Jun05

Saving Grace: Margaret Avery

She lit up the silver screen and earned an Oscar nomination for her powerful portrayal of the sultry and spirited blues singer Shug Avery — a role originally intended for Tina Turner — in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”. And today, almost three decades later, Margaret Avery is still recognized on the streets and called out by the character’s name she brought to life in that now classic film.

“Whenever anyone refers to me as ‘Shug,’ I now see it as a term of endearment,” says the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award winner and NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. “After Color Purple came out everyone was calling me Shug and I’m thinking, ‘Come on now it’s just a role… I did twenty years of acting before Shug.”

Fact is, Avery’s work — too extensive to list — includes roles in such iconic TV shows as “Sanford & Son,” “American Playhouse TV,” “Miami Vice” and “Murder She Wrote” while her silver screen credits span “Hell Up In Harlem” and “Which Way Is Up” to “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins” and “Meet The Browns.”

“Now that it’s twenty-seven years after Color Purple, I’m thinking for me to still be remembered as Shug after all these years is a blessing.”

Blessing aside, she hopes to forge new memories with her co-starring role on the forthcoming BET series, “Being Mary Jane” which premieres on the network next month. The show stars Gabrielle Union as “Mary Jane Paul,” a successful talk show host juggling her family and professional career while searching for Mr. Right.

“What makes this show interesting is that it covers issues (teen pregnancy, infidelity, professional ethics) without beating you over the head with it,” observes Avery, who plays Union’s mother.

“BET is trying to upgrade their programming, so we’re fortunate in being one of the first shows of this new genre that they are entering in. People of all generations are going to relate to it — young people for sure, Gabrielle Union does a fabulous job — such a pro, such stamina. Richard Roundtree plays my husband and we were both in awe of her.”

The role has already become a favorite (aside from, of course, her iconic “Shug”) because of the challenge of playing such a complex character.

“My character has a lot of layers,” Avery explains. “She’s bitter because she has Lupus and feels that life has slipped her by because she practically becomes immobile and it comes and goes. It’s a very cruel disease in that way. I’m hoping it will open the eyes of the public to this disease.”

And though time has not dimmed her acting skills, it does present its own set of challenges.

“You’ve just got to memorize at a faster rate so that's challenging,” Avery reveals. “And as I’ve got older I’ve felt badly about taking longer to memorize the lines, but a few years ago I heard Meryl Streep say in an interview that it was more challenging to memorize lines and I said, ‘Great, I’m in good company.’”

Born in Oklahoma and raised in San Diego, Avery grew up wanting to be an actress—a talent that wasn’t encouraged by her mother back in the fifties.

“She would say there is enough colored people singing and dancing. For blacks it was nursing, social work, or education.

“I knew I could never be a nurse. In high school I was a candy striper. Going to hospitals and reading to patients and being in that environment. But that didn't work for me because anytime someone had to get a shot or draw blood I had to turn my head, so I went into teaching.”

Avery taught until she heard a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which encouraged her to pursue her ultimate passion—the arts.

She debuted on the Hollywood scene in 1972 with a role in Steven Speilberg’s  “Something Evil” and went on to starring roles in such films as “Which Way is Up?,” “Magnum Force,” “Hell Up in Harlem,” “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” “Blueberry Hill” and “White Man’s Burden.”

Offscreen, the mother of one—who holds a bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of San Francisco, and a master’s degree in marriage, family and child therapy and has served as a psychiatric social worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District— finds fulfillment in working with at-risk teenagers and battered women in greater Los Angeles.

“That work is especially rewarding,” she said, “because it has the capacity to change lives.  It just takes one person to reach out, with a kind word or deed or with a smile, to change someone’s entire world...and I don’t mean, to give money all the time, because sometimes that’s the easy part.  I mean…to care enough to give another person the most precious gift of all—the gift of hope.”

Hers is a hope born out of faith, which Avery said she leaned on when things got tough in life and in her career. Ironically, Avery did not work for a year after garnering an Oscar nomination, and despite the popularity of the book, play and all things “Color Purple,” never attained the promise one would have thought to accompany the critical acclaim.

