Saving Grace: Vanessa A. Williams

"The beautiful thing about getting to do this kind of creative work for a living is that as you work on the piece, you grow,” says actress Vanessa A. Williams, best known for her role in the hit Showtime series Soul Food. “Then as you give the piece away in your performances, your dream, hope and prayer is to touch other people so that they may grow.”

Coming off a successful run of Lynn Nottage’s stage play, “Intimate Apparel”, Williams opens up about the experience. While she enjoys film and television, Williams calls working in theatre a “sacred and communal” experience.

She recalls, “I was at the Ovation Awards and the head of the Los Angeles theater alliance was talking about a scientific study that done on the benefits of live theater of how it affects and sustains one’s intellect and our spirit. They have empirical data proving this.

“We have always told stories as a culture and as a human race. Animals don’t sit around and do this. They don’t entertain each other.”

The play, which closed earlier this month, told the fascinating story of a black seamstress named Ester—played by Williams—yearning  for love in 1905 New York.

For Williams, the play expounded upon so much more than that black experience in America.

“Because of our ancestors and women like Esther, we have this grand and great legacy of always being people who aspire,” says Williams.

“I’m living in the gravy of what our ancestors worked to make a way for generations to come. All of that sacrifice, pain and struggle was not for naught and I can live in a joy filled place based on what has gone before me. Because of their aspirations and sacrifice and survival, I am able to create this magical life where I get to tell stories for a living.”

William’s love of her chosen craft has been with her from an early age when she would watch Shirley Temple movies with her grandmother. As a little girl, she wanted to dance and shake her curls just like the legendary, pint-sized entertainer.

“I believe actors are people who really need a lot of attention and I’m not ashamed to say that,” says Williams. “I wanted to make people smile from as far back as I can remember.”

Hailing from Brooklyn, Williams got her start singing in church choirs and then opera with the New York City Children’s Choir. There, she learned of upcoming auditions for a performing arts school now known as LaGuardia High School for Music & Arts and Performing Arts but better known as the “Fame” school, made famous in the musical and 80s television series by that name.

She compares attending to an arts high school to being at a conservatory.

“You’re there and you’re creating characters and you’re 14. When you’re doing exploration of film you get to go back to being a six-year-old kid and ten-year-old,” says Williams. “It was a marvelous awakening to my creative process.”

At around the same time, Williams got a manager and began auditioning for commercials and holiday theatre in New York.

Early credits include Law and Order and Candy Man, with reoccurring roles on The Cosby Show. Her first big break came with the role of Rhonda Blair on the first season of Melrose Place while she garnered rave reviews for her performances on Murder One and Chicago Hope. She is perhaps best known as Maxine Chadway on Soul Food, the series and has appeared on Lincoln Heights, Imagine That, Everybody Hates Chris and Cold Case.

She acknowledges she’s had her challenges.

“Well, you know my name is Vanessa Williams, right?” she laughs, remaining in good humor about sharing her name with another noted actress.

“I’ve had a little bit of an identity crisis, having to really sort out like ‘Oh my goodness does that mean there’s no room for me?’ ” she explains. “I’ve had to deal with the challenge of people perhaps expecting her, getting confused, but it didn’t really stop this party over here.

“I love Vanessa’s work,” says Williams. “There’s enough room to go around.”

She readily admits that there is competition in the entertainment industry. The realization that she didn’t have to wait around for the perfect role prompted her to pen her own one-woman show.

“I get to create whatever it is I want to do,” William explains. “I wanted to show work and sides of myself that aren’t necessarily part of the work that I get to do.”

Titled, “Feet on the Ceiling,” William’s show is the journey of discovery for a young woman learning who she is through the men in her life.

“Coming of ages stories are my favorite but most of those movies are about boys,” says Williams. “The feedback from many of the young women who see the show is really overwhelming and really moving .

“When we tell our story we may be talking about our stuff but when you tell a really good story about yourself, the specifics of your life falls away and people see themselves in it.”

Encouraged by the response of various showcases, Williams is looking forward to bringing the show to a wider audience this spring.

Other recent projects for the busy mother of two include Gospel Music Chanel original movie, Raising Izzie— which she starred in beside fellow Soul Food alum, Rockman Dunbar, and gospel play “Sugar Mommas” with Terri J. Vaughn.

“My survival in Hollywood has to do with really knowing who I am as an artist and not relying on other people to validate me,” says Williams.

