This Mount Vernon Eighth Grader Scored a Lead Part in a New Netflix Miniseries

Judah Taylor was pretty much your average kid before his mother noticed a particular talent for performance. “I was 3 when I first started in the arts,” says the 14-year-old Mount Vernon native. “I started singing at churches, and then my mom said, ‘Wow, you can really sing! You should keep doing it,’ so I kept singing.”

Those golden pipes would eventually lead to a part in an anticipated new Netflix miniseries, Central Park Five, starring Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, and Vera Farmiga. The drama, which comes out this spring, is helmed by Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay, known for such hits as Selma and A Wrinkle in Time.

However, before Taylor found himself emoting for media giants, he began his work at The Performing and Visual Arts Magnet School in Mount Vernon, which he has attended since the sixth grade and whose founder and director, Evelyn Collins, helped guide him to the stage.

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“This year, it is actually a school for grades six through 10. We started only with grades six and seven,” says Collins of the highly competitive magnet housed in Thornton High School. “We have a band and an orchestra, as well as an outstanding dance program. Our musical theater has even won some accolades through the Metro Awards.”

Judah Taylor on the Staten Island set of Central Park Five.

As with Taylor’s mother, it was Judah’s voice that first convinced Collins she had something truly special on her hands. “I was in the middle school, pressing students about an upcoming play, and Judah had the most questions,” she recalls. “He was very curious, and this was before he even saw the show. So I said to him, ‘If after you see the show, you think you’re really interested, you should audition.’ And when he came to the audition and sang, I thought, Oh my goodness, who is this child?

Taylor soon appeared in the school’s production of Raisin, for which he snagged his own Metro Award and later played several parts in the off-Broadway production of the musical 13. After his mother put him on an acting app, Taylor immediately began receiving offers for commercials and other small parts. Yet, what Taylor eventually settled on was far more consequential than a simple TV ad.

Renowned director Ava DuVernay had begun filming a miniseries about the Central Park Five, a group of young men of color who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a New York City jogger in 1989 and who spent years in prison as a result.

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“I wanted to be involved in [the project] because it really is something that was very important that happened back then,” notes Taylor. “I believe four of those men were black and one was Latino, and they were accused of something that they didn’t do. I’m getting to the age that they were now and I think, Wow, what if that was me?

Collins agrees that the play’s subject matter remains painfully relevant to young men like Taylor across the country in the wake of such tragedies as the Trayvon Martin shooting. “It is so important for someone of Judah’s age to have that history and to understand that [case], because things haven’t really changed that much in our society,” explains Collins. “Being a young black male, he always has to be aware of where he is, how he dressed, and what he is doing. So that gives the role a lot of profundity, and it encouraged him to delve deeper and learn more about those men.”

Director Ava DuVernay and Taylor. Photo courtesy of Focus Media.

Once he arrived on the Staten Island set, Taylor was stunned by the scale of the production. “I was pretty excited, wondering what it was going to be like for my first time on set,” shares Taylor. “When I got there, it was really amazing. We were in a prison, and there were smoke and cameras everywhere. Wherever you walked, they had people watching on tablets connected to the cameras. It was pretty cool.”

During the shoot, Taylor also made one particularly notable friend. “I wasn’t expecting Ava DuVernay to be in the same room. But she looked at me and said, ‘What’s your name?’ and I was just looking at her like, Are you talking to me?” says Taylor. “She repeated the question, and I said, ‘My name is Judah,’ and then she gave directions. After that I wanted to get to know her more, so I began talking to her. She laughed and she started to record me and put me on her Instagram. It was a great experience.”

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The day of filming cemented a love of acting that for Taylor is a way to both transcend and better understand his own life. “Acting is amazing. You can be anyone you want!” he says. “You can be Abraham Lincoln; you can be a superhero, a ninja, a lawyer, even yourself — it’s just a world of everything.”

And yet despite the Netflix pedigree and his time spent hobnobbing with big-name directors, when asked what lies ahead, it becomes immediately clear that Taylor remains a middle-schooler at heart. “What I am looking forward to is really just school plays and growing as an actor,” he says,  before adding with a smile, “and dinner!”

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