Jenifer Lewis Of 'Black-ish' Reflects On Her Role As Black Hollywood's Mother

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 10:56 am

Editor's note: This story includes language that may be offensive to some readers.

Her career spans decades in film, television and theater. She has worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and on Broadway. Along the way, she has become one of them.

Jenifer Lewis' new memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, details her journey to the spotlight. It comes out next week. Lewis spoke with NPR's Noel King about the book and how her career began.

Unlike many young actresses from the Midwest who might've jumped on a Greyhound bus bound for the Big Apple with what little cash they had, Lewis booked a first-class flight to New York.

"I had taken a few trips to New York while in college to visit my boyfriend, and when I said, 'OK, I'm leaving for New York,' I was like, 'You know what? I think I'm going to go first class,' " she says. "And I didn't — you know, I didn't have a pot to piss in. But I got up there because I felt that's where I belonged. And I landed in New York with 10,000 songs in my heart. And I wanted to sing every one of them."

A complete unknown in the city, Lewis made it to Broadway relatively quickly. That is, 11 days after she arrived.

"I tell you, I called my mother a week before, and I was sobbing," she recalls. "I was like, mama, this city is so big, and everybody wants to be a star. I'm going to come home. It's too hard."

Since then, she has starred in a number of television shows and movies, including The Preacher's Wife, What's Love Got to Do With It and Disney's The Princess and the Frog. The title of Lewis' memoir pays tribute to her role as a mother figure in several of her on-screen appearances.

"I played Tupac's mama, Tina Turner's mama, Whitney Houston's mama, and the list goes on and on," Lewis says. The actress, singer and comedian can be seen in her latest motherly role in the hit ABC show Black-ish, where she plays the irascible and hilarious grandmother, Ruby Johnson.


Interview Highlights

On being diagnosed with mental illness

Well, my first session, I promise you, I did a headstand. I sat on the back of the sofa. And I was like, listen, I want to talk about my career. You know, I didn't want to talk about my father dying. I didn't want to talk about the AIDS epidemic. I didn't want to talk about my abusive childhood. I wanted to talk about my career. ... So when she said depression, now, I understood that because I pretty much cried myself to sleep, you know, most of my life. So I just figured everybody cried. I didn't think they cried as much as I did. But, you know, what's wrong with crying? But when she started talking about mania, I was like, well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I'm an actress. But it fit every aspect of my being — everything she described. So I could not deny it, and I didn't.

On being asked to do Black-ish

You know, when they called me, you know, I think I was in Athens somewhere on a yacht, you know. And they said it's a show called Black-ish. I said 'Black-ish?' And they said, 'Well, yeah, they want you to come back to the States.' And I said, 'Well, Black-ish better have some greenish.' The show, itself — what a cherry on the top of my career. I am so proud of the show because, you know, there's so much trash on TV. Let's face it. But Black-ish is tackling all of those — these modern-day issues. And the writing is amazing. That first — the season opener, the subject matter was Juneteenth. ... When you sit in front of your television and watch Black-ish, when you get to the dinner table, I assure you nobody's going to be silent. They're going to discuss these issues. We're doing something great with this show. And I am amazed to be a part of it.

On being a mother figure on- and off-screen

The movie What's Love Got To Do With It started my career as a mother. And, you know, like I say in the book, for that kind of money, I'll play the daddy ... but here's the thing. I did become a mother, and my daughter is sitting right here next to me. Her name is Charmaine. When I entered therapy, a group of African-American women suggested to me ... plus my therapist, that I go and mentor a child.

And I joined the Big Sister Big Brother program. And I got this little girl. She was 7 years old, and she was under a desk when I walked into the YMCA to meet her. And I kind of wanted to just climb under there with her. But I had done enough work in therapy to reach my hand out to her. And she came out from under the desk. And I have loved her. I was a Big Sister for five years. And then, when she turned 12, I believe, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So I looked at her. I said, 'I don't know anything about being a mother, baby. But, you know, I have the finances to give you the best education. And it's one thing — if I don't know anything else, I know that I love you. So come on, and I'll do my best.' And we must have been — we must've done pretty damn good because she's sitting next to me right now. But it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy.

NPR Digital News intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some artists are larger than life, and some are even bigger still. Actress, singer and comedian Jennifer Lewis stars in the hit ABC show, "Blackish," as the irascible and hilarious grandmother, Ruby Johnson. Jennifer's career spans decades in film, television and theatre. She's worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and on Broadway. And along the way, she has become one. Jennifer has written a new book called "The Mother Of Black Hollywood." It comes out next week. And Jennifer joins us from NPR West in Culver City. Jennifer, thanks for being with us.

JENNIFER LEWIS: It's my pleasure, Noel. Thank you.

KING: So you have had one heck of a life.

LEWIS: Girl, I have lived. That's all I can tell you. It really has been an amazing life. You know, I started in a poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of St. Louis, Mo., in a small town called Kinloch. And I sang my first solo in church, and I - the reaction of the congregation - you know, I just stood there with my thumb in my mouth thinking, wow, this is life. And I haven't looked back since.

KING: Even in your early days, you had something propelling you. You write that when you graduated from college in Missouri, you set your sights on New York like a lot of young actresses. And I feel like I've heard a lot of these stories, and they usually involve someone showing up on a Greyhound bus with $3 in her pocket. You didn't do that. You booked yourself a first-class airline flight (laughter).

LEWIS: I had taken a few trips to New York while in college to visit my boyfriend. And when I said, OK, I'm leaving for New York, I was like, you know what? I think I'm going to go first class. And I didn't - you know, I didn't have a pot to piss in. But I got up there because I felt that's where I belonged. And I landed in New York with 10,000 songs in my heart. And I wanted to sing every one of them.