“It’s not so much about being validated but just having the opportunity to do what it is you love to do. I know when I keep expecting that and when I keep working towards my own goal everything comes into place.

“I’m looking forward to my next series, my next film and to keep all of my creative options going,” says Williams who speaks of plans to get back in the studio where she’ll be working with Grammy-nominated, producer B Slade.
“Because of how the music industry has changed and having my own fan base I’m really ready to give my offer.”

One thing Williams does rely on is her relationship with God.

“God is essential in my life. We’re not separate,” says Williams. “Jesus came as an example of what great and wonderful things we can do. I live to the best of my ability, growing in that grace and acknowledging the miracle that is the spiritual truth and knowing that God has me covered forward and back. It is miraculous. I expect miracles I believe in miracles and I receive what I believe.”


Saving Grace: Niecy Nash

niecy nash

“I would say I was 5 years old the first time God decided to write on the canvas of my imagination what he saw for my destiny,” says Niecy Nash who rose into the spotlight in faux-reality series Reno 911 and nestled her way into hearts of America as host of Clean House. Most recently, the actress starred in the TV Land original series, The Soul Man along side Cedric the Entertainer.

“Ever since then I have just been moving toward the mark,” she continues. “So being in television or doing this sort of a show is not far off the mark. It falls in line with the original vision, which is to work in television and in film and to have a positive impact in this medium.”

With her inviting smile and sunny disposition, Nash exudes positivity. But this L.A. born and raised sweetheart has wicked sense of humor that gives her yet another edge as she blazes through Hollywood.

“I’m definitely enjoying the journey, and I have a little bit of everything on my resume to show for it,” says Nash, whose preparations leading up to her 2011 nuptials to electrical engineer Jay Tucker was chronicled through the TLC special Niecy Nash’s Wedding Bash.

“I’ve been a TV host, I’ve done an unscripted sitcom, I’ve done scripted sitcoms, I’ve been a dancing star, on entertainment tonight, I had a jewelry line on HSN,” she recounts. “I’ve been able to taste a little bit of everything.”

Her diverse range of credits include Not Easily Broken, Code Name: The Cleaner, Guess Who, The Bernie Mac Show as well as lending her voice to animated series American Dad! and feature film Horton Hears and Who! and competing as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.

One experience she holds close to her heart is the reality series she shot with her new husband, three children and opinionated mother. The series, Leave It to Niecy, was short lived, but Nash likes what she and her family “left on the table.”

“It was on TLC and it was funny. It was very rich and it was very real,” says Nash of the series which aired early this year. “I don’t know that TLC was the best fit for us because a lot of their shows are very sensational and very extreme.

“So between the bearded lady and man who eats fire, it’s hard to find a home for something that’s so grounded, but at the end of the day I’m so proud of that project. People tweet me everyday and are like ‘When is Leave It to Niecy coming back?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s not.’ But I’m very, very proud of it.”

The cancellation of her reality series didn’t slow her down. The actress and comedienne is always taking on new projects, new roles, and new challenges. For example, her most recent role opposite Cedric the Entertainer in the TV Land series The Soul Man, which premiered this summer.

Lauded as one of the few televisions shows spotlighting a black family, the series is about an R&B superstar who receives a calling to ministry and movies his family, including wife Lolli (Nash) from Vegas to St. Louis to take over his father’s church.

Interestingly, the role mirrors Nash’s real life experiences.

“That's how you know God has a sense of humor,” says Nash, whose first husband was an entertainer. That is, until he had a life changing revelation.

“He travels around, he's even out of the country performing,” says Nash of her ex. “And one day he comes home and says, ‘I got called.’ I thought, ‘Well, who called? The gas company? My mama? Your mama? Who called you?’

“He said, ‘No, I got called by the Lord.’ I said, ‘What? Now?’ ”

Labeling it an “interesting coincidence” that she would, years later, go on to play a role that she essentially lived, the two time Daytime Emmy nominee and 2007 Gracie Allen Award recipient for Outstanding Program Host initially passed on the role three times due to scheduling conflicts. After the conflicting project failed to come through, she decided, “I’d better get on over here.”

She chuckles, recalling, “It just goes to show you that when God has something for you, the devil and hell can’t take it from you. God held the door open for me and I’m grateful for that. I’m happy that I came to my senses because while they probably saw women who were really great, I know they didn’t see women who used to be a first lady.”

