,” she says. “The camaraderie and the chemistry among everyone was so amazing.”
Making the right connections
Michelle calls working with veteran actors like Rose and Guy a “learning experience” that has to be cherished. “It’s an honor and a privilege,” she says.
The Mississippian wants all who watch “The Quad,” to feel the spirit of the HBCU.
“I think we’ve done a good job of showcasing life at an HBCU in a positive light, but also in a real light. The issues that will be addressed and the situations that are talked about, those are things, to be honest, you can’t get anywhere else,” she explains.
Concerning the growing perception that HBCUs are no longer relevant, Michelle believes it is a false narrative stemming from a fear of the progression of black people.
“We do some amazing things at these HBCU’s. We produce some amazing people in fields that people do not want us in. Because we are so unstoppable … there becomes this issue of how do we monopolize these HBCUs?
She continues: “Or, how do we turn them into this or how can we take this from them? So, I think we’re starting to face a lot of issues with the maturity of our HBCUs… but, I think HBCUs are just as relevant now as they were back then.”
Michelle wants theater students at Jackson State to know that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and they should be patient and resolute in the pursuit of their dreams. She then adds, “God answers all prayers and sometimes the answer is no.”
The Quad premieres Wednesday on BET at 9 p.m. (Central Standard Time).