Emmys 2020: How Jasmine Cephas Jones Fought For Her Character And Won
Jasmine Cephas Jones | Photo illustration by Imani Nuñez

Tyisha, Jasmine Cephas Jones’ character in the intense Quibi short form series, #FreeRayshawn, is not who we usually see in our many discussions of police misconduct targeting Black men. And she certainly wasn’t a force when Cephas Jones signed up to play her. Today, she’s an Emmy nominee for that role.

Against the real-life backdrop of the police murder of George Floyd and demands that both of the Louisville, Kentucky police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, as well as the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, be arrested, the Quibi short form series, #FreeRayshawn, feels extremely timely.

The series starts with Rayshawn (Stephan James), an Iraq War vet working at a fast food joint, running from the fear that the New Orleans PD will kill him as one of their own fights for his life. There’s no regard to Rayshawn’s side of the story, which isn’t surprising. But seeing his wife, Tyisha (Cephas Jones) and their child, Ray Jr., alongside him is.

If not for Jasmine Cephas Jones, Tyisha, as in so many other stories like these, might merely be a prop. That certainly was her status when Jones signed on to work alongside actors Stephan James as Rayshawn and Laurence Fishburne as cop negotiator Steven Poincy with Antoine Fuqua as an executive producer. An early version even had Tyisha sleeping in another room while her family is holed up in an apartment, where windows would have been shot out, as Rayshawn desperately turns to social media to stay alive as New Orleans SWAT guns for him. And she doesn’t know why.

“There’s absolutely no way in hell that she would, one, go in another room like that or fall asleep,” Cephas Jones passionately explained to ESSENCE. “If her husband or her or her son will die, there’s no reason she would fall asleep.”

And there was no way Cephas Jones, who originated the roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the Broadway game-changer and recent Disney+ blockbuster Hamilton, would let her.

“I think it was really, really, really, really important to have her be present and feel these feelings just as much as Rayshawn is feeling them,” Cephas Jones stressed. “So that was a big part of the rewrites, their relationship and how they work off and with each other. To show that they love each other, and this is heartbreaking.”

Cephas Jones credits the #FreeRayshawn team for hearing her and quickly making adjustments. “As soon as I said something, we all started talking. We worked together. We changed and mixed up some stuff, but it really was a collaborative project. We just wanted to make it the best it could be.” And the result is Emmy nominations for her, Stephan James and Laurence Fishburne for their outstanding work in a short form comedy or drama series.

As happy as she is for her co-stars, she’s even happier to share this moment with her dad, Ron Cephas Jones, who earned a fourth nomination for his outstanding role as William, birth father to Randall Pearson on the mammoth NBC hit, This Is Us. In 2018, he even won one.

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“Moments like this I’m so grateful for and I’m so happy because, even the fact that I get to share this moment with my father, is just once in a blue moon,” she noted. With him being in LA and her being in Brooklyn with the pandemic still in full swing, they had to Facetime each other congratulations and more than likely will view the September 20th broadcast the same way.

Her father isn’t the only one who has impacted her as an artist. Her mother, jazz musician Rev. Kim Lesley, is also a huge influence. For Cephas Jones, who is already a Grammy winner for her musical contributions to the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, her parents served as both inspiration and a reality check in her decision to become an artist herself. 

“I look up to my parents because they were both following their dreams,” Cephas Jones said. “But I also know the heartache and I saw how hard it is and that you really, really gotta love what you do.”

From the outside looking in, Cephas Jones has had a knack for picking incredible game-changing projects. None of that has been intentional. Instead of chasing fame or fortune, the LaGuardia High School alum prefers stories that speak for the times. In addition to Hamilton and #FreeRayshawn, she was also a hit with her role in the 2018 film Blindspotting, co-written by her Hamilton co-star Daveed Diggs examining the more subtle forms of racism. So much so that a Starz spinoff starring her character Ashley has been in development since last year.

“Even with Blindspotting and Monsters and Men, these are all important stories,” she explained. “When people are feeling a bunch of feelings or there’s something happening within the world, a lot of people get healing through music, or a lot of people’s go-to entertainment to find some answers or understand something. And I think a lot of these projects that I picked help with that.”

Picking Hamilton also boosted her love life. COVID may have pushed her wedding to Anthony Ramos, these days also recognizable as Mars from Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, to next year, but nothing has put their love on hold. The smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye says it all.

“Anthony is one of the most beautiful people you will ever meet. He has such a heart of gold and he cares about humanity and the world so much. He brings happiness. He’s such a bright light and such a bright light in my life as well. And we learn from each other and we inspire each other, and we support each other and our creative lane. He’s just an incredible human being,” she beamed.

In a year that’s rocked so many, Cephas Jones doesn’t take her good fortune for granted. “I’m truly grateful and I’m just honored and blessed right now to be able to have some sort of good news in this crazy time and just some joy.” And she’s earned it.