And those experiences did indeed give her a head start in knowing how to approach the role. Especially, when it comes to unexpectedly finding yourself thrust into a position of leadership with the church.

“Being a member at a church and being a first lady at a church are two different things. So making that transition it was very interesting because you have to take so many other people into consideration. In the normal day to day, you only consider yourself. ‘Am I going to get to church in time for praise and worship? No, because I’m watching something on TV right now.’

“You make decisions that only affect you. You decide you not going to Bible study this week because you’re tired, but you don’t have that luxury. [When you’re a first lady,] you have so many extra people you have to take into consideration. When you make decisions, that will directly affect the bigger picture.”

That’s not to say her character or any of the others on the show are perfect people.

“We don’t paint a picture of perfect people. We paint a picture of people who are trying,” says the Cal State Dominguez Hills graduate. “I’ve heard people say that you guys should make the church or make the people in the church seem better, but the truth of the matter is that the church is a hospital.

“People are broken. They are flawed. They are imperfect, so you want to make it look like something to the world. The best thing to do is to make it look exactly like it is.”

As it stands, the future of the show is uncertain as the powers-that-be have not yet ordered a second season. Fans have been sending in letters and emails to the network show their support for The Soul Man and tell the executives they want more of Lolli and Rev. Ballentine.

In addition to her recent work on the small screen, the Nash has donned the hat of relationship expert through her weekly Yahoo! web series, “Let’s Talk About Love.” Having debuted just over a year ago, each short episode addresses different topics relating to love and dating. “Why do Women Date Bad Boys?” “Why Do Men Cheat?” and “Can You Be a Good Girl in Bad times?” are just a few of the weekly questions covered.

A self-proclaimed “hopeless romantic” who married early only to find herself back on the dating scene at age thirty-five, Nash draws from wisdom earned through life experience.

“One of the biggest mistake that women make is not believe men when they tell you who they are the first time,” says Nash. “We believe that there is something we can do to change what they originally said they wanted to do, wanted to be, wanted to have and we cannot.”

In conjunction with the series, Nash eagerly anticipates the spring release of her first book, It’s Hard to Fight Naked.  Like the web series, Nash will use the book to dish out relationship advice.

“I try to invite people to think differently about matters of the heart,” says Nash. “Being in love is the thing we were created for, yet it’s the one place we find hardest to manage.”

Though she works hard for her success, the humble actress doesn’t take all the credit to herself.

“God has been kind,” says Nash. “I have been faithful and diligent over that that He has given me and the Bible is true when it says that He will open a window of heaven and pour out blessings you don’t have room enough to receive. I feel like at the end of the day He’s been kind. He’s been very kind.”

In fact, it is her relationship with the Lord which Nash calls her saving grace.

“Helping people navigate the relationship space, there’s so much more to do there, I have a feature that I’m working on bringing to the big screen, I have a book and at the end of the day and I still have responsibilities to my family and my new husband.

“Finding that balance, I can’t find it if I don’t have the Lord at the center.”

Even with all that’s on her plate, Niecy stands firm in her belief that the best is yet to come.

“You have to submit to a higher power,” says Nash, “you have to pray, and be healed and hear back what direction you’re supposed to go. So when people say, ‘Well, what’s next?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. Let me ask the man and when He gets back to me I’ll get back to you. ‘ ”


Saving Grace: Michael Ealy

michael ealy

Michael Ealy

Michael Ealy’s latest film, Unconditional, marks a milestone for the 39-year-old actor. The first time his grandfather, a Baptist minister, has ever gone to see one of Ealy’s films in theaters.

“I would talk to him frequently about the role while I was shooting in Nashville,” says Ealy, who was raised Southern Baptist, “so he was excited to see this film.”

The inspirational film is a shift for the actor whose square jaw and piercing blue eyes make him a natural for romantic leads, such as with last spring’s romantic hit, Think Like a Man. 

“This is the kind of movie that matters,” says Ealy. “It goes beyond entertainment and will hopefully be tangible to a vast audience.”

Based on a true story, the film centers around a woman on a downward, suicidal spiral after her husband is killed in a senseless act of violence. A chance encounter with an old friend, “Papa Joe” Bradford—played by Ealy, begins her journey back toward God’s unconditional love.

The real life Bradford established Elijah’s Heart in Nashville, a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of underprivileged, at-risk children, despite financial challenges.

