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Setting sail aboard 'Noah's Arc': Groundbreaking show debuts second season, promising to shine light on black gay issues


Washington Blade - August 2, 2006

IN JULY 2003, Darryl Stephens sat in the Los Angeles apartment of Patrick-Ian Polk, hoping to become one of the actors on a series Polk created called "Hot Chocolate." Sporting a denim jacket and a debonair 5 o'clock shadow, Stephens read for the part of "Dwayne," a smooth-talking, deep-voiced store clerk who is aggressively pursuing sex with his boss. Stephens didn't get the part of Dwayne, nor was he cast as the sex addict Ricky, the only other part for which he auditioned.

Instead, Polk tapped Stephens to play the more wholesome Noah, and rather than having a handful of scenes in "Hot Chocolate," Stephens would play the title character in the series, which was renamed "Noah's Arc." Three years later, Stephens still has a hard time believing he landed a starring role on the first television series about the lives of black gay men, which launches its second season on Logo August 8.

"I had no idea what to expect of this project," Stephens tells the Blade. "Honestly, it's kind of surreal - it doesn't feel like any of this is happening to me." Stephens' bewilderment at the buzz surrounding "Noah's Arc" since it debuted last October is shared by his co-stars, including Rodney Chester, who plays Alex.

"Initially the show was something that was done in Patrick's living room," Chester remembers. "Everything happened so quickly, and none of us expected to be where we are right now." With the DVD of the first season of "Noah's Arc" hitting stores August 7, and episodes available for download on iTunes, Polk is also taken aback by how many viewers have embraced an idea that he first thought of on a Friday, then began creating the following Monday.

"It's kind of freaky - it's weird, but weird in a good way," Polk says of the show's explosive success. "This little show I started is now available for people all around the world to watch." WHEN POLK, PREVIOUSLY known for making the gay film fest favorite "Punks," created the series in 2003, he and everyone else involved with the project envisioned it as three short films that would go directly to DVD. The crew also shot a pilot episode, and began showcasing their work at Black Gay Pride events across the country, as well as at several gay film festivals.

Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Black AIDS Institute soon jumped aboard "Noah's Arc," and the show caught the eye of the folks who were preparing to launch Logo, the MTV-owned gay digital cable channel. Transitioning to a television series introduced new time and production pressures, but Polk says it was all worth bringing the stories of black gay men to pop culture.

"We've had isolated characters on some TV shows and films, but they've been kind of small or secondary," Polk says. "[Noah's Arc] shows there's not just one way of thinking, and just because they're all gay black men doesn't mean they all think and act the same.

"It's just nice to be able to do that in a series format," Polk says.

The show shined a microscope on a bevy of issues black gay men face - from the pressures of masculinity that cause one character to pursue a thug life, to whether to attend a gay-affirming church or remain part of a traditional black congregation that preaches that gays are abominations.

But with Noah exploring a romance with a guy who started the series as "straight," the laughs and heartache that flow from relationships are the heart of the show.

"[Noah] is meant to be sort of the 'everyman,'" Polk explains. "He's a romantic, but he's not too well-versed in relationships and dating, so he has to look to his friends, and I think a lot of people can relate to him." Noah ended the first season entwined in a love triangle after cheating on his boyfriend with a guy at a sex party, something Stephens says he vehemently opposes.

"Cheating is such a horrible thing to get caught up in," says Stephens, who concedes there are some similarities between he and the character he plays.

"I think I might be sort of a closeted romantic," Stephens says. "Noah is more obvious about it." IN ADDITION TO DELIVERING A good portion of the show's laughs, Chester's character, Alex, also works in the sobering world of HIV/AIDS prevention.

"I was very happy [with Alex working as an HIV prevention counselor] because, honestly, I didn't want to be the punch-line character," Chester says. "We tried to make my character broader and bigger than the typical funny guy." In addition to the way the show incorporates HIV issues, Chester and Stephens say it's also been rewarding for people to stop them in grocery stores and airports to offer testimony about the power of the series.

"It doesn't matter if the show ends tomorrow or in five years, it still will be that I was part of something groundbreaking, that had never been done before," says Chester.

Hearing from black gay youth is what touches Stephens most.

"They're so amazingly thankful and happy to see themselves reflected in the show," he says.

Despite the impact that the show has on gay youth, only two of the actors on the show are openly gay, Doug Spearman who plays Chance and Wilson Cruz (of "My So-Called Life" fame) who plays Junito. All of the other main actors on the show decline to answer questions about their personal life.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for "Noah's Arc." Prior to premiering on Logo, the show was protested by neighborhood and religious activists who complained about a predominately white production cast shooting in the mostly black South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Controversy sparked again a few episodes into the first season, after a misunderstanding as to whether artists and officials from the Island Def Jam record label would allow their music to be used on a gay program. The confusion was cleared up, and "Noah's Arc" continues to feature some of the hottest hip-hop and R&B songs out, like Beyoncee's "Deja Vu" in the upcoming season premiere.

Another criticism of the show has been that its main characters embody gay stereotypes, from Ricky's promiscuity, to Noah's falsetto and flamboyant fashion sense. Both critiques resonate some with Stephens, who says throat surgery right before shooting left him with only two voice ranges - low and high, with high seeming to fit more with Noah's personality.

"I have decided in hindsight that he can talk a little more like me, and his voice is a little bit less distracting in season two," Stephens says. "[With fashion,] I feel like we've toned it down quite a bit for the second season.

"I will say that I feel Noah expresses his individuality at any cost, and he's really pushing people's buttons with the way he presents himself," Stephens says. "But as the show started airing, I came to find out there are quite a few men who do carry themselves that way, and are that serious about fashion." Polk shops for Noah in London, where he lives part-time, and is unapologetic about the show's "ahead-of-the-curve" experimentation.

"When I watch TV, I just don't want to watch what I could go on the corner and see every Joe Schmo wearing," Polk says. "I want him to be in the stuff you can't just walk to the local mall and buy.

"My thing is - love it or hate it - you noticed it, and you're talking about it, so we've succeeded," Polk says.


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Information in this article was accurate in August 2, 2006. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.