Wednesday, February 5, 2020
When February shows itself each year, we are often reminded that it is the month where we celebrate love—and not only because several stores bombard us with products that feature pink or red hearts (although there is certainly plenty of that). During this month, we reflect on the people in our lives whom we cherish, and we often devise clever ways to express those feelings. The Jackson area is proud to claim a number of power couples that use their bonds to accomplish great things or otherwise positively affect the community. Some born and raised in the metro who have gone on to be successful elsewhere and give back here, and some are from other parts of the world who have decided to make Jackson their home. And stay tuned for the next issue of BOOM Jackson, which hits the streets on Feb. 19.
Kit Williamson and John Halbach
As an 11-year-old in Jackson, Kit Williamson spent nights lying awake, ruminating on warnings against homosexuality he heard in church and thinking he would never find happiness. These days, though, at 34, he wakes up in California each morning next to his husband, John Halbach, with whom he has spent the past seven years creating EastSiders, a successful web and now Netflix series that has drawn multiple Daytime Emmy Awards nominations.
"It's really easy to believe the lie that you're never going to be happy when that's all you're ever told," Williamson told the Jackson Free Press, where he interned as a teenager. "And it's a lie. I am proud to report that it's not true."
Williamson was acting in a Broadway play in New York in the late 2000s when he attended a party with the cast at a Scottish Pub in Midtown Manhattan's Theatre District. While there, one of Williamson's fellow cast members introduced him to a recently single bartender with whom she had attended college.
"John's single and not crazy," the cast said, before promptly walking off and leaving the two alone together.
"We stayed talking until the bar was closed and made plans to see each other and immediately started dating," Williamson said.
Williamson would later land a number of roles, including the character Ed Gifford in AMC's hit show, "Mad Men." But he wanted to do more for LGBT representation on television. In 2012, with then-boyfriend Halbach's help, he began working on EastSiders, which tells the story of couple Cal (played by Williamson) and Thom (played by Van Hansis) in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Halbach plays Ian, a straight landscape architect.
"I was frustrated not just with the amount of representation, but the quality of representation we had when we started in 2012," Williamson said in the interview, saying LGBT characters back then too often "announced their diversity and disappeared from the narrative."
That has changed for the better in the years since, Williamson said—and that's not all. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state-level bans on same-sex marriages. Williamson and Halbach, who had been engaged before that landmark ruling, married the next year. The couple spent the past seven years waking up, getting their morning coffee, and sitting together on the couch to work on EastSiders, which they call their "web series baby."
Now, though, they are ready to send their "web series baby off to college," he said. The fourth and final season of EastSiders released on Netflix in December. In it, Willam Belli, a famous actor and drag queen who rose to prominence on "RuPaul's Drag Race," plays Douglas, who wants to wear drag when he marries his partner, Quincy.
The new season, Williamson said, tackles not only gay masculinity and femininity, but the fallout it presents for Quincy (Stephen Guarino), who has a conservative mother who does not know that her son's groom is a drag queen.
Several weeks after the final season dropped, "EastSiders: The Documentary" followed, giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at the series' creation.
Williamson is already developing a new series that features LGBT Mississippians living in New Orleans, a city he calls "a symbol of what the South can be." If it moves forward, the new series would also give him a chance to move closer to home. In the meantime, he and Halbach are enjoying having a little more leisure time. "I'm excited to have a little more time in our relationship to just be a couple and not have to work so much," Williamson said.
While working together is not always easy, Williamson said, it is part of what makes his and Halbach's relationship work so well. "It's definitely challenging, but it's also our secret weapon," Williamson said. "We're great partners in life and in work." - Ashton Pittman
Xiwei Wu and Lingshan Song
For Xiwei Wu (who also goes by Aaron) and Lingshan Song, community is one of their top priorities. "Clinton has become my second hometown. I've been here for about 14 years, and I've always been treated with lots of kindness," Song says.
