Just Sherring

My Experience as a 2021 BET Soul Train Awards Audience Member

After being away from the Apollo for over a year, I found myself returning two consecutive weeks. Last week, November 12, I attended my second Smart, Funny and Black show created and hosted by Amanda Seales. This week was the taping of the 2021 BET Soul Train Awards. Check-in/holding rooms for what as far as I could tell was an all-Black audience was at the Magic Johnson theater on 124th St. The actual show was taped a short jaunt on 125th St. at the legendary Apollo. Recap: Harlem, Magic Johnson Theater, Black audience, BET, Soul Train Awards, Apollo Theater. Blackity Black Black event.

It pains me to include the next part: disorganization was in full effect. We audience members were kept in the dark about almost everything. I heard an event member say he also barely knew what was going on for the day. From the start when I saw the sponsored ad and signed up to be part of the audience, I was in limbo. I received texts about testing for covid-19 on Thursday, November 18. The way it was worded, I was under the impression I’d have to be tested in the morning to attend that evening. Even after being tested in the morning, I was not told when the taping would be. Friday, I received texts informing me I was negative and that I would need to check-in between 1-2 pm on Saturday at Magic Johnson theater to attend the taping at Apollo.

It was a whole lot of hurry up and wait. I know how NYC lines can get—long and windy—especially for free events, so I dressed comfortably per instructions, down to my chunky taupe Dolce Vita Chelsea boots. “Stylish, formal/cocktail attire is suggested…Comfortable shoes are strongly recommended. Standing may be required for extended periods.” Sneakers, tennis shoes, and hats (which I originally planned) were prohibited.

I love my people. I spotted gowns, strapless, spaghetti straps, one-shouldered, sequined, and mini dresses. Bundles were everywhere in the form of long, flowing ponytails, hair that stretched from shoulders to tailbones. There were open-toes, strappy sandals, and stilettos. It was sunny, but chilly. I peeped plenty of ashy feet and legs.

Lucky for me, my style leans Bohemian. I wore olive green-brownish Souk & Sepia Hammer/jogger/harem pants, a black turtleneck sweater, earrings that looked like they belonged on the set of The Gong Show, red-stained lips, dark blue eyeliner, and mascara. I let my skin do its thing after a clay facemask as I deep conditioned my TWA (teeny weeny afro), now dyed blond with a purple streak that turns pink as it winds from my front right to back left. I preferred a fresh lineup, but everything was too last minute to even attempt an appointment. My ‘fit was completed with a leopard (cheetah?) print Ann Taylor double-breasted coat.

“You look nice, sista,” a handsome man complimented me as he walked past me en route to the subway. I smiled and thanked him. He couldn’t see the twinkle in my eyes behind my cat-eye tortoiseshell sunglasses. He made my day. I was camera-ready!

I’ve attended other show tapings: Wendy, Kelly and Michael, Sara Strahan & Keke, Rachael Ray, Jimmy Kimmel, The Chew, David Letterman, to name a few. I’m familiar with TV trickery. The producer-prompted applause, fake uproarious laughter, chuckles, laughter that leads to applause—all canned sounds added in post-production. I also knew that we’d be expected to show up hours before the actual taping. I can’t fathom why they had us show up at 1 pm for a taping that was supposed to start at 7 pm. I’m not sure what time it actually started because they locked our phones (and smartwatches) in magnetic cases so that people couldn’t take pictures or record during the show. I experienced that before at Dave Chappelle’s show at Radio City Music Hall and Chris Rock’s show at Barclay’s. I don’t mind it. It keeps me in the moment AND I’m not forced to dodge people’s airborne screens.

Back to arriving hours early: I knew a line would be forming long before 1 pm, but I also knew that it would be cold and the earlier I got there, the longer I’d be in line. In the cold. I arrived around 1:30. As soon as I emerged from the 125th St. A train stop, the line was right there. I thought I was at the end, but it actually continued down the block and wrapped around the St. Nicholas corner. Ok. Fine. I had a book: Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, which I started that morning. I didn’t listen to music. I didn’t want to drain my battery.

