It seems as if you can hear her laugh from miles away. Her smile is so bright it lights up the darkest theater, cabaret, movie or television screen. Jenifer Lewis—of Black-ish; Broadway’s Eubie!; the films Beaches, Poetic Justice and What’s Love Got to Do With It, among scores of others—is fearless. That’s a good thing because she is a bona fide, old-school star.
“I made my career my own. You know I gave up a few times, but I didn’t quit. … It took a little out of my ass, but I stayed with it,” Lewis says. “That’s why I had the right to write this book because I did come through the fire, because I did sustain and because I continue to love it!”
Lewis’ memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, is a rollicking, hilarious, emotional and visceral examination of a career most entertainers can only dream of. She knew this would be her life at the tender age of 5. That’s when she did her first solo at the First Baptist Church in her hometown, Kinloch, Mo. Of course, she got a standing ovation. Lewis writes that she gave them her best imitation of gospel artist Dorothy Love Coates, and in that moment, her destiny as a singer was sealed.
“There was never a doubt after that solo—I never looked back. It was like a tsunami of love coming over the pews! I mean, it wasn’t even a shouting kind of church,” Lewis recalls, “but they were up, crying and screaming. I performed, and it was like I was born with it!”
Lewis was so obviously born with it that she got her first Broadway role 11 days after graduating from college. The show was Eubie! It was June 5, 1979, and she was at the Ambassador Theatre standing onstage with the show’s stars, Gregory and Maurice Hines. That catapulted her straight into the iconic black Broadway community—which included the likes of Nell Carter, Hinton Battle, Vivian Reed and André DeShields.
“We were special! We were the gladiators of our time—you know we had trained. You don’t skip onto Broadway because you are pretty,” Lewis says, “and it’s Olympiad shit and no joke. Even at that young age, you had to stay in shape, stretch, take dance classes, take acting classes. I studied, I trained in the classics, Shakespeare, Brecht, and I couldn’t get enough. I drank it all and was thirsty for more.”
The “more” took Lewis through over 300 appearances onstage and in cabaret, film and television, drama and comedy. She has played everything from an unforgettable lead to a scene-stealing supporting character. But she admits that she had a little trouble transitioning from stage to screen because a woman whose voice was trained to hit the back row of a theater was a little loud for a camera.
“In researching a character, you have to gather everything from your own life. If you don’t know who you are, you can’t put those pieces of the puzzle together. I had to do some serious work for that. … You know the camera doesn’t lie. When you are in front of a camera, you have to believe what you say before you say it. It’s either real or it’s not,” Lewis explains.
The woman who’s been seen in everything from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to the cult favorite Jackie’s Back clearly got through it. Lewis has played the role of mother to everyone from Whitney Houston and Tupac Shakur to Taraji P. Henson and many others. Plus, the level of work she has put in to cement her status as a legend is a constant thread in her life. Lewis was never going to be a one-trick pony—one of those folks who can only sing or only dance. She does it all.
“See, my idols were Sammy [Davis] and Pearl Bailey—these are the people I study. These were entertainers who were complete. They knew you had to do it all. They were funny. They had great presence. Charisma. They could sing and dance and act, so I knew I had to try and be even better than them,” Lewis says.
But Lewis was nearly stymied by a problem that many African Americans ignore. The woman with a voracious sexual appetite and legendary temper was also crying herself to sleep. It turned out that Lewis had bipolar disorder. It has taken her years of therapy and medication to battle the illness. She has some advice to others experiencing such symptoms.
“You just have to get sick and tired of being sick, and when you’ve done that and you have the courage and the strength to say that’s enough of that, then you make some changes,” Lewis says. “But if you’re not living with the disease or some disorder, somebody you know might be. So just reach out a helping hand and take them to get some help. But I always caution you: If they aren’t going, they aren’t going. So keep it moving so your arms will be strong for the next one.”
As for the sexual harassment scandals rocking Hollywood and Capitol Hill, this woman who once talked her way out of being raped notes that such behavior has been going on since the dawn of time. But it is time, she says, for it to stop.
“Things are changing. Women are sick of being abused and used, beaten and discarded. We’ve got a lunatic in the White House that says ‘Grab ’em by the pussy.’ Come on, now,” Lewis says. “You can only fuck with a person so much. That’s why they’re coming forward.”
She thinks the publicity will change the culture because young women will read about this, and when someone tries to attack them, they’ll fight back because now they’ll know for sure what’s going on.
In a letter to readers at the end of her book, Lewis tells people that she wrote the memoir because she owes. She writes: “Because I survive, I owe. Because I live with bipolar disorder and thrive, I owe. … I owe it to the world to share what I have learned on my journey.”
Lewis is a force of nature—but she’s a human being
“I never give 100 percent. I give 2,000. That’s just how I roll,” Lewis says. “I’m an alpha female. You know I’m in the moment. If it’s not serving the moment, leave me the fuck alone. You know when you turn 60 and realize you’ve got about 30 summers left … that consists of joy.”
You can hear Lewis’ voice when the animated series Big Hero 6: The Series launches on Disney XD and the Disney Channel on Monday. You can also catch her on Black-ish on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.