Ealy hopes the film will inspire people who become more involved in helping children. 

“One of the things I find so special about what Joe does is that it’s not about how much money he makes,” says the Baltimore native. “It’s the time he spends day in and day out with the kids. It’s great if you give money. It’s great if you donate, but what’s really impactful and helpful is the time you spend. That’s how you can make a real difference.”

Ealy donates what time he can, visiting high schools to inspire and encourage the teenagers who look up to him. But the University of Maryland graduate tells the students to look elsewhere for a role model.

“I’m the first to say ‘Don’t look up to me. Look up to your teachers because they are there every single day,” says Ealy. “You’re contact to me is through a screen or when I come and visit but they’re here every day. Your parents are here every day. That’s who your role models should be.”

Perhaps it is close relationship with his own family that gives him that outlook.

“Who you hang with is a reflection of who you are,” says Ealy, who calls his parents, sister and close friends—who are more like brothers—his saving grace.

The church he grew up in was his second family. 

“You have friends there that you see every Sunday and the women at church would always feed me,” says Ealy. “My family moved away shortly after I graduated high school and the church threw a big going away party for us. I had never seen that before

With a laugh Ealy describes his childhood church as an “it takes a village” type of congregation “because if I got in trouble it got back to mom and dad.”

He thought so highly of his church that when his church split after he left for college, it came as an unbelievable shock.

“I’ll never forget that feeling,” says the 2012 Teen Choice and 2011 NAACP Image Awards nominee. “My parents have been together for 44 years but when my church split that was the first time I felt what divorce was like. I couldn’t believe it. Like, this group is going this way. This group is going with the pastor that way. How could this happen?”

Though it was rough, his faith was already engrained in him and remains with him to this day. 

In fact, the star of the USA Network series Common Law says that Unconditional came to him by the grace of God. 

“The script sent to a particular agency at my agency and he said maybe Michael would like this,” Ealy explains. “He gave it to my manager who read it and said, ‘I think you need to read this.’ He knows me. He knows my taste.”

He told him that Joe Bradford was a strong role and Ealy agreed.

 “For me it had a lot to do with the nobility of Joe,” Ealy says. “If I can rush to go play a bank robber in a movie like Takers, then I need to rush to go play a man of nobility and quality, like Joe.”

Though the film didn’t do as well as hoped in the box office, it did garner rave reviews from audiences who—on Rotten Tomatoes—gave Unconditional a whooping 92% positive response. Garnering a 71% positive response from critics, the film seems to have touched viewers with its inspiring message.

“I’ve always looked for films and roles with impact,” says Ealy who rose into the spotlight through films such as Barbarshop and Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the television crime-drama Sleeper Cell. 

Interestingly, acting was not the first career choice for Ealy who’d set his sights on becoming an architect until he saw that the curriculum included a great deal of math and science. 

“I was struggling with Trig and physics and there was plenty of that,” he explains. “What I enjoyed about architecture was the creative aspect, which was drafting. I was good at drawing. But when we started doing beam analysis and trust analysis, I had to re-evaluate my plan.” 

Though he graduated with a degree in English, for a time he says he was lost.

“My grades were terrible and I was definitely not living right,” says the actor who appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions before transitioning to the screen. “It was the summer of ’93. I was 19 and two of my best friends were making a movie. I auditioned for it and found my passion.” 

He hasn’t totally given up on architecture, at least in some small form.

“I have a house, which has been somewhat of a project, a work in progress,” Ealy confessed. “It’s been a project of mine for many, many years, and it still is. When I’m not working I’m at Lowes or Home Depot even if I’m just trying to figure out where things go.

“I’m like hey, Jesus was a carpenter. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Fortunately for Ealy, acting doesn’t require too much math. 

In his ten years since breaking into Hollywood, films to his credit include Underworld: Awakening, Takers, For Colored Girls, Miracle At St. Anna, and Seven Pounds. He’s also stared such heavy TV dramas as The Good Wife and Flash Forward.

Though he’s also taken on his fair share of comedy, such as his role in Californication, he calls drama his “wheel well.” 

“The deeper, the more real we go the better,” says Ealy. “In Sleeper Cell, we went to places of sheer depth and I love the fact that Showtime was willing to go there. The more real you can make it, the audience sees that and not only appreciate it but respect it.”