It was a whole stop-and-go process to check our temperatures, scan our barcodes, sign release forms, give us a brown bracelet, a purple Soul Train audience wrist ribbon, a black facemask. Some people also received seat filler bracelets. I did not. After all that anticipation of feeling like we’re getting close, we were released to…the concession stand area. They provided free popcorn, bottled Coke, and empty cups to pour fountain drinks of our choice. I didn’t know that we could purchase other foods. No one was behind the counters.

Other than my smoothie, that popcorn and later my tiny bag of almonds is all I ate all day. To be fair, they did say to eat before arriving, but I didn’t know it would be an all-day affair, nor did I know that once you checked in, you couldn’t leave and be re-admitted. After getting our snacks, we were herded into different theaters aka holding cells.

I was directed to Theater 1, playing The Eternals. I was hoping to see Will Smith in King Richard even though it’s also currently playing on HBO Max. Earlier that week, I had been bored almost to tears watching The Eternals at the Times Square AMC. Per my cousin, they’re setting up for future Marvel movies, but snooze fest! I was catching things I missed, but I was still relieved when they came to get us. Almost as relieved as when right before I found a seat using my phone’s flashlight, someone announced they had found my license. They didn’t hear me and couldn’t see me in the pitch black and proceeded to read my address aloud, much to everyone’s amusement and my embarrassment.

They cut the movie short…to have us line up in the hallway. Again. Meanwhile, my bladder was whimpering. I forfeited my spot in the middle of the line in search of the ladies’ room. I found more theaters, and the end of the line, which wasn’t moving. These are still covid times and though we were all tested and vaccinated (supposedly) I didn’t care to be surrounded by people again, so I stayed at the end of the line. More people eventually joined. At this point, I already knew I was going to have a janky seat. I was hoping for at least rear mezzanine and not balcony.

The line moved about 50 feet—next to the ladies’ room. By now my bladder was wailing. Risk the line moving and leaving me behind or risk having an accident? I skippered into the ladies’ room and did what I had to do as quickly as possible while being careful that no part of my flowy clothing landed in the toilet. While washing my hands, I could hear a loud male voice barking instructions.

“Take your selfies now because you won’t be able to take them at the theater!”

“Turn your phones off or put them on airplane mode!”

‘Please wear the black masks you were handed!”

“No food or drinks will be allowed in the theater!”

I reclaimed my spot, not that it made much of a difference. There were only about 20 people behind me, as opposed to the dozens, if not hundreds who were up ahead. It was now or never to eat my small 100-calorie pack of almonds. I did.

We stood out there long enough to get annoyed again and for my back to ache. We inched forward and were counted at least four different times. By now, it was dark out. Views of Harlem lights were gorgeous. The line surged forward and just as I was about to make it through the doors, a lady told me to wait.

People’s phones and smartwatches were being locked in magnetic pouches. I turned off my phone and turned from the table to…wait in line. This line was to descend the escalator. I felt like a kindergartener walking in single file.

They made us leave the warmth of the Magic Johnson theater to stand outside in 40-degree weather on the sidewalk across the street. We waited some more before we walked to the side of the Apollo. More waiting to walk through metal detectors and have bags inspected. Somehow, I set off the alarm, despite emptying my pockets and not wearing an underwire bra. Surely after fifteen years, I did not encounter the one metal detector that would be set off by my titanium faceplates.

People flooded into the theater, but I, me, Sherring, again was stopped at the door. Stood and waited before they directed me to the staircase for the balcony. I pretended I didn’t understand and headed left to the mezzanine staircase, but I was redirected. I huffed and puffed to the top of the theater for the second time in a week, sure that my lungs and heart would explode in my chest. I worried that the person in front of me in—surprise!—another line!—could hear me Darth Vader breathing through my mask. I was seated in the aisle seat in the Right balcony, row G. Basically, nosebleed. I could see the stage, but I could also see backstage.