“There were times when I wouldn't know how to make ends meet and I needed God to hold on to. That was the time I started getting back in church and I wanted my daughter to have a strong foundation in church. It would have been easier to stay with my daughters father or have some man take care of me but God still made a way for me.”

“There are so many examples of God's grace in my life. I remember when my daughter was young and we were at home and the house a couple doors from us caught fire and the wind started blowing it towards our house.  I told my daughter get your books, your homework and your uniform and I grabbed my purse and a change of close because I knew there was no time so I thought at least let me get through tomorrow.

“We grabbed the stuff and got outside and before you knew it the wind shifted directions and the fire never touched our house. I know that was the grace of God. Nothing else. That’s what grace is to me — having faith that God will make a way even when you can't see one in sight.

Avery grew up going to Bethel Baptist Church in San Diego.

“Church was not mandatory like in some households so I went off and on for about 18 years until I left to go to college in San Francisco. “Now I go to FAME and I love my church,” says Avery.

“I truly believe that my higher power gave me the inner strength to accomplish what I need to in life and to get up and do what I had to do day to day. I read an interview a few years ago that I did and it made me cry because I realized that my life has been hard. I had a child that I was raising alone and no family and a tough career. But I just believed that God would help me and I never gave up on believing.

“What keeps me grounded is how blessed I am when I get out and share with others.”

May07

Saving Grace: Phylicia Rashad

Best known to the world as Claire Huxtable— Bill Cosby’s striking, eloquent and smart TV wife, Phylicia Rashād remains one of America’s favorite TV moms. Fact is, since the 1984 debut of “The Cosby Show,” Rashād’s portrayal of the stylish matriarch of the Cosby brood has transcended race and inspired a generation.

“When you look back on the work you’ve been a part of and see you’ve been privileged to work in a way that has meant so much to so many people, you realize what a gift that is,” says Rashād, whose most recent credits include NBC’s “Do No Harm,” Lifetime’s “Steel Magnolias” and Tyler Perry’s “Good Deeds.”

“I always felt it was a gift to begin with,” Rashād says of her time on NBC’s groundbreaking “The Bill Cosby Show“, but especially now when I look at what’s happening in television and how so many people say how much they miss the show; there was nothing like it before; and hasn’t been anything like it since; I realize again and again how privileged life is and has been.”

Later this year, the seasoned thespian—and the first black woman to win a Tony for best actress—will appear as Greek goddess Demeter in “God’s Behaving Badly” along side Christopher Walken and Sharon Stone. In the meantime, Rashād has stepped into the role of director for a second time with August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum.

Rashād admits that directing hadn’t been on her radar until she was approached by Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero to direct a Seattle Repertory Theatre production of “Gem of the Ocean,” marking her 2007 directorial debut.

“It was quite a learning process,” says Rashād, who began her career on the stage playing a munchkin on “The Wiz” and as an understudy for Sheryl Lee Ralph in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls” before hitting pay dirt with “The Cosby Show” in 1984.

“I enjoy working with actors,” Rashād says of directing. “There’s so much that goes into the creation of theatre which most audience members may not know, —designers and creative directors all the behind-the-scenes people, and I enjoy working with all those people.”

Growing up in Texas, Rashād realized at eleven years old that she wanted to be an actress after taking the stage as the mistress of ceremonies at a citywide music festival while still in elementary school.

“I didn’t read the script because we had rehearsed it so much I knew it by heart. And when the presentation was over and mothers came to collect their children, I heard a few of them say, ‘There she is. There’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully. Isn’t she beautiful?’ Well, that meant a lot to me because beautiful was the one thing I wanted to be, and thought I wasn’t and would never be.

“That’s it! I thought, ‘When I grow up I’ll be an actress so I can be beautiful all the time.’

“What I didn’t understand and wouldn’t understand for a number of years was that beauty had nothing to do with how I looked. It was communication from the heart.”

What came natural, however, was her love of the arts. Rashād’s childhood home was a place where creativity and the arts was fiercely supported and encouraged by her mother Vivian Ayers, a Pulitzer-prize nominated poet, and Rashād’s constant inspiration.

“Growing up with a mother like that had its implications,” says Rashād. “One of those implications was that we were not allowed to sit in front of television for interminable amounts of time. She always created distractions for us.”