KING: And you were a complete unknown, but you made it to Broadway relatively quickly.

LEWIS: Eleven days, Noel.

KING: Eleven - (laughter).

LEWIS: Eleven - I tell you I called my mother a week before, and I was sobbing. I was like, mama, this city is so big, and everybody wants to be a star. I'm going to come home. It's too hard. Eleven days later, I was, like, oh, come on, [expletive], let's go.

KING: How'd you pull that off?

LEWIS: Well, I auditioned with an Ethel Merman song because, you know, I have one of these big voices. And when I sang at the audition, I did a back bend and held the last note - you know, (singing) for me and for you. And I just kept - (singing) you - kept going back - (singing) you - kept going back - (singing) you. And the piano player was, like, oh, my God, when is she going to end this song?

But I was a meteorite when I hit New York. I had no fear in me because the dream was so embedded. And I'm not going to lie to you. I had been gifted at birth, girl. I knew what I wanted to do. It was simple as that. And I'm one of the lucky ones. Don't think I take this for granted. I'm one of the lucky ones to have known what I wanted so young, you know.

KING: To have known what you wanted and then gone for it and then succeeded at it. And it makes it almost - the way we're talking - it makes it almost sound easy. But in the book, you also talk about your early years in musical theater on Broadway and off-Broadway...

LEWIS: Absolutely.

KING: ...And they weren't all easy.

LEWIS: No, they - it was not easy. I was bipolar and did not know it. I looked at my shrink. I was like, are you insane? You know - what? - do you people got a name for it? I've been like this all my life.

KING: You thought it was just part of being an actress?

LEWIS: Absolutely. And so many artists hide that mental illness in performing, and we're applauded for that kind of energy.

KING: Tell me the story of how you got your diagnosis.

LEWIS: Well, my first session, Noel, I promise you, I did a headstand. I sat on the back of the sofa. And I was like, listen, I want to talk about my career. You know, I didn't want to talk about my father dying. I didn't want to talk about the AIDS epidemic. I didn't want to talk about my abusive childhood. I wanted to talk about my career.

KING: Not the things that were really hurting you.

LEWIS: Absolutely. Absolutely. So when she said depression, now, I understood that because I pretty much cried myself to sleep, you know, most of my life. So I just figured everybody cried. I didn't think they cried as much as I did. But, you know, what's wrong with crying? But when she started talking about mania, I was like, well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I'm an actress. But it fit every aspect of my being - everything she described. So I could not deny it, and I didn't.

KING: And then in the '90s, when you start to get help, something interesting happens. You write in your book that at the same time you're going through therapy, you're confronting your demons, you get a foot in the door in Hollywood. You start appearing in movies like "The Preacher's Wife" and "Poetic Justice."

You've had an extraordinary career thus far. You are currently starring in one of the biggest hit shows on television, "Blackish." That show is so funny and so irreverent and so biting, and it's attracted such a following. When you took that role, did you know this show was going to work as well as it does? And what do you think it is that actually makes it work so well?

LEWIS: You know, when they called me, you know, I think I was in Athens somewhere on a yacht, you know. And they said it's a show called "Blackish." I said "Blackish?" And they said, well, yeah, they want you to come back to the states. And I said, well, "Blackish" better have some greenish (laughter). The show, itself - what a cherry on the top of my career. I am so proud of the show because, you know, there's so much trash on TV. Let's face it. But "Blackish" is tackling all of those - these modern-day issues. And the writing is amazing. That first - the season opener, the subject matter was Juneteenth.

KING: Yes, there's an episode about Juneteenth, the day in which the slaves were freed and how we don't acknowledge that in this country, most often. You guys talked about reparations. You talked about postpartum depression.

LEWIS: Absolutely, the n-word. They have addressed police brutality.

KING: And always with humor - always with honor.

LEWIS: Oh, my God. Listen. When you sit in front of your television and watch "Blackish," when you get to the dinner table, I assure you nobody's going to be silent. They're going to discuss these issues. We're doing something great with this show. And I am amazed to be a part of it.

KING: The title of your book is "The Mother Of Black Hollywood." Of all the things you could have called your memoir, why that?

LEWIS: Well, because I am (laughter). You know, I played Tupac's momma, Tina Turner's momma, Whitney Houston's Momma, and the list goes on and on. And if I - Gabrielle Union's mother-in-law. And the movie, "What's Love Got To Do With It" started my career as a mother. And, you know, like I say in the book, for that kind of money, I'll play the daddy. Hey, you know. But here's the thing, Noel. I did become a mother, and my daughter is sitting right here next to me. Her name is Charmaine. When I entered therapy, a group of African-American women suggested to me - they were very close to me. We were called the boat. It was just the little club where we would all come together and talk about our feelings, and their children and their professions. And they all suggested - plus my therapist - that I go and mentor a child.

And I joined the Big Sister Big Brother program. And I got this little girl. She was 7-years-old, and she was under a desk when I walked into the YMCA to meet her. And I kind of wanted to just climb under there with her. But I had done enough work in therapy to reach my hand out to her. And she came out from under the desk. And I have loved her. I was a Big Sister for five years. And then, when she turned 12, I believe, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So I looked at her. I said, I don't know anything about being a mother, baby. But, you know, I have the finances to give you the best education. And it's one thing - if I don't know anything else, I know that I love you. So come on, and I'll do my best. And we must have been - we must've done pretty damn good because she's sitting next to me right now. But it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy.

KING: Jennifer Lewis - her autobiography, "The Mother Of Black Hollywood," comes out next week. Jennifer, thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.