The next part will be of no surprise. We sat in our seats and waited some more.  A DJ played music: Tevin Campbell, Jodeci, Ja Rule, other 90s hits. The seating arrangements were a shit show. Instead of people filling in rows, they stopped mid-row, leaving empty seats all over. Instead of people moving over so people could sit, people had to shimmy past to reach seats. Lucky for me, there was that solo aisle seat, and I happily took it, even though it meant I had to keep getting up for comings and goings.

My seatmate to my left said hi to me before resuming his convo with the person to his left. I whipped out my book and continued reading. I’m glad I grabbed that book. When the show finally started, there were many waiting periods in between as they did costume changes, buffed the floor, and set up cameras.

The let out. I look cold because I am.

The show doesn’t air until Sunday, November 28th, so I won’t include any spoilers, but I will mention some of the presenters and performers to grace the stage. Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell hosted for the fourth consecutive year. Dissatisfied with her performance, Ari Lennox requested to repeat it. It must’ve been nerves because she sounded better and more relaxed the second time. Lucky Daye, Leon Bridges, and Summer Walker performed. The show opened with a pre-recorded Silk Sonic performance. That was a disappointment. Mayor DeBlasio and his wife were booed just like at one of the Summer 2020 protests I attended.

Other people I strained to see: Wendy Raquel Robinson, Hosea Chanchez, Devale Ellis, and Crystal Renee Hayslett. Normani presented Ashanti the Lady of Soul Award, and Jazmine Sullivan presented Maxwell the Living Legend Award. Both were introduced by short pre-recorded videos. Both artists performed medleys of some of their greatest hits…at the end of the night.

I never knew sexy Maxwell could dance or do the split, but he did. I was disappointed that he didn’t sing Pretty Wings, but I was happy to see that the afro is back. He was dressed in all black, with sparkling shoes. Like Maxwell, Ashanti looked gorgeous in her black attire: strapless unitard with a half-dress train, and over-the-knee boots. Her flawless skin glistened. She was flanked by dancers dressed in white sparkly full bodysuits. Not-so-surprise guests were Fat Joe and Ja Rule. Whoever didn’t think they’d appear onstage is an idiot.

Being in the balcony, there was plenty that I missed, including celebrity audience members like Ciara, and when performers walked into the audience on the lower level. I also couldn’t see when people in the rows in front of me stood to see better or dance and sing. I enjoyed seeing people enjoy themselves. Sometimes I felt like a complete oddball (read: old) not knowing the nominees in categories like best video or best new artist. I recognized song snippets, thanks to social media, but had no idea the artists’ faces, names, or song titles.

The night dragged on. My body ached in the cramped seat. The constant pauses in the show gave me more opportunities to read. Had my phone been accessible, I would’ve scrolled. Before the show started, the balcony had empty seats. People left throughout the show, and they kept reshuffling to fill the front rows. I stayed put. By the end of the night, the whole row in front of me was vacant. It certainly made it easier to see the stage without having to maneuver around heads and natural hairstyles.

After Maxwell’s performance, Tisha and Tichina returned in another outfit change to close out the show and say good night. An announcer told the balcony to wait while the lower levels exited, then we were told to leave within five minutes because the theater needed to close. It took more than five minutes to even get down the stairs. The bottleneck: people getting their phones unlocked outside the exit, and hanging around as their phones powered on so they could take pictures in front of the marquee. I couldn’t get mad because I did the same. Two friends were struggling to take a selfie (as was I), so I offered to shoot them if they shot me. Their pictures came out awful on their phone, mine were good. It was too dark to see my mask-smudged lipstick.

I’m torn between never wanting to do it again, or knowing how to be better prepared if/when I were to do it again. I’m not sure what I could do differently. I dressed for comfort and for the weather. I prepared for boredom. By the time I got home around 12:30 (my phone powered on around 11:20 pm), I had read 84 pages of Senghor’s memoir. I would’ve preferred to have had a companion. Nothing new. Before I left home and in line for check-in, I texted my cousins and aunt. When I left the Apollo, I texted them again. I was tired and hungry. It was far from a glamorous event, but it was a (free) experience.

Peace, Love and Soooouuullllll!

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