Rashād recalls constantly being engaged in various artistic disciplines, including studying three instruments.

“My mother was always creating these things for us because she understood that through artistic study, discipline, and endeavor, her children would be free. And it was true.”

So when her three children came face to face with restrictions and barriers that were part and parcel of the discrimination in the south during the 1950s, Ayers went out of her way to make a way, such as when Rashād’s younger sister—famed dancer Debbie Allen—was barred from attending the top ballet school in Houston because of Jim Crow laws.

“My mother found a master teacher who would teach her at home,” Rashād explains. “She removed the banister from the stairs, had it attached to the wall in the dining room, and had all the furniture moved somewhere else to facilitate my sister having these private lessons.”

There was nothing Rashād’s mother wouldn’t do when it came to encouraging her children to strive for more, once moving with her children to Mexico for a break from the southern Jim Crow traditions, which is why to this day Rashād and her sister, Debbie Allen, are fluent in Spanish.

The now 64-year old actress/director—who says there’s a little of her mother in every role she plays—went on to study theatre at Howard University, her orthodontist father’s alma mater. But it was the opportunity to study at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York the summer after her sophomore year that really changed her life.

“This was a year after an instructor at Howard, a well-meaning Irish woman, misplaced and mistaken, said to the class that we should consider another occupation because there was no place for the Negro in the theatre.’

“But when I went to New York after my sophomore year and spent those sixty days at the Negro Ensemble Company, that was all I needed. I wanted to be like the actors I was seeing. They were great, and all of them different…all of them masterful.”

The fateful trip almost didn’t happen as Rashād’s father was reluctant to send his daughter to New York by herself.

“But my mother said to me, ‘I’ve been saving this money and I didn’t know why I was saving it. Now I know why. You are going.’ She had saved exactly what was needed for me to have a ticket and to spend sixty days there,” Rashād recalls.

“These are the things that help shape and form a human being—that kind of unfailing support you need in those formative years. Fortunately for me I had it.”
Aside from The Cosby Show, Rashad has had recurring roles on “Little Bill” “A Different World”, “Cosby”, and “Touched By An Angel.” In 2004, Rashād became the first African-American actress to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, for her role in the revival of "A Raisin in the Sun”.

“I was grateful of course,” she says, “but when I was informed of that, my initial response was ‘What happened?’ Great actresses have preceded me. Nobody was ever nominated before?”

Rashād has starred in numerous stage productions these past few years including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “August: Osage County,” “Cymbeline” and “Gem of the Ocean.”

In 2008 she resumed her award-winning role in a television adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which earned her the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. Also that year, Rashād was dubbed "The Mother" of the African-American community at the 42nd NAACP Image Awards.

The mother of two says grace itself is her saving grace and remains humble despite it all.

“I don’t think of myself as an icon. I’m a woman who has had children, who’s fried a lot of chicken, who’s walked the dog and fed the cat. I don’t think of myself as an icon, I think of myself as an artist who continues to develop.”

Apr08

Saving Grace: Angela Bassett

An actress celebrated for portraying strong black women, Angela Bassett doesn’t disappoint in her latest role as Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs in “Olympus Has Fallen.”

“It’s an adrenaline-intense, edge of your seat, nailing biting action thriller,” Bassett told Access Hollywood, “but it’s sophisticated with great characters and a lot of depth.”

“While it’s fiction there’s also a great deal of accuracy and plausibility. I’m certainly appreciative of our secret service men and women in terms of keeping us safe and secure.”

In the film, when the White House is seized by an extremist group and the president is taken hostage, it is up to the secret service to get him back. Appearing alongside Morgan Freeman, Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart, Bassett seamlessly stepped into a role that was originally written for a male actor.

“I was very pleased that our director made that casting decision,” says the native New Yorker. “Historically, there has never been a female director of the secret service, but right now more women are coming into public office. It’s an honor. It’s a sacrifice.

“A little boy asked me, `Miss Bassett, why do you always just play strongwomen types?' Like it was a problem. I said, `You're right, honey, I shouldn't paint myself into a corner’. I mean that sometimes I have in the past been too strict on what projects I want to do and it could be that its great material but I didn’t feel it was right for me at that time.

