*The incomparable Jenifer Lewis takes to the stage in a two-night only performance of her upcoming show, “An Intimate Evening With Jenifer Lewis.”
The bold, vivacious and multi-talented Hollywood diva is best known for being a quick-witted, no nonsense mother who balances tough love with humor in a plethora of film and television roles.
With over 60 films and 250 television appearances to her credit, the actress, singer and performer took a moment out of her busy schedule for an interview.
Having such a successful film and television career, what is it that compels you to continue returning to live theatre and stage performances?
The love of it. I’ve just always loved what I do. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I started singing in the church when I was 5 years old. That’s what pretty much compels me. And to get out there and talk about aging, health, finding love and loving yourself. That’s a big message in my show. And I return to the stage because I still have so much to talk about because life just gets better and better, and you never run out of things to say or to sing about. I got so many things to say, to share the heartaches and the glory. It’s the experiences, all the different experiences that I can share with people. I return because I love it. I love the life. I enjoy performing in front of a live audience more than anything else. There will never be a time that I don’t return to the stage. That’s where I live out loud. That’s where my soul is fed.
You’ve always been known for “keeping it real.” Throughout your 30-year career in entertainment, has there ever been a time when you felt any pressure to not be as “real” or as “raw?”
That’s a very good question. The answer is no. I don’t even think I’m capable of not being true to the moment whether I’m performing or just living my life. I’ve always pretty much told the truth. I have this expression, oh honey I call it like I see it. No, I never went into that fake Hollywood thing pretending to be one way when something else was actually happening. The answer is absolutely no. I don’t even think I’m even capable of it. I just live in the moment whether I’m doing a character or living my own life. That’s just the way I roll baby.
You have over 60 films, 250 TV appearances and several Broadway performances to your credit. What has been your most challenging role to date?
I guess it would have to be my role in “Not Easily Broken” because there were a lot of different levels to that woman. She was dysfunctional and I had to do a lot to really bring her to life. There was no happily ever after with her. Because too often in film there’s just a happily ever after but that’s not real life. Just because somebody has an experience in life doesn’t mean they are ready to change who they are, and that character was not ready to change. I really worked with Bill Duke on that. It was a challenging role.
Not only do people refer to you as a Hollywood diva, but you’re now considered to be the “Black Mother of Hollywood.” Off-screen, do you consider yourself to be a matriarch?
I adopted a little girl when I was in the Big Brother Big Sister program. I met her when she was 7 and she was just a great kid. When she was 11, her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and was unable to raise her, so I adopted her when she was 12. She just turned 25 last week. That was certainly the greatest thing I’ve done with my life—raising and loving her. I’m just Jenifer offstage. I’m easy now. And I’m in love.
Has your daughter expressed any kind of interest in pursuing a career in entertainment or does she have any aspirations to follow in your footsteps?
Absolutely not, and thank you very much. <Laughs> She’s got her own thing going with photography. She’s a great kid.
You are deeply committed to supporting the arts community, even to the point of helping with fundraising efforts for local theatres. What do you think about the drastic budget cuts to the arts and art education programs in our schools?
Well, I certainly see it as a tragedy. Creativity is who we are. To take that away from the schools pretty much takes it away from the community also. I see it as a tragedy because the arts feed the soul. Children need an outlet. Kids are staring into the computers and their phones, so there’s a detachment already. So if they don’t bring back the arts and what feeds the soul, I think that might be a big regret. Hopefully the President will be re-elected because I know he knows how important that is.
Some of your most important work is actually performed offstage and off-screen and involves community issues. You’re a strong proponent of AIDS education and treatment, breast cancer awareness, an advocate regarding mental health issues, and a strong supporter of the youth and LGBT community. How did all of these issues become so important to you?
I experienced the height of the AIDS epidemic. I watched my friends fall. It was a silent war that was never declared, and I lost so many friends. I was always an advocate but I became more of one in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I took on mental illness because I am bipolar, and I know from my own experience that with treatment and with medication you can have a good life if you take care of yourself. As far as breast cancer, I have a sister who is a survivor. That has always been a cause for me. And yeah, I go out and talk to kids who have been abused and teenage pregnancy cases. I’m just out there because to whom much is given…you know that saying? Much is required. It goes back to your original question. It’s why I perform. I just feel like I have a story to tell. It’s just been my path to entertain people and to help where I can. At this point, after having that kind of success, there’s nothing left to do but give it back.
You speak very candidly about being diagnosed with the bipolar disorder. What made you decide to go public with your disorder? And at any time did you think it would impact your career?
No, I didn’t care if it impacted my career. Like I said, I don’t have many secrets. My life is an open book. I’ma tell it way before somebody else tells it, whatever it is. I came out about being bipolar because I had no shame. There was no shame in my game. Mental health issues are such a taboo thing in the community, but I wasn’t ashamed of it. When I did “Bipolar, Bath and Beyond,” I didn’t realize how important it was, and then Oprah called and I realized I had something to say. But that important thing I had to say was that I have experienced the medication and the treatment, and I am better. The only thing you can do for anybody else is to tell your story. I had to say yes I was diagnosed bipolar and I wanted to be well. That’s the first step. You have to want to be well. So yeah, I had no problem coming out about that. I don’t even consider it coming out. I was just telling another thing. <Laughs> I personally think that we are as sick as our secrets.
What can people expect to see and experience in your upcoming show, “An Intimate Evening With Jenifer Lewis?”
Well, it is a retrospective of my life, my thoughts on aging, being in love and staying mentally and physically healthy. People can just come out and have fun, leave there with having been on a journey and taking from it what you will. But I assure you in all of my humility, you will—if nothing else—be entertained.
“An Intimate Evening With Jenifer Lewis” will be performed at The Renberg Theatre in Hollywood, July 13-14 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.lagaycenter.org or by calling 323-860-7300.
Jenifer Lewis will be performing at 54 Below nightclub, July 24-28 at 8:00 p.m. in New York, NY. Tickets can be purchased at www.54below.com or by calling 866-468-7619.
Follow Jenifer on Facebook at Jenifer Lewis For Real and on Twitter at @jeniferlewis.
Dana Stringer is a freelance writer, playwright, poet and activist based in Southern California. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.