The opportunity to showcase range in his body of work is also important to Ealy who stole hearts as the love interest in Beyoncé’s music video for the 2009 hit “Halo.”

His next project, a remake of the 1986 box office hit, About Last Night, which stared Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, will take him in yet another direction.

“Whereby I am righteous and noble in Unconditional, in this movie I am a heathen,” Ealy laughs.  “I’m playing Rob Lowe’s part—a guy who is just trying to figure out this life, can’t quite get it together and doesn’t know what he has until it’s gone, which is a mistake many men make.”

The movie—tentatively slated for release next year—will also star Regina Hall and Kevin Hart.

“I don’t want to do the same thing every time,” says Ealy. “And the range—to go from Colored Girls to Takers to Miracle at St. Anna’s to Unconditional—the diversity is something I’m proud of.” 



Saving Grace: Derek Luke

derek lukeDerek Luke
In his latest film, a remake of the 1976 classic Sparkle, Derek Luke plays opposite Jordan Sparks as an up-and-coming record label executive who helps the young and talented title character fulfill her dreams of becoming a singer.

It’s a fitting role for the New Jersey native who knows a little something about pursuing his dreams.

“I was watching TV at age 9 or 10, and my mom said that I came from the front room and I told her that I want to act. And she said if you want to do this at 18, then you can,” recalls the 38-year-old who has since gone on to star in such heavy hitting films as Friday Night Lights, Glory Road, Catch a Fire, Miracle at St. Anna, played hip hop mogul P. Diddy in Notorious and whose television credits include Jada Pinkett Smith’s HawthoRNe.

“It was a very simple story. Yet, I didn’t even remember that conversation until my mother reminded me of it many years later.

Growing up, Hollywood seemed a far-away land for Luke. He struggled to find the courage to seek it out. “I didn’t see a lot of people talking about their dreams or reaching their dreams.” He tried college for a semester but knew deep down, that he was destined for something else.

“So I left—well, I failed out,” Luke laughs, “And then moved to L.A. I did not tell my mother why I moved here, until I arrived.”

It was a huge risk. Many come to Tinsel Town only to learn that Hollywood as the magical land of many a childhood dream is a myth. The reality—slowly eking out a career as an actor, always one rejection away from being sent home on the cheap bus while working low-paying and unfulfilling odd jobs—is far less attractive.

Luke remembers those days well. It was a long way from landing a role in one of last summer’s hottest blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I didn’t have an education, I was working a lot of odd jobs, I was selling cologne, I was even an audience page working on Martin,” he explains.

 “The journey was intense because I felt like I came to a city that was just like the mother of people’s dreams and a part of my journey was figuring out how to keep my dream on fire while I’m out here.”

He admits that it was tough.

“I tried to stayed around things that encouraged me even if that meant not taking another job. Sometimes I would cut work just to go to the movie theater just to sit in there. It was movies and books and words of encouragement.”

When he was at his lowest, Luke knew where to go for support.

“I would call my mother if I was feeling down and she would give me encouraging stories. She gave me this book, Finding and Controlling Your Purpose, which really shed some light on what I was going through.  It really changed my life.

“It basically talked about the potential of a seed in the right soil and [that if you’re] in the right environment, … you will bud.”

On top if that, Luke had his faith to lean on.

“My saving grace was knowing that no matter what I was going through, God was with me. It gave me a moral covering and a focus. My spirituality played a huge contribution to where I am right know.”

He had a couple missteps, trying to chase the dream a little too hard, when really he need to slow his roll and summon his faith.

“Initially, I was trying to do things my way and not trusting God. I’d see people doing things and hustling, and I’d think that’s what you need. That right hustle, that right aggressiveness.”

But that wasn’t his style so it didn’t work for him, and the sense of failure came at a price.

“I felt like all my self-esteem had drained. I didn’t believe in myself. Finally I was like I need to go back to church. My dad was a minister but I don’t remember anything he said, because I don’t think that I was conscious at that time.

“I had to look at things that could have made me angry or dysfunctional, and learn how to trust and to believe and to have faith, it was a focus on going forward.  I was taught to see God and not chase the blessing. That… slows things down so you can see life in a more positive prospective.”

With two new movies in his future, David E. Talbert’s Baggage Claim with Octavia Spencer and Paula Patton and Supremacy with Danny Glover and Lela Rochon, leaning on God and sticking out the tough times has certainly paid off.