“You're always looking for something bigger, better,” says Bassett. “Once that breakout happens, you can't do those things you could do before. You do “What's Love (Got To Do With It)” and then they come to you with three episodes on Melrose Place? I would have done that before. Now I can't. Instead I've got to sit that out and wait until another lead role comes. And lead roles-- just don’t come as often.”

Yet, Bassett—who earned both a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Tina Turner in the 1993 film, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” and whose impressive list of screen credits include “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, “Boesman & Lena”, “Waiting To Exhale”, “Malcolm X”, “Akeelah & The Bee,” “Jumping the Broom” with Paula Patton and Laz Alonso, and recently Lifetime’s “Betty and Coretta” with Mary J. Blige—has more than made due, becoming one of the most respected leading black actresses in cinema today.

“I think Hollywood has the idea that there are things I won’t do more than I do. For me it’s a feeling. No I’m not going to do nudity, not going to degrade myself and yes I believe in playing and portraying strong images of women because there is so much negativity in the world with regard to black women and our culture that I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Bassett’s stance could also be from the impact of having strong black women in her life, most notably her mother, who stressed two things while raising the New York City native and her sister in St. Petersburg, Florida—education and God.

“God is my saving Grace,” says Bassett. “He is the center of my joy.

“I was reared in church. My great-grandfather was a preacher and it was a huge part of my upbringing. It was something my mother didn’t play about. You went to church no questions asked. I appreciate that. My relationship with God has meant the world to me. It’s guided me on everything I do— in the choices I make and how I want to be seen. How I carry myself. It’s from my rearing in church and beliefs. What would God say about this or that?

And my mom instilled so much,” she says recalling an incident where at the age of nine, she brought home a “C.”

“I knew that she wasn't going to be happy. I thought average ain't bad. I don't have any F's. And she said, 'I don't have no average children. Now, this stops— no phone calls to your little girlfriends, boyfriends, no calling…cheerleading. No allowance. All of it is cut off. I don't have average children.”

“My mother was amazing in that she gave me such confidence in myself and instilled so many values from the men I pick to how I see myself as a woman.

“I remember my mother had a boyfriend who fondled my sister and me—scared the crap out of me.

“Fortunately, it didn't get past fondling. That was detrimental enough. And fortunately, my mother believed me and banished that person from her life. That strengthened me. She got rid of him and let us know it would never happen to us again.”

These days, her mom has been pivotal in providing support with the twins Bassett and husband—fellow actor and Yale alum Courtney Vance—welcomed into their family in 2006.

“My mother didn't have help. She couldn't afford help. The help was the neighborhood, the family, the choir director and the great grandma and that sort of thing. The teachers and the school, but that was a different time. It wasn't so precarious and dangerous as it is today. That was help then.

“Sometimes there’s that pull of not enough time and not enough hours in the day to get everything done but I have my mom and Courtney who take that pressure off.”

And these days, the only pressure felt by the award-winning actress who said no to the role that won Halle Berry an Oscar (for “Monsters Ball”), is the pressure she puts on herself to be the best she can be.

“I would love to own one (an Oscar),” Bassett notes. “But I guess I do believe in destiny—that if it's going to be, then it will happen. Now, in the end I may have said no to some things I should've said yes to, but at the time I had good reason. But I'm happy, and there's nothing else I'd rather be.”

It was only after an 11th-grade class trip to Washington, DC in 1974 during which she saw actor James Earl Jones perform in a Kennedy Center production of the play "Of Mice and Men” that she began to consider acting as a career choice. She subsequently won a scholarship to Yale, where she would study for the next seven years, earning a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1983.

Two years later she appeared in her first TV film, Doubletake. For the next six years she would survive off guest TV appearances and featured roles in TV films. A turning point came in 1991 when she was cast in “Boyz N The Hood”, but it was over the next two years with roles in the biopics “Malcolm X” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that she would hit her stride.

While being a wife and busy mother of twins has added new challenges, Bassett by all appearances hasn’t missed a step with “Olympus Has Fallen” as her second of three films to be released this year.

Most recently, she just finished filming the musical, “Black Nativity.”

“Everyone in the cast is so over the moon with this film,” says Bassett, who will be sharing an on screen duet with Jennifer Hudson. “The music crosses so many different genres, from rap, R & B, and Gospel. It’s also Langston Hughes, whose words and poetry gave me an introduction into theater.”

