By Kadira Johnson, 2019
“I don’t even remember how to drive around Jersey City anymore,” said Sharae Nikai.
The 35-year-old Jersey City native told me as she was taking me to her cousin’s house. She hasn’t lived in Jersey City in 13 years since she moved to Los Angeles, California.
We are driving along West Side Avenue and riding through the Greenville section of Jersey City. We pass by houses and there is no traffic on the road. It is Sunday and the clock on the phone reads 12:09pm. It is bright outside and the sun’s rays hit Sharae’s green, old Grand Cherokee.
Sharae remarked that Jersey City has changed in many ways. It was surprising for her to come back to her hometown after being in the glitz and not always glam of Downtown Los Angeles. She made the big move to L.A. to enter the entertainment business to pursue a career in acting.
But before she made the move to the city of dreams to pursue acting, Sharae wanted to be a pro basketball player.
She played basketball from childhood into college. However, an injury stopped her from pursuing the profession and she decided to enter the world of improv, comedy, writing, and acting.
“I would stay up real late and sneak and watch the sketches when the Simpsons use to look crazy, like way worst, like bad,” she says as she refers to the long-running animated show on FOX that she use to watch as a kid.
Shows like “The Simpsons” influenced her from a young age to one day try her hand at acting.
“I remember feeling, like not maybe consciously thinking, like oh I want to do this,” she said.
The young actress in the making always knew she wanted to do something in television. However, she realized she had a stage presence and the potential to go into the entertainment business when she began improv acting and comedy and met other comedians at NYU.
Everything began falling into place and she gained experience by learning from other stand up comedians, such as Kevin Hart. She met the young comedian when she was 17 years- old when Hart started doing stand up in New York City. He inspired her to stay away from the dark side that can come in the entertainment industry.
“I was too young to know that I didn’t have to be like them to pursue comedy,” said Sharae.
The “them” she is referring to are other comedians, who at the time were abusing drugs. Sharae fought against taking drugs and drinking alcohol. So, she decided to transition from stand up and improv to on-screen television acting.
For her the transition was personal. When she was a student at NYU she said there was a social black scene. The social black scene was very militant among her and her fellow black classmates on discussing issues the black community was facing at the time.
One way for Sharae to shine a light on black issues was through improv. Improv was a form of expression for her. For one, she was critical of BET. “I felt the images of black people were so lowbrow and I knew we were so much more at what was being showcased,” she said.
In an industry where minorities, especially black actors and actresses, are underrepresented in film and television, Sharae says that there are now more young black actresses who are getting roles who don’t have long-standing backgrounds like black actresses such as Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry.
Over the last three years, even in the last six months, she has seen improvement in scripts and projects for black actors. She knows this because she sees a lot of the scripts and projects that are being created a year or a year and a half before it becomes public.
“Particularly black female roles are changing and changing for the better. There’s also a lot of black female filmmakers that are starting to emerge,” she said.
Sharae believes that it’s important to have black female filmmakers to write and direct roles for black actresses. Sometimes, she would read scripts that were written by non-black people, men particularly, and it would be derogatory towards black women.
Scripts that describe a black woman as getting her “hair and nails did” and “having a baby the same time as her daughter,” are roles that Sharae does not want to represent in 2018 whereas shows such as “Atlanta,” written by Donald Glover better known as Childish Gambino, are representing the black community.
“I’m happy that I’ve seen enough other dope stuff for black chicks to be able to look at that and go we don’t have to do that no more,” she said.
She once read an article on Viola Davis where she talked about playing the lead role in the award-winning movie, “The Help,” and how she felt that it didn’t tell the story of what it was like to be a black maid and the stereotypes that came with it. Stereotypes that portray black people as always being slaves and maids is what Sharae tries to be wise about before she auditions for them.
She wants to show that African-Americans are so much more than being slaves and maids.
She’s also inspired to write her own show to contribute to a solution to this problem. She says she wants to create content that forwards more well-rounded and real portrayals of black people.
For Sharae the road has not been an easy one. After graduating from college, she moved to L.A. in August 2005. The aspiring young star wanted to create, entertain, make people feel better, and laugh through her acting.