His mother, Marjorie, was also a source of inspiration in his role as Sparkle’s love interest, specifically her relationship with his father Maurice.

“Their relationship reminded me a lot of Sparkle and Stix’s relationship,” says the actor whose first credited roles were on The King of Queens and Moesha. “I pulled a lot from my dad. I studied their courtship. I studied what my father did to get my mother back in the day.”

In particular, the fact that Luke’s father is eleven years older than his mother proved helpful.

“By better understanding my Mom and Dad’s relationship and courtship, I was able to approach my character's relationship with Sparkle better. It was like yes, be slick, but don’t be sly. My character had to be gentle with her based on the great age difference.

“With this film, I really loved the love story in it,” says Luke.

“Many times as relationships escalate to marriage, what it takes to breed a marriage, is the same thing that it takes to breed a career. So in the film, although Stix wants a relationship with Sparkle, he has to understand that she has other challenges that can prevent her from her goals. He learns in the film to see life from her perspective.”

Luke didn’t have to look far to understand marriage. Married now for fourteen years, Luke chose to marry young, even though others advised him against it. 

“But to me, marriage is so beautiful,” Luke says. “I met Sophia at a seminar that I would go to that teaches you how to birth your visions and dreams. [My relationship with my wife] really helped me get through those times when I felt defeated.”

Luke wears his adoration for his wife on his sleeve. That was not more apparent than when he won the best actor Independent Spirit Award for Antwone Fisher. That night he pulled Sophia on stage and gave her his award.

"She is the spirit that has kept me here. I can't accept this award because this belongs to you," he said before handing her the statuette and bringing her to tears.

He also pointed out that four years before that night he’d been waiting tables at the same event. Talk about coming a long away.

It was his role in Antwone Fisher, a film based on a book about a boy who survived foster care and repeated abuse to become a successful screenwriter, that got Luke’s career humming. Getting that first great part didn’t come easy for Luke, even though he’d met Fisher, and knew he was writing the story of his life, which Denzel Washington was to direct.

“In my heart, I was like “Aw man, maybe there’s part in there for me.” Though he got the audition, the movie “went away for 3 years.”  But when it came back, Luke got yet another reading, and another, and another.  He read for it five times, and one day, Washington came to see him and said, ‘You. You’re my Antowne Fisher.’ I think I went through every emotion. I screamed, I cried, I laughed, I even kissed him.” 

I called my wife and I said, ‘Hey Babe, I didn’t get the movie.’ She said, ‘I know you’re lying.’ She would not take my wolf ticket. I said [to myself], ‘Man! I found somebody that really believes in me.”


Saving Grace: Cedric The Entertainer

CedricCedric The Entertainer
Boyce “The Voice” Valentine was a famous ‘80s R&B singer who was popular, making a lot of money and living the high life in Las Vegas with his sexy wife and their daughter before God came calling and Boyce gave up his secular ambitions to become pastor of his aging father’s St. Louis church, taking his reluctant wife and daughter along for the ride.

The parishioners of his church, however, are not real. Neither for that matter is Valentine, but the more than 3 million viewers of the new TV Land show, The Soul Man also starring Niecey Nash would be surprised to find that the man who plays him — Cedric The Entertainer — has more in common with his TV character than most would think.

cedric full“The power of faith, the opportunity of already being an orator, a person who speaks to large groups of people—even though I do it in a stand up capacity, as you mature and you start to see things in the world like hard crime, the tragedies, and often times, yes I would love to have a voice. To be able to heal and guide people and show a form of leadership. So I wouldn’t put it past that at certain point in time in life I get the real calling and have a big church with lots of parishioners.”

In the meantime, the famed actor/comedian best known for his work onscreen in such "Cadillac Records",  "Code Name: The Cleaner" opposite Lucy Liu, "The Original Kings of Comedy," "The Honeymooners," "Barbershop," "Kingdom Come" with Whoopi Goldberg, "Johnson Family Vacation" and “Larry Crowne” with Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, created the show as a great way to tell family-oriented stories reflecting the cultural fabric of the black community that were more universal in their appeal.

Cedric understands all too well the tightrope he is walking between the Christian community and entertainment industry in the show that airs on Wednesday nights at 10, but has never been one to steer clear of controversy.

“I believe people should be challenged —where they formulate and have to give thought to their true opinion about something. As a comedian and even as a TV pastor there are questions and jokes that lead my people to tell me “are you sure you want to say that?,” says the comedian who won a record-breaking four consecutive NAACP Image Awards for 'Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series' for his portrayal of the lovable Coach Cedric Robinson on the WB's #1-rated "The Steve Harvey Show," which ran for six seasons.

“But I’m going to say exactly that if it’s something I believe has an inkling of truth, and I want people to rebut me— to have an opinion and start having conversation about it. That’s usually where the greatest ideas come from, not from everybody agreeing.

Storylines have ranged in scope from approaching a parishioner dealing with alchoholism to the challenges of being a first lady and a big mega preacher who has lost his way and is out for the money.
“All of these things are a part of the show and as we continue to develop it, the show allows us to talk about other real issues that exist in our world from same sex marriage to bullying to gun crimes—with humor and a message.
As part of his research, Cedric visited a number of churches including First AME, West Angeles and City of Refuge and for as surprised as some might be, the 48-year old married father of three feels quite at home in church.
‘Faith is very important in my life,” says Cedric, whose full name is Cedric Antonio Kyles. “I grew up a member of the Church of Christ for most of my teenage years when you really formulate your real faith or what you carry as an adult. I do try to talk in a manner that is an example of Christ in the sense of somebody that people want to be like and hopefully I’m giving a good example of what it’s like just to be a good guy in the world.

“Except,” he laughs, “for the days I have to slap people. “For me, faith was a process,” Cedric continues in a more serious vein. “It was one of those things where I’ve was raised in the church with my mother and I wanted to go. There’s other kids your age and you start to find friends there. You join the choir and you get to like a girl. It was one of those things.

“As I had to deal with it in a real way and started to understand the Bible and the aspect of salvation I was in my early twenties when it started to make more sense. Because my mother was dealing with some hard things, I had to ask real questions. She was operating on the old school line “just believe, don’t worry about it and don’t ask any questions”.
‘I was like “you have to as questions. You’re an educated woman. You don’t just sit around and let somebody else tell you what to believe. Why do you believe that?’ From there I was able to grow spiritually.”

Attending church in L.A., however, turned out to be somewhat the distraction.

“When I first came to L.A., it surprised me that I was a celebrity at church,” states the Atlanta native who grew up in St. Louis. “It was a bit of a turn off because you come there as a fellow sinner trying to find yourself and be saved and you turn around and see somebody trying to take a picture or people assuming that you have benevolence money for everything. So I found myself not wanting to belong to an organization, but deeming it necessary in the raising of my kids. So at this point, we go and visit churches more than we stay at one church.”

He hopes that is not the case of fans who he hopes will find Rev. Boyce's path from "singing soul to saving souls" very compelling.

“In a society where the popular shows are about mean attitudes and showing black culture in a way that has people degrading each other, this show feels like a positive beacon of light even though for a hard Christian base, we may cross lines.”
soul manOf course as with most things, there are “haters”.

“The folks who find Neicey’s dresses cut too short or that the reverend said a cuss word,” Cedric notes. “Inside the storyline we are working on, my wife is not interested in coming along for the ride. She’s doing it for me because she loves me but is not a first lady by choice. We want to show that in a process through the series and show her growth. We don’t want to be pressured into taking her out of low cut dresses.”

“The Soul Man”, which ranks as TV Land’s second highest-rated original series debut, is just the latest of a number of projects Cedric has on tap for his “A Bird & A Bear Productions”, including a sketch comedy show in development at Comedy Central and a show in development for Disney. And for a young man who struggled to overcome not having a father in the household and doubting who he was and how to find his way, Cedric—who once worked as a substitute teacher and State Farm insurance claims adjuster before getting his break on “Showtime At The Apollo” and HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” nearly 20 years ago—is more than pleased with where he is today.

“I’ve done some really amazing things for a guy from Saint Louis who started out doing comedy because I was encouraged by making people around me laugh,” Cedric reveals. “To be able to have done that on an international level, traveled, done movies and film, commercials, written a book, producing and directing—I have to say I’m really blessed. Of course, I could always be richer.”

His saving grace, he says, is the love of my family and laughter.

“I love to laugh and give laughter, which is a gift from God,” Cedric states. “It’s that blessing that allows me to see joy in little bitty things. Laughter is something that is new everyday and a fantastic feeling. It is my saving grace for sure.”

First Ladies High Tea
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