Based on Langston Hughes' gospel musical re-telling of the Bible's nativity story, the film also stars Forrest Whitaker, Tyrese Gibson, and rapper Nas with music by Raphael Saadiq.

In discussing how she decides which projects to take on, Bassett told Marc Lamont Hill, “You want to connect that which you’re offered with that which you’re interested in doing. I have friend who says, ‘You can’t dance to every record, nor do you want to. But you dance to that which inspires you.’ ”

Mar07

Saving Grace: Robin Roberts

Robin Roberts' return to "Good Morning America" early last month was marked by a flood of congratulatory messages from millions of fans across the nation and celebrity well-wishers, including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Jimmy Kimmel and Bradley Cooper who were among those recording welcome videos for the veteran anchor.

"I keep pinching myself," said Robert her first day back on air. "This is actually happening."

The NBC’s “Today” show, and rival for the early mornings time slot, sent a gift basket and made a large donation to a charity that facilitates finding donor matches for patients who, like Robin, require bone-marrow transplants.

Straight from the White House, President Barak Obama, with First Lady Michelle Obama at his side, said “Good Morning, America, and welcome back, Robin.”

“Robin, we just want you to know that the whole Obama family, we’ve been thinking about you,” said the first lady, “and praying for you, and rooting for you every step of the way.”

Like many who followed Robert’s public battle with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), the president called her an inspiration and stated that he “couldn’t be happier’ to see her back on the air.

“I’m so grateful that people see me as a symbol of hope,” Roberts told Diane Sawyer in a special 20/20 episode that aired late last month.

Roberts’ latest medical ordeal began last June when she announced that she had the rare blood disorder. Her bone marrow produced too few functioning red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Treatment would require Roberts taking a medical leave to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

Immediately, the outpouring of love and support rushed in from the public. The very day Roberts made her announcement, Be the Match Registry—a nonprofit organization run by the National Marrow Donor Program, saw a 1,800% increase in donors.

“I am the first one to hold my hand up and say I have had so much help because of the position I’m in,” said Roberts after her 2007 battle with breast cancer, “but I don’t want to just take it and run. I want to use it to be an amplifier and a magnifying glass for those who are not in this situation.”

Upon leaving the show, Robert allowed cameras a candid look at the difficult period during which she as she found a bone marrow match in her sister, dealt with the loss of her mother, and grappled with the emotional tug and war of undergoing treatment and fighting for recovery. The 20/20 special aired last month.

"When I started, there was just like something for hydration, and then they would add another bag. … they would put chemo, and … all of a sudden I couldn't even see the pole for all the bags that were hanging off of it," she said.

"Some of it was nutrition and there was this white bag called, 'lipids.' And it would come in the room, and I could just smell it. And it looked like... white-out. That's how it was. But it was giving me life, it was keeping me alive."

This isn’t the first time Roberts faced a harrowing health issue. Just over 5 years ago, the Mississippi native had been working on a tribute to former ABC colleague Joel Siegel, who died of colon cancer and had been an advocate of early screening and prevention, when she discovered a lump in her breast while performing a self examination.

After undergoing a biopsy, her fears were confirmed.

She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, an announcement she also made on the air before taking a medical leave for surgery.

It was her beloved mother who passed the day after Roberts began her 2012 leave from GMA, who’d encouraged her to share her battle breast cancer with all of America.

“My mom said, ‘Make your mess your message,’ ” Robin told Cancerconnect.com. “She helped show me that there are others who are going to benefit from [my story] and that the pain and discomfort I was going to go through would be minimal compared with the benefit I could bring to other people.”

“‘She said, ‘You know, Robin, you are abundantly blessed, and you have resources that other people do not have; you need to be their voice, and you need to be an advocate for them.’ ”

It is with that same candidacy that Robin approached her struggle against MDS, whether her grief after losing her mother at such a vital time or her decision to shave off her hair.

"It was so traumatic last time and I wanted to be in control," she told 20/20. "I am in control. I am deciding when my hair goes. I'm not waiting in that hospital bed for it to fall out. I made this decision and it was the right decision."

The, daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, Roberts began her career in 1983 as a sports anchor and reporter after graduating from Southeaster Louisiana University. Roberts, a star basketball player who averaged 15.2 points her game during her senior year, eventually made her way to ESPN in 1990 where she would go on to earn three Emmy Awards.

Five years later, the Mississippi native began as a contributor on “Good Morning America” and in 2005 was promoted to co-anchor. Along with co-anchor George Stephanopoulos who joined her in 2009, Roberts lead the GMA to the top of the rating charts.

Her persistence, however, did not make the days after the transplant any easier for her to navigate, with Robert’s making the public admission that she felt as if she were dying.

"I was in a coma-like state," she says of the days following the September procedure, a time when she couldn’t eat or drink. “I truly felt I was slipping away."

What got her through was the support of family and friends and the faith instilled in her by her parents, Lawrence and Lucy Marion Roberts.

“They instilled in me a deep faith. We went to church and it brings back such wonderful memories. Mama making pancakes. We’re getting ready for church and she’s playing the piano. As I moved as an adult from town to town, the first thing I did was join a church. And all four of their children are college educated and reached certain levels of success, but my Mama says what brings her the greatest joy is when someone says, “Hey, I saw your child in church today.”

Roberts morning routine begins with her saying the prayer of protection, “The light of God surrounds me. The love of God enfolds me. The power of God protects me. The presence of God watches over me. Wherever I am, God is.”

Today, the anchor reports that, "Every day I feel more like my old self. I didn't think I would…You feel bad for so long, you just want to feel normal. And now I do."

Though doctors are still watching her health, by all appearances, not only is she back to normal, but thriving.

Roberts’ saving grace was perhaps put best when she stated, “if you strip away my college degree and my awards, and who I am and all that, it comes down to being a simple child of God. That’s who I am.”

Feb06

Saving Grace: Lamman Rucker

I was scared to death at first,” says “Meet the Browns” star Lamman Rucker, of the role that jumpstarted his career. “I was like, ‘Wow, can I do that?’

“I was coming in being the new guy on the show with people who’ve been there for twenty thirty years, and I had to come in there and deliver and not drop the ball. Even my love interest was significantly more experienced than me.”
­

Rucker landed his earliest onscreen roles in the 90s, appearing in the TV movies “The Jacksons: An American Dream” and “The Temptations” but it was taking the role of T. Marshall Travers opposite Tamara Tunie on “As the World Turns” that turned out to be a career maker career. That role led to a stint on “All My Children.”
On both shows, Ruckers played the bad guy, which he admits was lots of fun to take on, but also daunting.
Add to that the rigorous schedule that comes with filming a soap opera, which requires shooting five one-hour episodes a week.

“I was definitely intimidated,” says the Pittsburgh-native. “But I said let  me not even think too much about the fact that there’s only maybe two other black guys on the show, that I’m the new guy, the young guy, and the bad guy.

“I had to just go in there and do my thing. To attack it, be decisive, make a decision on who I wanted this character to be, what kind of dynamics was he going to have and what kind of energy I was going to bring into the show.”

That confidence has taken him a long way.

After departing from “All My Children,” Ruckers joined the cast of the hit UPN show “Half & Half” playing Mona’s (Rachel True) boyfriend. Next came succession of Tyler Perry projects including the films, “Meet the Browns,” “Why Did I Get Married?” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” in which he acted along side the likes of Janet Jackson. Jill Scott, Malik Yoba, Angela Bassett, and Sofia Vergara.

The fast pace of soap opera production would prove to prepare Rucker for the demands on being a part of Tyler Perry’s TV series “Meet the Browns,” which filmed as many as 52 episodes a single season.

“We all got along very well, Mr. Perry and everybody below him,” Rucker says of the cast and crew. “Eventually we became a really well-oiled machine and it was fun to come to work. Even though a lot of people might say that kind of humor was very low-brow, we also tried to be very intelligent about the content of stories and again about the images we were putting forward.”

When it comes to taking on roles, being conscious about the work he’s putting into the world, is a guiding principle for Rucker who says he always wants to be able to look his parents in the eyes whenever they view his work.

“You have to be mindful of the decisions that you make and the work that you accept,” says Rucker, “because you’ve got to take some responsibility for the work you’re putting out there. I want to be proud of the choices I make.

“Life should be about more than just trying to get rich and wealthy. As an actor too, you go on stage to give something away.”

It’s an attitude he’s learned from his parents.

“Both of my parents are artists,” he explains. “My mother is a dancer, my father is a musician, and all these [arts] go hand in hand so I was kind of born into it.”

Rucker gravitated to acting at a young age. His first acting role was as Martin Luther King Jr. when he was in the 4th grade. Remaining active in school plays through junior high, he then went on to attended the renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington D.C., where he spent his formative years. Watching his parents gave him a powerful set of role models to fashion his artistic sensibilities after.

“It wasn’t just about going out there just expressing themselves for selfish reasons,” says the 6’ 2” actor. “There was always education and culture and spirituality and sensuality and there was always something very powerful and profound build into everything they were doing,” says Rucker.

“They were activists, they were always involved in and invested in the community, fighting for justice to some capacity and a lot of times even the work was often very political or revolutionary or about bring to light things that needs to be exposed. Those things were always there.”

Naturally, his parents’ influence extends beyond the screen and Rucker takes pride in being able to call himself an activists and educator.

In college, he played basketball and graduated with a degree in Information Technology and Business and then earned a masters in Education and Curriculum Development.

Others might not see much of a connection between the arts and his chosen majors, but Rucker begs to differ.
“Being in business, being in education, being in sports, being involved in math and technology, it’s always been very artistic and very creative.

“I’ve got a left side and right side to my brain anyway. I’m not just one-hundred percent a creative person and not one-hundred percent a logical, quantitative person. I love math and science, I always have,” says Rucker. “And I love people. I love children and when I realized I had a gift and capacity for [education] too, then it was easy to focus on that.”

Rucker is currently active in many non-profit and grassroots organizations, Green for All, for which he serves a board member. The organization focuses on equality in access to fresh food, air and water; sustainability and wellness for all; and [routing] the technology and financial appropriations to make that happen. He is also works with the Black AIDS Institute.

“It’s important to me because it’s important to everybody. That’s the work that I do,” says Rucker. “I’m not struggling with or afflicted by HIV and AIDS but my community is. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost relatives. My race is. Our country is. Our world is. That’s why it’s important to me.

“It has gotten better and can get better if the priorities continue to be education, testing prevention, communication and just getting people involved and informed and actively involved in the dialogue and get everybody in the fight.”

Additionally, Rucker co-founded an organization called The Black Gents of Hollywood, with the aim of affecting change through “the artistic route as actors.”

Says Rucker, “We all have different areas of expertise and different areas of  interests outside of our identity as actors. So what we’re trying to do is show by even calling ourselves the black gents is that we’re mutli-layered, multi-faceted, renaissance men. We’re really not that exceptional.

“We are what black men are, what people are if they give themselves the opportunity to explore and expand what their capacity is so we just believe that to whom much is given, much is also required. We want to be the best we can to be powerful examples of what brotherhood, fatherhood, and manhood can be.”

One way in which The Black Gents worked toward this goal was to bring “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” to the stage. The award-winning play tells the inspiring story of the first black airmen in the U.S. Army Air Force.
In a way, Rucker is only trying to do for others what his parents did for him.

“My parents have been my saving grace. I’m privileged to come from a long line of really incredible people. I’m not perfect, neither are they, but they did the best they could to empower me, uplift me,” says Ruckers.

“I’m proud to be who I am I’m proud to be their child proud to be a black man, proud to be of African descent and everything that comes along with that. I’m glad that they raised me to be able to stand up straight, with my chin up and shoulders back and at the same time not with my nose in the air, my eyes forward but yet paying full attention to what’s going on around me, and loving and insightful enough to want to bring other people along for the ride, and to make sure it’s a good ride.”

Jan08

Saving Grace: Edwina Findley

Edwina Findley is one of the few actresses in Hollywood who made the decision to remain a virgin until marriage.

“I think people can sometimes blow up sex as this huge thing you just can’t live without. But that’s not true,” said Findley, whose recent nuptials were profiled in the New York Times.

