Jenifer Lewis :: No shame in her game
by Jim Halterman
Thursday Feb 25, 2010
Whether she’s playing one of her many mother roles in films like What’s Love Got To Do With It, The Preacher’s Wife and Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns, a lesbian judge in the short-lived CBS series Courthouse, or animated in films like Shark Tale, Cars and the recent Princess and the Frog, Jenifer Lewis says she always gives 2000 percent. The powerful talent that is Le Lewis can masterfully act, sing and talk about her life in film, television or on the stage but one consistent result is that audiences always come out of a Jenifer Lewis performance with the same message – that Lewis is an entertainer in the truest sense of the word and you are guaranteed to feel deeply, laugh more than a little bit as well as undoubtedly feel inspired.
Lewis came to New York in the early 1980s, landing the coveted role of Effie White in the workshop production of Dreamgirls only to be replaced by Jennifer Holiday. She worked with Bette Midler as a one of the Harlettes (her back-up singers), a relationship that later won her a role in Midler’s Beaches. She developed an autobiographical solo show called The Diva is Dismissed, that ran off-Broadway at New York Public Theater; after that she relocated to Los Angeles where she found work doing character parts in such films and on television. Fans of the mockumentary will likely remember her hilarious turn as a washed-up diva attempting a comeback in Robert Townsend’s Jackie’s Back.
Jenifer Lewis at the premiere of her made-for-television mockumentary Jackie’s Back in Los Angeles in 1999.
Free and honest
Fans of Jenifer Lewis can take her in over the next four Saturdays when she appears on stage in Jenifer Lewis’s Hot Flash at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. To find out more about what she covers in the just-extended show, why her gay audience loves her to death and what’s next on her fabulous schedule, EDGE’s Jim Halterman phoned her up one recent morning for a chat.
EDGE: When you start a new show like this, how do you approach it?
Jenifer Lewis: You know, I’ve been doing it so long. In truth, since I was at least ten years old. I’d gather up my cousins and we’d go down in the basement of the Catholic school and they’d be my Pips to my Gladys. Many years down the road my cousin came up to me and said “Jenny, you know you never paid us! We were all 10 yrs old and you were collecting money and then we never saw you after the show.’ And I had to believe him. How could I deny it?
I’ve been doing this all my life. I started singing in the church with my first solo at 5 years old and the church applauded and everyone wept. It was one of those moments in life where I stood there at 5 years old and thought ’Oh, this is what life is.’
I never stopped and all my one-woman shows have been my journey through life and I just get up there and I write about it and I sing about it. There’s no shame in my game. I just tell it all and lay it out there on a slab and say ’This is it!’ Hopefully, with me being this honest, you’ll look in the mirror and say ’I can laugh at myself and not take my life too seriously.’ I’m free and honest onstage so my audience can be honest. I think that’s all we can do for anyone else. Just be a light. Allow the audience to be a light to you and you be one to them and everyone can take what they want from the show. Story continues on following page.
Watch this recent interview with Jenifer Lewis.
Her gay fans
EDGE: What have your gay fans meant to you throughout your career?
JL: Oh, please! They’re all my children. I’ve been in show business all my life and the gay boys have taken care of me and I’ve taken care of them and that’s just the way that relationship goes. They adore me and I know them and I think it’s that honesty. And my journey and my pain and that I share it the way I do. I put it out there and I think people are attracted to the truth. Gay boys started loving me in college. I didn’t even know where they came from! I’d go somewhere and there’d be a pack of them just running after me. They wanted to be around my honesty. They were attracted to that honesty and I know that’s what it was. And the talent. People want to be around people who entertain and make people laugh all the time. When I got to New York, the gay boys started doing my hair and makeup and they told me I was so pretty. I said ’Really?’ I didn’t know I was pretty. I wanted to be behind the microphone. I didn’t care anything about high heel shoes. I perform in gym shoes.
EDGE: Is there anything in your career that you have yet to conquer?
JL: I’m so in the moment of life. I don’t think about what’s behind me or what’s in front of me but I guess if I had to say anything…what do I want to do? I’m so happy in my life right now. Just more…I just want more!
EDGE: What’s the key to having a long career like you’ve had?
JL: Tell the truth and try not to hurt somebody. Work hard, of course, and just try to be honest and keep it moving. I say in the show that when you’re hardest hit that you mustn’t quit. It’s when you’re hardest hit that you mustn’t quit. I have given up many times but I’ve never quit. You got to be in it to win it.
EDGE: You’re so good at comedy AND drama but which is more challenging to you?
JL: I guess it would be drama. You know I wake up and my toothbrush laughs.
EDGE: You always have so much going on. What else are you up to?
JL: I just finished The Hereafter with Clint Eastwood in San Francisco. My scene was with Matt Damon so that was really nice. I just finished Princess in the Frog. And I’m going to be doing Cars 2.
EDGE: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
JL: Hmmm…I garden every morning of my life.
EDGE: What’s in your garden?
JL: I’ve got geraniums, star jasmine…let me keep going because I love talking about them…bird of paradise, white roses, a slew of roses, a plethora of roses. Rosemary. Azaleas. Orchids. I have it all. It’s where I find God. I find whatever God is to any of us or whatever that is. It’s where I create. I wrote versions of Black Don’t Crack there. I wrote this beautiful love song about my boyfriend, who I’m in love with right now and I talk about being in love in the show. It’s my favorite place to be is in the garden.
Jenifer Lewis’s Hot Flash was just extended to run the next four Saturdays at 7:30pm (through March 20th) at The Renberg Theater at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. For more information on tickets, go to the ON THE STAGES section of laglc.org. And, as Jenifer says, “Be on time or I’ll cuss you out!”
Watch this clip from Jackie’s Back.