Not every high-kicking, full-throated diva would be thrilled to find herself cast repeatedly as a mother — particularly opposite actors not always young enough to be her children.
You won’t find Jenifer Lewis complaining.
“It served me,” Lewis said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I was never an ingenue. I was a starlet, you know, in my youth, [but] I was always Mother Earth. … People always came to me: What to do, what to do, what to do? How do we do this, how do we do that? So I became wise beyond my years.”
Fans of ABC’s Black-ish know Lewis, 60, as Ruby, the take-no-prisoners mother of Andre “Dre” Johnson. Dre’s played by 47-year-old Anthony Anderson, the latest in Lewis’ string of on-screen offspring that includes Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It), as well as the late Whitney Houston (The Preacher’s Wife) and Tupac Shakur (Poetic Justice).
Long before those roles, though, she was drawing attention, on stage and off.
“Even as a kid, when I walked in the room … people turned around,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know if there was some bright light around me. But apparently there was. Even if that bright light was the smile on my face, or the song that you knew I was going to sing before I left the room.”
This week, Lewis embraces her decades of show-business matriarchy with the release of her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood (Amistad/HarperCollins, $25.99), which she’ll discuss Thursday at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Frank doesn’t begin to describe Lewis’ style, on the phone or on the page. Her book, which flows as freely as she speaks (and doesn’t stint on the intimate details), is in many ways a coming-of-age story, one that stretches for decades. The youngest of seven children in a Kinloch, Mo., family with little money, the actress and singer made her Broadway debut in 1979, just 11 days after graduating from college. She may have looked in those early years as though she had the world by the tail, but, “Girl, I was about as sick as I could be,” Lewis said.
“I mean, I cried every … night of my life, looking for something outside of myself, some knight in shining armor. What about me? Why’d you give me the gift for? What’d you do it for? Why am I not as famous as Michael Jackson on my 30th birthday? Why?”
“I wore my sexuality like a medal. I was Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Marilyn Monroe, and Jezebel rolled into one. A jaguar with skin supple as a baby’s [behind], capturing my prey with lust and laughter.” — The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir
It would be many years before Lewis would fully come to terms with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and with its influence on her relationships and her sex life. Episodes triumphant and tragic are recounted with the kind of detail only someone who’s been keeping a journal since the seventh grade could muster. Among the most harrowing: an account of her talking her way out of being raped by a knife-wielding stranger in her New York apartment.
“I would write about my life in the morning and then I’d write about it at night. What was going on. And then, of course, I found out years later, when I got into therapy, that that’s pretty much what saved my life, and I didn’t know it. Because with all that mania, you’re just scattered all over the place, so my understanding is that that kept me grounded, those journals,” Lewis said.
Having the details at her fingertips didn’t ease the pain of looking back, though. “I felt it, big time, this time around. I wasn’t feeling it back then. What I was feeling then was euphoria, and all that mania.”
Though she’s never married — don’t get her started about a Wikipedia page that lists a spouse she’s supposed to have wed in 2012 — Lewis has experienced parenthood offscreen, raising Charmaine, a daughter she met through the Big Brother/Big Sisters program.
Her book recounts a complicated relationship with her late mother, Dorothy Mae Johnson Lewis. “She had no time for coddling,” she writes, and remained devoted to her Baptist pastor even after young Jenifer told her he’d molested her.
Still, “I drank her as a child. She was a very powerful woman. My mother wasn’t no joke. She didn’t have time for affection and all that … but she was a great woman,” Lewis said.
“Look at my sisters and brothers,” she said. “We were going to have more than she did. We were going to be servers in the community. We were going to be educated. And we all are. I’m so proud of my sisters and brothers I don’t know what to do. And I’m going to tell you real honest: I didn’t care what anybody in this world thought about this book but my siblings.”
Lewis’ voice caught as she talked about a text she’d just received from one of her sisters, saying “she was so proud of me.”
It’s not only her siblings Lewis is hoping to reach with The Mother of Black Hollywood. Thanks to Black-ish, there’s a new, young audience who may never have seen her on Broadway, in the movies, or in any of her one-woman shows, which include Bipolar, Bath and Beyond.
“I told it pretty much for the millennials,” she said. “I just want people to know that they can come out from under the cover, if they want to. I want people to know that they can take that next step, they can open the curtain … and make a happy life for yourself. That’s what this book is all about. ‘This is what I did. But it was extra, sweetie. You have to do a little bit more than that person standing next to you if you want a little bit more.’ ”
Playing Ruby Johnson on Black-ish “is such a beautiful cherry on top of my career,” she said. “What I love about Kenya [Barris, the show’s creator] is that he gets Jenifer Lewis. Therefore, he begets Ruby. He knows what I’m capable of.”
“People often ask what it’s like to work with Laurence Fishburne [on Black-ish]. Here is the answer: It’s ice cream, cotton candy, and Christmas morning.”
— The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir
“Anthony and I are just a fool together,” she said, laughing, of her interactions with Anderson.
And then there’s Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Ruby’s daughter-in-law, Rainbow: “The chemistry … is just crazy. Tracee and I land it in the pocket every scene. Now, Ruby and Rainbow, that’s just a golden relationship,” because their differences, generational and otherwise, make it “easy to have those important conversations” that are so much a part of a show that delivers powerful messages through comedy.
And for artists and performers who might worry that treating a mental illness could cause them to lose their creative edge, Lewis has a message of her own: “Here I am. Just that. It doesn’t, and it didn’t.”
Conversation and book signing with Jenifer Lewis, The Mother of Black Hollywood, presented by the Literary Cafe and the African American Museum in Philadelphia. 6-8 p.m. Nov. 16, 701 Arch St. Tickets: $25 advance/$30 at the door. Free book included in price. www.aampmuseum.org More information: The Literary Hotline (215) 878-BOOK or the African American Museum of Philadelphia (215) 574-0380, ext. 243.