Findley wed advertising executive and fellow church-going member, Kelvin Dickerson, in a strapless mermaid gown on Nov. 17 at the Christian Cultural Center in New York with their pastor, the Rev. Dr. A. R. Bernard, officiating.

“The blessing of remaining celibate is that you appreciate the person for who they are, for their spirit, for their personality, for their love, for their genuine concern without ever having to worry about ulterior motives or having anything cloud your decisions.”

“I was taught to wait. So, I have and it wasn’t that hard,” shares Findley who enjoyed a long relationship with her husband before tying the knot. “And that’s primarily because that was a lifestyle choice for me. With anything the more you do it and the longer you do it, it becomes a habit.”

She does concede though that it was probably easier for her than for her new husband, whom she met at church. That, she says, makes him and their courtship all the more amazing.

“He was committed and that is where his power really came from. I’m just grateful for the power of God in our lives and that we’re able to rely on God.”

That reliance has guided more than just her personal life, but a increasingly successful professional one for the actress whose credits include “The Wire”,  “Brothers & Sisters”, “One Life To Live” and the 2012 film, “Middle of Nowhere”.

There was a time when Findley, who is currently in New Orleans filming the fourth and final season of HBO’s Treme about residents trying to rebuild their lives three months after Hurricane Katrina, wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue acting as a profession.

It was at the tender age of two that Findley started singing. By the age of five the Washington D.C. native knew she loved acting. Her mother encouraged her passion by enrolling her in dancing and acting classes and when it came time for Findley to start high school, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts was a natural choice.

By the age of sixteen, Findley had already broken into the industry, appearing on BET’s long running youth talk show, “Teen Summit.” She also got a taste of touring, traveling the world with her school’s show choir. But when it came time decide whether to continue her training in college, she had her doubts.

“You hear so many stories about how people blow up and become very successful and then there’s stories about how people just try and try and never make it. There was some fear that came into my decision,” says Findley, who now travels and speaks to male and female audiences about living a chaste life.

“I really prayed when I was a senior in high school and I asked God to guide me and to lead me. And He did. He confirmed over and over that this path of arts and entertainment was something He had planned for my life. So I kept going and allowed faith to outweigh my fear.”

She decided to continue her training at NYU’s renowned Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating, the close friend and former roommate of Oscar winning actress Viola Davis went on to professional theatre and scored a role as Tosha, Omar’s gun-toting sidekick in HBO’s “The Wire,” which provided Idris Elba with his breakout role.

“Edwina is a life force,” Viola Davis told the New York Times, “Once she comes into your life, it alters.”

While filming “The Wire,” during the day, Findley was also doing live theater at night and got a real taste of balancing her act as an actress.

“I was doing The Wire while also doing Shakespeare. I was playing this Welsh princess at night and this gangster by day,” says Findley.

“In this business, it’s definitely very beneficial to have range and to be malleable as far as your performances so you can go in and out of a lot of different mediums at once.”

This year, Findley also played a supporting role opposite David Oyelowo and Omari Hardwick in Ava DuVernay’s independent film Middle of Nowhere, winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Directing Award.

Offstage, Findley conducts inspirational workshops for young people and adults through her organization, Abundant Life Creative Services, whose mission it is to empower young people to follow their dream.

Though Findley has been on a steady rise in Hollywood, success in the entertainment industry can be a slow climb that has dashed the hopes of many aspiring actors.

“You definitely hear ‘no’ more times than you hear ‘yes’ because it’s very competitive,” she said. “In the midst of hearing no there has to be an inner resolve that says there’s going to be a yes. Yes is coming and I’m going to hold out until that yes gets here.

Her saving grace, says Findley, is the Lord.

“There’s no question about it. God has just really revealed so much to me over the course of my life as far as his presence in my life and even our relationship. I’ve received so many prophecies and he’s just sent so many people to pour into my life and I feel what has brought me thus far has definitely been God and my faith in God.

“Faith and vision are what has helped me to triumph and see multiple doors open. You really need to have a clear vision on what it is that you’re trying to accomplish and no matter what, staying on that course.”

First Ladies High Tea
November will mark the 20th Anniversary of our Annual First Ladies High Tea, honoring the contributions of female leaders and women of faith to the Los Angeles community. For more information, visit www.firstladieshightea.com
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