“I packed up everything I owned, and I drove, and I had a $1,000 to my name and I thought I was ballin’, which is a good thing because if I knew then what I know now I probably wouldn’t have left.”
Years later some of Sharae’s friends and family members told her that she had courage to leave the urban, small city life of Jersey City and go to Hollywood where there is a sea of other young actors and actresses all chasing the same dream.
She describes California as being the best of both worlds.
“All the hell or all the heaven, they’re both there. There’s the highest like spiritual sinners and then you can find all the crystal meth, druggie, terrible. Like both things are there and I think I’ve chosen more of the spiritual route.”
Once she arrived in L.A., she found a place online from Craiglist, which was not ready when she got there. She had nowhere to stay until she met with two guys she had met in New York. These two guys happened to be music producers who knew Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cents. When they realized she didn’t have a place to stay they opened their doors to her and let her sleep on their couch.
“That’s how I went to L.A., I went with nothing and the only two people I knew was Tony Rock, Chris Rock’s brother, and Kevin Hart, who was not big at the time.”
Even though she knew Rock and Hart it didn’t mean she was expecting to get a job from them. She had no family, and still has no family in L.A., and no friends at the time. She had to figure that out on her own and through networking.
She started doing extra work and background work. Tony Rock was working on Jada Pinkett Smith’s television show and needed a personal assistant whom he could trust and he contacted Sharae to help him when he was moving from his apartment into his house. Sharae became his personal assistant and would go on set to help him.
On set she started learning the inner workings of how a television show was produced. She observed other moguls who were on set, such as Debbie Allen and Duane Martin. She realized that this profession is about who you know and how you know them.
“Those were the real names and faces at the time that helped me connect the dots to how the business worked,” said Sharae.
She learned that it wasn’t about networking, but about being a human being and learning how to connect to others. Sharae took more acting classes and spent more time on set. Then she met her first manager, who she said turned out to be a thief.
Sharae said her manager never stole from her, but she did steal a quarter of a million dollars from her other clients. Sharae had to figure out whom to trust.
She only had her “Jersey City Wit” to navigate Hollywood. She didn’t grow up with parents or other family members who were in the business to teach her these things. Her mom is a retired school teacher and her dad is a retired NJ PATH worker. She had to listen to those around her and to learn on her own.
The biggest struggle, besides being a black woman in Hollywood, was paying her bills in times when she didn’t have work lined up and eating. She could’ve been like other young women who resort to pretending to be into a guy to land jobs. She explains how that was never an option for her. Instead, she kept working with Tony, did extra work, worked in music videos, commercials, until bigger jobs came along.
And bigger jobs did come along. Sharae got into the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, which is the actors’ union and got another manager whom she could trust. When she got into the union she was able to get a speaking role on an episode of the show “Grey’s Anatomy.”
When she went on set for Grey’s she wasn’t nervous. She was confident the moment the director said “Scene!”
It was that experience when she realized, “Oh, I’m a professional.” She had to act in a way a doctor would act, run in the fast pace way a doctor would run, and treat a patient in the way a doctor would, to make her performance believable.
“I realized in that moment that it takes a lot to be a solid actor. You got to know what you are doing,” Sharae said.
For Sharae, this small role helped her to solidify her decision to stay in L.A. There were times that she almost quit when her bank account had only 63 cents, but she didn’t.
Sharae hopes to inspire the next generation of actors, especially young black actors who want to get into the profession. Her cousin Bria Stembridge, who is 17 years-old, was in the room as we talked, and she too wants to follow in her cousin’s footsteps.
Just like Sharae, she also wants to move to California and she learn how to be “courageous to putting yourself out there.”
Now, Sharae is visiting New York to audition for upcoming television shows and hopes to land another role.
Sharae knows that she still has to work hard to continue landing roles, just like many other actors, but her spirituality and her confidence has kept her going for 13 years since she moved to LA. She knows that she wants to one day be on a dope comedy show.
Sharae believes that it’s not about grinding that gets an actor work, but “allowing” — allowing oneself to be excellent in anything that he or she does.
“I have to keep telling myself, with no proof whatsoever, I’m a star,” said Sharae.
And she knows that she is a star in the making.