Saving Grace: Jenifer Lewis

Categories // LA Focus, Saving Grace Wednesday, 06 December 2017

Saving Grace: Jenifer Lewis

She’s known for playing the mother of iconic characters including Tina Turner (Angela Bassett) in “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, Whitney Houston’s character in “The Preacher’s Wife”, Tupac Shakur’s character in “Poetic Justice” and in 2014, she was cast as Ruby Johnson, the mom of Anthony Anderson in ABC’s Emmy-nominated hit series, “Blackish”. All of which has come to dub her as “The Mother of Black Hollywood”. 

It is also the title of her recently released memoir, chronicling Lewis’ offscreen struggles right along with her onscreen successes in a career that has spanned four decades and upwards of 300 appearances on film, TV and the stage.
The book, whose rich detail can be attributed to her keeping detailed journals, reveal the highs and lows of her storied career, including her battles with substance abuse, sex addiction and bipolar disorder. 
“I wanted to hit the things that really tried to knock me off my feet and then the courage [I had] to go and get help—to give the road I took one step at a time. Writing the book was the greatest challenge of my life.”
She is both amazed and grateful for the response to it.
“The lines were around the corner in New York, Philly and D.C. I was blown away and so grateful and appreciative of how people wanted to thank me for entertaining them,” Lewis said.
The 60-year old actress who once sang backup to Bette Midler and who originated the “Dreamgirls” role Jennifer Holliday played on Broadway, credits her success to raw talent.
“I was always a diva. I was born with it. I always knew that I was going to be an entertainer. I sang my first solo in church at the age of five and the reaction of the congregation was like a Tsunami of love.”
She made her mark in Hollywood in films like “The Preacher’s Wife”, “Medea’s Family Reunion”, “Meet The Browns”, “The Cookout” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” and on TV with recurring roles in “Girlfriends”, “Boston Legal”, “A Different World” and her six season co-starring stint in Lifetime TV's hit drama series "Strong Medicine."
Says Lewis, “I represent the middle-aged African American woman. And that is not to be taken lightly. We are a colorful people, a powerful people and a proud people. And that’s no easy task to represent. So I’ve tried to honor their sassiness, their intelligence, their strength, you know it’s that aunt, that mother, that sister, that brings the whole family together and says look, we’re going to win this season.” 
She was handpicked for the role of Ruby Johnson on “Blackish”.
“They said, there’s just one person we’re going to call and it’s Jenifer Lewis. I was nervous that first day because the rest of the cast had already done several episodes and I had to go out there and find their rhythm and their levels, but I went in there and they asked me to be a regular and the rest is history.
Lewis has never been one to let Hollywood decide when she will work, having in the mid-80s launching a series of one women plays that have reflected and defined her growth in the industry. 
“Whatever goes on in life, I just get back on stage because that’s where I breathe,” Lewis explains. “I used my one-woman shows to say “hey, look what I did and if you want to do that and not be so serious about life, you can do it too. 
“Kids think it’s somehow easy—especially now with the internet. That it doesn’t require talent any more, but,” States Lewis, “I didn’t take the elevator, I took the stairs and studied, stayed in continuum education and I kept moving. The biggest message is having a passion that real can sustain you. That’s why I couldn’t quit.”
As far back as the Kinloch, Missouri native can remember, she has known she was born to entertain people. 
“I sang my first solo when I was 5 years old in church and everybody went crazy and I knew then at that moment what I would do.”
The effervescent, outgoing personality she displays every week as part of one of TV’s most beloved comedies, Blackish, was just as evident in her tenure as class president from seventh grade through 12th grade, on her high school cheerleading squad where she was captain, and in college, where she was cast in every play and musical the school presented.
She signed on to her first Broadway show less than two weeks after she arrived in New York City and went on to do four other Broadway shows, including Rock N Roll and Hairspray. She was the original Effie in the workshop version of Dreamgirls before it went to Broadway. 
After Broadway I went out in the road with Bette Midler, returning to New York to sing in nightclubs and launch the first of her one woman shows.) 
For much of her success she suffered with untreated bipolar disorder, a condition she says may have contributed to some of the rejection she received in the casting process.
“That mania is too much for people. A lot of times, I didn’t study the way I should have because I was such a natural,” Lewis recalls. “Thought I could just go in there and take over that room, but no that step of discipline was very necessary and my brain was just too all over the place.”
The actress suffered a nervous breakdown in the 90s with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, which left several of her friends dead. She was also treated for sex addiction and substance abuse. In the end her saving grace was that the standing ovations she received meant more to her than her obstacles she would endure to get to them.
“I went on to get help and it was only after I got help that my career started to blossom because I was stable enough and level-headed enough to pursue it. We are as sick as our secrets,” she says now of that time in her life and the condition that she speaks so freely about. 
“Bipolar is a disease like high blood pressure or lupus. You go way up and you go way down, there’s no middle. You literally wear yourself out and I went on Oprah and told 60 million people I was bipolar. It’s about telling the truth and feeling you feelings because if you do that, then you don’t have to go and act it out somewhere.”
In support of the book—available from Harper Collins—Lewis is doing a promotional tour around the country, with several upcoming appearances in Los Angeles, including Diva’s Simply Singing on December 9th at the Taglyan Cultural Center and a book signing at the Nate Holden Theater on December 16. 
She is already working on a second book. In the meantime, she is enjoying life. 
Says Lewis, “At 60, most of my priorities have changed. I’ve got about 30 more summers left, so if it’s not about love, positivity and celebrating life, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I love life. I love what I do. I have a wonderful job on Blackish. I have a wonderful family, wonderful friends and a very illustrious career. I’m an activist for many causes—Big Brothers, Big Sisters, HIV, Breast Cancer. Who could ask for anything more.”

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