How Jonica T. Gibbs Brought Her Soft Butch Swagger to “Twenties”

The former substitute teacher had never auditioned for a role before landing one of a lifetime on Lena Waithe's new BET show.

On Twenties, Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs plays a young, soft-butch lesbian hustler who seems to have no shame at all in her game—even if that means sleeping on her friend’s couch and then inviting a girl over to share said couch. While Gibbs has a lot in common with her character Hattie, the 30-year-old acting neophyte doesn’t share her unconditional confidence. “That’s the one place where Hattie and I differ very much,” she says.

But Gibbs still believed in herself enough to move out to Los Angeles five years ago, work the stand-up circuit, and crowd-fund her own digital series. That project caught the attention of Lena Waithe, and Gibbs, not one to let an opportunity pass her by, slid into the Emmy winner’s DMs and secured an audition for Twenties.

Acting was always Gibbs’ end goal, even though she had no real technical training—in fact, Twenties was her very first audition. She didn’t even have an agent at the time, but the South Carolina native left a strong enough impressive to land the role of a lifetime.

NewNowNext caught up with Gibbs to chat about how she tapped into Hattie, the advice Waithe gave her on the character, and her former life as a substitute teacher.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got into acting?

I’m from the Carolinas. I would say created in North and South Carolina, but originally from Jackson, South Carolina. I moved out to L.A. about five years ago, and I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for about six years. To be honest, I always wanted to act. I was very grateful to have stand-up comedy as a means to work that muscle and be able to also share my energy with people on stage. I acted in student films and stuff like that when I was at SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design]. I didn’t go to SCAD—I was just there with my best friend while she was there. However, I never had to audition for anything. Twenties was the first audition I ever had, and thankfully it went well.

Michael Kubeisy/BET
Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs as Hattie in BET’s Twenties.

You used to be a substitute teacher, right?

I was. I love kids. I had many offers to become a teacher, and the kids would ask me all the time to become their teacher. But I was like, “I’m moving to L.A. to act.” They kind of bounced me around wherever they needed me. I was a fourth-grade teacher for a while because their teacher quit, and then I became a third-grade teacher for the teacher that was out on maternity leave, and then I was the science teacher for the rest of the year.

Being a substitute teacher and being a comedian—did one prepare you for the other because you have to go in front of a crowd and warm them up and win them over?

Yes, it definitely helped with that. And also being a substitute teacher helped me with jokes. When I had short hair and was bouncing from school to school, there was at least one kid in each class who’d ask me if I was a man. I was like, “Whatever. I know I’ve got short hair, but look me in my face and don’t be trying to play me.” [Laughs] But kids are funny. They are very transparent and just say whatever comes to their minds a lot of times, until they get to a certain age when they realize you maybe keep some of your thoughts to yourself.

You’ve referred to Hattie as “confidently broke,” which is a really great way of defining her. How did you approach portraying that kind of confidence? What kind of conversations did you have with Lena about it?

I was not confidently broke. I was painfully broke. [Laughs] Her circumstances don’t define her happiness or her ability to be confident and be herself. That’s one of the things you got to admire, but also I worry about, in a person. If you’re not worried about your finances, then how are you going to get them together? But it’s also about having the positive disposition that things will fall into place.

In terms of creating the character, Lena was gracious enough to tell me, “Yo, this is just based off of me. These are my words, and these are my experiences, to some degree. However, make this thing into your own.” I really appreciated her having a collaborative spirit to allow me, as an artist and performer, to be able to display my talents and do what I wanted to do.

Gabrielle Graham, Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs, and Christina Elmore.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
(L-R): Twenties stars Gabrielle Graham, Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs, and Christina Elmore.

What’s the vibe like on set, it being such a pro-black, pro-queer show?

Oh my goodness. Everybody was so cool. The directors, the actors, the sound people, the lighting people—everyone was so diverse. We had so many different demographics of people. It wasn’t just straight white males throughout the whole process. It was women—straight women, gay women. It was black, it was Hispanic, it was Israeli. There was such a plethora of eclectic people. To be honest, I think I got pretty spoiled.

What were your 20s like? What’d you learn from them?

My 20s were foundation-building years. They were very tumultuous sometimes, but I also got a lot of laughs. It was highs and lows, ups and downs, and lefts and rights. It was a lot of learning and developing and realizing that life is going to be something that you take as it comes. You deal with it and don’t over-analyze.

And what do you hope viewers will take away from the show?

I really think people will take that from the show—that you’re not alone in this world in terms of trying to figure it out. And there is no magical age that you get to where everything will be figured out. I think that’s one thing that Twenties highlights really well. Once you do attain the dream and the goal, how do you deal with it, and is it everything you thought it would be? And how do you make the most of that moment?

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat