Jasmine Cephas Jones is a bright star with an incredible future. As part of the original cast of Hamilton, she won acclaim playing Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. She is a favourite of Noah Baumbach, having appeared in Mistress America and Marriage Story. She was a recurring cast member on HBO’s dramedy Mrs Fletcher. And now, to top it off, she has won an Emmy.
Admittedly, it is an Emmy with qualifiers. Her win for outstanding actress in a short form comedy or drama series came for the series #FreeRayshawn, which you haven’t seen, because it is on Quibi, which you haven’t got. And don’t feel bad, because nobody has. Despite raising $1.75bn in funding and attracting the attention of figures including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro, Quibi still feels as though it is destined to go down in history as a hilariously obscure punchline.
Bcause nobody has Quibi, barely anyone has realised that Cephas Jones won her Emmy for doing almost nothing. Scott Feinberg of the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that Cephas Jones appears on screen for just 30 seconds of her nominated #FreeRayshawn episode, speaking just three words. Feinberg has questioned “whether voters nominated and honoured her performance solely on the basis of the episode submission, which seems unlikely, or on the basis of the full season, or having not watched any of the show at all”.
But that is a larger discussion for another time. The most important thing is the performance of Cephas Jones: that brief, incredible, Emmy-winning performance that almost zero people have seen. In the name of journalism, I signed up to Quibi (don’t worry, I will cancel before my free trial is up), scrolled past the show where Anna Kendrick befriends her boyfriend’s sex doll and watched the performance to give it the review it deserves. But first: some context.
The show: #FreeRayshawn is a taut 24-style hostage drama about Rayshawn Morris, a special forces veteran who finds himself in a standoff with the New Orleans police after hitting an officer with his car. It stars Laurence Fishburne, who also won an Emmy for his role.
The episode: episode nine, They All Want Me Dead, Don’t They?, in which Fishburne struggles to convince Rayshawn to surrender to the police before he is taken out by a sniper. After Fishburne mutters the serenity prayer to himself, they talk on the phone. Rayshawn declares that he did not mean to kill the policeman. Fishburne responds by saying that he once shot an 11-year-old. As the SWAT team closes in, Cephas Jones enters the frame. Get ready everyone. This is it.
The performance: Rayshawn sits on the floor of his apartment, seemingly resigned to his fate. A leg appears in the foreground, blurred and silhouetted. It is Cephas Jones. Without panning up, we hear those three award-winning words. “What happened now?” she asks. Her voice is small. The “what” is quick and empathic. The vowel is rushed. The “happened” drops infinitesimally in pitch between the syllables, as if soaking up the gravity of the situation for the first time. But the “now” rises once again, as if pleading with Rayshawn.
She does not just want to know what happened; she wants to know what happened now. There is an understated violence to her words. She already knows what happened; that much is made clear by her warm tone. But what she doesn’t know is what happened now. Her words betray the unresolved tension between the known and unknown, along with humanity’s searching acknowledgment of the permanently intangible state of the present.
We break from Cephas Jones for a moment, so that Rayshawn can answer the immortal question of what happened now. As he tells her, we get to see above Cephas Jones’s knees, for the first time this episode. She bends down and sits next to Rayshawn. Finally satisfied that she understands what has happened now, she puts her head on his shoulder. Fourteen seconds pass. Then she closes her eyes.
What could she be imagining? What has happened now? What will happen in the future? Everything that has already happened in the past? We will never know. As an audience, we project our knowledge of what has happened on to the blank space of Cephas Jones’s eyelids. We are one now. She and us. In this shared space, a silent voice calls out. It says: “Jasmine Cephas Jones probably deserves an Emmy for this.”
History is made. God cries. The end.