Jenifer Lewis is ready for her closeup. Again.
And unlike all of her previous big moments, the showbiz veteran—whose scores of professional credits include stints on Broadway, television and film over the past four decades—the timing of it couldn’t be more better this go round.
The Black-ish actress, who turned turned 62 last month, is currently gracing the cover of Essence magazine and will be honored at the magazine’s glitzy “Black Women In Hollywood” fete during Oscars Week.
Her much buzzed about 2017 memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, was recently reissued in mass-market paperback via Amistad/Harper Collins.
And this week, the sassy and brassy diva that Bette Midler refers to as “the greatest black entertainer who ever lived” returns to her Broadway roots (sort of) when she performs her one-woman show during Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series on Feb. 15 (which is technically located on Broadway in New York City.)
“I mean imagine me, in that room, overlooking Columbus Circle, overlooking [Central Park], in that beautiful room, singing my own song,” Lewis told The Root last week during an interview.
“[It’s] something I didn’t do when I was in New York, in those years, ‘cause I didn’t know who I was...to write, to create in that way. But now, here at 62, aligned in wisdom. Aligned in...or should I say aligned and well rehearsed. I’ve grown to know just how important every performance is.”
The cabaret circuit is not foreign territory for the Kinloch, Mo., native, who cut her teeth on the Great White Way in shows such as Comin’ Uptown and Eubie! and on the national touring circuit. (She was originally cast as Effie during early workshops for what would eventually become Dreamgirls.) But it’s been a minute since the Bipolar, Bath & Beyond star has been behind the lights and holding her own.
And the fact that tickets to the show have sold briskly, Lewis revels in what she considers validation.
“I mean, as much grandiosity, and omnipotence, and all of the carrying on that I do in my shows, you guys [should know] how much humility I really do have and how grateful I am because there’s so much happening in my life right now,” she shared.
The elder stateswoman who has had over 300 appearances in film and on television—mostly in matriarch roles—recently found herself in the midst of tabloid fodder when reports surfaced of her and Black-ish co-star Tracee Ellis Ross being at odds with one another. Don’t believe the hype.
“That wasn’t about shit,” Lewis snorted about the scuttlebutt. “I left set because I had some shit to do, and people started making up shit. Don’t even try it. Ain’t nobody doing shit. No, we…Tracee and I…really do love each other.
“You know goddamn well Tracee and I couldn’t be over there fighting,” she continued. “First of all, here’s the truth, I don’t fight with nobody. How the fuck I’m gonna fight with somebody? I’m out here talking about lead with love and shit. I ain’t got time to be fighting with nobody no more. For what? I got every fucking thing I want.”
“But the truth is, honey, Tracee and I are not fighting. I ain’t on heroin or crack or opioids. I’m a regular nigga, child. I’m a regular nigga, having a good time. I travel the world. I just booked another trip around the world.”
Boasting over 840,000 Instagram followers with a social media clapback game that will make Cardi B blush, the woman TV Guide called “a national treasure” has mastered the art of not sweating the small stuff. She’s upfront and brutally honest in all she does, which is demonstrable throughout The Mother of Black Hollywood.
Lewis has been forthright with her bipolar disorder diagnosis and has become a public advocate for mental illness.
She’s often called on for public speaking engagements, specifically geared to the black community, which she considers a form of service that brings her great joy.
“Let me tell you something, I’m having the time of my life. My friend had a dinner party and made a toast, and he said, ‘Here’s to all of us, who are bipolar at this table.’ And he looks over, he goes, ‘But Jenifer’s the only one being paid to be bipolar.’”
“But, here’s the thing, honey,” she continued. “That’s not even true, because I don’t charge when I go to speak on mental illness, that’s not why I do it. I believe that kind of thing is not something you should be paid for. I mean, if there’s a small fee, fine, you know what I mean, but I don’t push that button.”
Unlike some other black actors on hit primetime shows who seem to shy away from controversial subject matter, Lewis doesn’t mince words when it comes to hot topics in the zeitgeist, specifically racial injustice.
During last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards, she turned heads when she showed up on the red carpet wearing a blinged-out Nike outfit inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the embattled former NFL quarterback who has become a modern-day hero after being blackballed for taking a knee in protest of the national anthem.
She has no regrets, either.
“Well here’s the thing—it didn’t matter what his name was,” Lewis said of Kaepernick, whom she has yet to meet. “It was a Rosa Parks move, and we have to take whatever we can get, and jump on it, and keep it moving.”
“Let me tell you something honey, these are not the times to sit on your ass,” she continued. “So whether it’s Kaepernick or Peppermint, I don’t give a fuck. If you’re talking about helping the next generation, then I’m there bitches. I’m there. I’m your girl.”
There was also talk of her helping Kanye West, who has admitted to being bipolar.
About that, Lewis shared: “He’s mentally ill, darling. There’s no if, ands and buts about that, and yes, someone in his camp were gonna try to get me in a room with him. But it never materialized, and that’s all I know. I don’t know Kanye West, darling. I don’t even know one song of his. I don’t know these kids and their trials and tribulations.”
And as can be expected, she’s not a fan of President Trump, who she had to mute after becoming physically ill from seeing one of his speeches over a year ago.
“Listen, Donald Trump is mentally ill,” she stated, rather matter of factly. “You have to understand. I keep tellin’ everybody, I know what this looks like. I mean, this is nothing new. They done elected and put Hitler in the office, and they know it. …This man would have genocide, if it were up to him.”
What is she listening to? Lewis said she’s been listening to a new song by Grammy-winning Welsh singer Hozier, Nina Cried Power, featuring Mavis Staple.
Paying homage to the late, great High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone, the song resonates deeply for Lewis.
“This is how I want people to remember, this is what I want people to say about me. ...I want them to say that Jenifer’s always had power,” she said. “I want somebody to say that about me. That’s what I want. I want the world to know that I cared.”
“I’m not a great singer. I’m not a great dancer. I’m not a great comedian. I’m not a great actress. What I am, is an entertainer. I’m a great entertainer. I entertain people. But see, what I have found out, I’ve always known it, but it’s just been so confirmed here of late, is that I care. I care about the next generation.”