Song is from southeast China and works as the assistant director at the Writing Center at Mississippi College, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees. Her husband, Wu, is from southwest China and works at Bellinder Law Firm in downtown Jackson. He got his undergraduate degree in Beijing and majored in English before coming to the U.S. to study at Mississippi College School of Law.
The two met at the Jackson airport in 2012, when Song picked up Wu, although she did not know him at the time, because the person who was supposed to get him suddenly couldn't. She invited him to eat at Mr. Chen's restaurant and then asked him to go to church with her the next day. They started dating about three years later.
The two do a lot of work with the community, both in their own jobs, as well as with their church. One of the main reasons the couple has decided to stay in the Jackson area is that they feel strongly connected to their church community. Wu also began an English tutoring service, Beyond English, after realizing the need for tutoring, locally and internationally.
"I started an English education company, Beyond English, to provide long-distance English tutoring anywhere in China and Japan. Originally, we only targeted Chinese people, but we realized people are in this kind of need locally, too," Wu says.
Wu enjoys working as a lawyer for the local Chinese community, helping people learn about U.S. laws and how to better protect themselves, and making them more comfortable while dealing with legal issues.
To learn more about Beyond English, visit their website, mybeyondenglish.com. -Jenna Gibson
Austin and Victoria Prowant
Local real estate brokers Austin and Victoria Prowant each have unique talents they have combined to into a successful marriage and business partnership. Austin schedules contractors and works with clients to make improvements needed to improve a seller's home on the market. Victoria adds staging and decor. Together, they present beautifully arranged new and existing homes for clients. "I (add) the feminine touch with the finishes in the end," Victoria says. "He does the heavy lifting on the front end."
The pair own Southern Homes Real Estate. The business, which opened in early 2019, has listings across the tri-county area. After getting married, they decided to build a new home but found themselves struggling to sell their current one. Without a buyer, the pair decided to rent the home. The move changed the trajectory of their careers. Victoria earned her real-estate license in 2012, and by 2016 the couple owned more than 100 rental properties. The success allowed Austin to retire from car sales and join his wife in the real estate industry full-time.
Victoria has a bachelor's in business administration from Mississippi College and is working on her master's in business there. She and Austin are active members of the Mississippi Association of Realtors and other organizations.
The Prowants partner with St. Jude Research Hospital each year to host the open house for the St. Jude Dream Home. Along with showing the home, the couple coordinates with volunteers and provides office space for the campaign.
They hope that the fruit of their hard work is a legacy that they can pass to their two children, 6-year-old Alex and 8-year-old Ariana. "We are hoping that one day they will inherit something great that Austin and I built and they can continue the success of the company," Victoria says. —Torsheta Jackson
Kevin and Tram Truong
Kevin Troung wanted to gift his new wife with "something she could own." So, in 2016 he and his wife, Tram, opened Serenity Nail Spa. The business quickly became a hit in the Gluckstadt area and developed a loyal clientele.
"We have customers from all over the area. They've been so supportive of us," Kevin says. "When they come in they feel like they are a part of the family, and we treat them like family."
Kevin began working as a manicurist in 2001 while a student at Hinds. The work allowed him to help his sister in her business while helping him pay for college. He married Tram in 2009, and she joined the family business soon after.
Family is an important concept to the Troungs. They have three children ages 10, 7 and 2. The pair juggle the demands of work, parenting and advancing their education. Kevin, who holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Mississippi College, will complete his master's degree in biomedical science in December. He plans to apply to medical school this summer.
The couple credits their ability to do so many things well to several factors—an amazing staff, loyal customers, but most of all to their faith.
"I have to give credit to God because we can only do so much and everything else is up to God," Kevin says. "My wife and I have been very blessed."
While their time may be limited due to the hours they keep at the spa, the Troungs believe that they have an obligation to give back to the area that has given so much to them. They provide donations to community programs and resources. They are active in their children's schools and have a close-knit relationship with other members of the local nail industry.
The Troungs are planning to open a second location, Sandals Day Spa, in the coming months. It will be located one street over from their current location. —Torsheta Jackson
Carlos Nelson and Jana' Byrd
Carlos Nelson, 20, says that the first time he saw his now-girlfriend Jana' Byrd, 21, in a class at Jackson State University, he knew they would end up together. To his surprise, the attraction was mutual.
"I thought I was going to be the one chasing her, but we both felt the same way about each other," Nelson says.
Nelson says Byrd's affectionate attitude has made him a more loving and patient person.
As Byrd speaks about Nelson, she says she feels herself blushing.
"For him to be so accepting and exuberant (about our relationship) is great," Byrd says. "No relationship is perfect, but we're always striving to better ourselves and better our relationship and to work together to reach a goal or maintain a goal."
Byrd says Nelson's go-getter attitude is what attracted her to him.
"It feels so good to be with someone who's just like me and wants to give back and isn't selfish in any way," Byrd says.
Nelson is vice president of Collegiate 100, a national organization that allows black men in college to mentor children in their local communities. He is also Mister Junior and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., which does philanthropy work of its own.
Byrd enjoys doing community service with her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Her favorite community service activity is visiting the Kids Kollege at JSU, where Byrd and her sorority sisters are able to help with homework, play games and perform strolls.
When they are not active in their community service, the couple can be found working on internship applications, fighting over the thermostat and what to eat, building a pillow fort or taking a long drive or walk along the reservoir without being glued to their phones. "I feel like our souls have met before, and we're just being reintroduced," Nelson says. —Alyssa Bass
Samuel and Rhemalyn Williams
Samuel Williams, pastor at Bibleway Church in Jackson and New Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Isola, Miss., met his wife, Rhemalyn, in 2014 at the Jackson Run retirement home, where she works as a resident service coordinator. Samuel and members of his congregation began giving seniors free haircuts and cosmetic care there on the first Wednesday of each month. He and Rhemalyn met and quickly fell in love, marrying in 2015.
"The Bible tells us to take care of elderly, and we each found a way to do something for them and be the people of God that we should be," Samuel says. "Our goal is to give back to the elderly and help them with things like their Medicare while still letting them remain self-sufficient."
The couple buys and cooks food for Stewpot Community services every Saturday; operate an Angel Ministry through Samuel's church in which congregants act as pen pals to parents in prisons and give birthday cards and gifts to their children; donate toys to Blair E. Batson hospital for children with cancer; and operate a diaper pantry that gives out free diapers for parents in need. The Williamses also adopted a two-mile stretch of highway in Canton in 2016 to clean with help from volunteers. They also pick up trash from the streets around Bibleway and New Rising Star.
Bibleway operates a food pantry that feeds roughly 200 people on the first Saturday of every month and performs health checks for people in need on the same day. The couple also conducts medical fairs each month, where they perform blood-pressure checks and other preventive services.
They have nine adult children from previous marriages. —Dustin Cardon
Bryman Williams and Brenda Hayes-Williams
Bryman Williams and Brenda Hayes-Williams met through mutual friends while working on their first degrees in 1990 and quickly became college sweethearts, which led to 23 years and counting of marriage. Now in their late 40s, the couple explain the key to a happy and lasting marriage is patience and communicating well.
"A lot of it is communication," Williams says. "We have the same types of ideals and morals, and we make up for each other's strengths and weaknesses."
Williams, of Lake Providence, La., and Hayes-Williams, of Rayville, La., met on the campus of Southern University where Williams studied psychology and Hayes-Williams studied speech pathology and audiology. Williams explains that he and his wife ended up in Jackson after he had interviewed for a prospective job in the area. He had already planned for the move, but when he was not chosen for the job, he instead started a program for clinical psychology at Jackson State University, and the couple has lived in Jackson ever since.
"Everything started (at Southern), and the rest is history," Williams says.
Williams is a clinical psychologist at JSU and Hayes-Williams is a speech pathologist who owns her own speech therapy company, Brenda Hayes-Williams & Associates, which also offers physical and occupational therapy. In the time the couple does not spend working, they are either helping the community with events such as the Mistletoe Marketplace, for which Hayes-Williams was a chairperson in 2019, or taking care of their three children: Jordan, 17, Bryman, Jr.,15, and Hayes,13.
Hayes-Williams remembers the day their first child was born. Hayes-Williams says her husband was so nervous he put soap on his hands instead of lotion.
"He thought he was putting lotion on his hands, and he put soap," Hayes-Williams says. "He just kept rubbing the soap and said, 'this lotion isn't going anywhere!' We got to the hospital, but it was more and more bubbly and bubbly."
Hayes-Williams says he finally asked what was wrong with the lotion, and she had to tell him it was soap.
"I was so angry," Williams says. "We laugh about it now, but I was just panicking and not wanting to mess up." —Caleb McCluskey
Ray and Monica Harrigill
Brookhaven native Ray Harrigill and his wife, Greenwood native Monica Harrigill, met on the campus of Millsaps College in 1988. The two were both 18 at the time, but while Ray was starting at Millsaps as a freshman that year, Monica was a graduating senior.
Monica skipped several grades in high school and enrolled at Millsaps in 1985 when she was 15. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1988 and began working as a restaurant manager for a Bumpers in south Jackson that her father's hospitality business, Jackie's International, owned.
Ray graduated from Millsaps in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in business, then received his juris doctorate from Mississippi College School of Law in 1994. During his senior year, he began working for Jackies International. He purchased the Jackson Bumpers after graduating and became a franchisee for the company, operating 26 locations in three states.
The Harrigills opened Sunray Companies together in 1996. Initially running Bumpers locations, the company grew to include Blockbuster video stores in 1999, then Palm Beach Tanning in 2005, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express in 2006, and Massage Envy in 2010.
"Our focus in what we did with Sunray was on diversity of businesses because they come and go, like Blockbuster, for example," Ray says. "Owning a variety of businesses lets us grow even when something changes or doesn't work out."
In addition to their work with Sunray, the Harrigills have donated to the Blair E. Batson Children's Hospital every month since 2000 and also volunteer with the Jackson Ronald McDonald House.
Monica also serves on the board for Canopy Children's Solutions and the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and manages fundraisers for both organizations.
"Ray and I are both passionate about community work and involvement," Monica says. "We focus on Mississippi-based organizations so we can do whatever we can to help our home state."
The Harrigills have lived in Madison for 25 years and have two children, son Max and daughter Tori, who are both 21. —Dustin Cardon
James and Natasha King
If you let James King tell it, his wife, Natasha, and her family moved from the Delta to Jackson to meet him. The couple met in third grade, but lost touch after elementary school. Ten years later, they reconnected at Powell Middle School, where Natasha worked alongside James' mother.
"Seeing her again, I knew exactly who she was. We grew a friendship from there," he said.
He and Natasha built a strong friendship, which they say is the foundation for their marriage. A year after getting married in 2012, they attended an event about self-development. Soon afterward, they resigned from their careers, she as a teacher and he in graphic design and ministry, and branded themselves as Mr. & Mrs. Gratitude.
The couple are "marriage mindset" consultants who "build singles towards wholeness and couples towards partnership" under their platform of love, marriage and partnership. Together, they host workshops, run a magazine, speak at events and are published authors.
"It's something very simple and practical to do, to start the day with a sense of gratitude. We practice it. It's a blessing," Natasha said.
Their goal is to affect, inspire and initiate the lives of 10 million people. It's a big goal, but one that allows for growth, James said. So far, they have influenced people in countries including Canada, Trinidad and Nigeria, in addition to the U.S.
Natasha said the term "power couple" is not a label they apply to their union. "We call ourselves a God-empowered couple, being empowered to influence other people or bless other people in some form or fashion," James said.
Last year, they changed their last names from Roach to King, a name that was prophesied through various signs and circumstances over the years, James said.
In the future, the couple has plans to give two different scholarship awards, the Ambition Award and the Natia Hutchins Service Award, to a male and female senior from Lanier and Callaway High School through their Our Good Foundation.
"The main thing is for love, marriage and partnership to grow to the point where it's beyond us," Natasha said, "To give singles hope and make couples dope." —Aliyah Veal