Friday, December 2 2022

Jenifer Lewis walks through a theater at AFI in Silver Spring, Maryland, where fans are waiting to hear him talk about his new book, “Walking In My Joy”, a series of moving and hilarious vignettes about his life. She enters to the sound of another diva like Aretha Franklin, singing “A Deeper Love”, explodes over the loudspeakers: “Now I’ve got love in my heart / It gives me strength / To get through the day.”

The event is part toast – to Lewis and his fans – and part toast to, well, anyone who should catch Lewis’ playful wrath: “Now sit down, you’re pissing me off,” jokes she asks after clapping. “I have one nerve left!” For the TV, film and Broadway veteran, it’s also cabaret party: Minutes after entering, Lewis drops to the piano to sing a signature tune, which has gone viral multiple times: “I don’t want nobody —” she belts, pausing to ask if she has the right to curse (a privilege no one familiar with Lewis’s work would ever deny him). Given that everything is clear, Lewis blurts out, “I don’t want nobody, I fuck with meeeeeeeeeee / In these streets!”

“In These Streets” is the subtitle of Lewis’s book, which features the same kind of bare-bones honesty the actress offered in her 2017 memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.” In this book, Lewis candidly discussed living with bipolar disorder and a sex addiction that she bluntly brings up to the AFI crowd. “I didn’t know I was bipolar at the time. I rather enjoyed this part, ”she cracks as the audience bursts out laughing.

In “Walking In My Joy,” Lewis recounts reaching out to famous friends, including Brandy Norwood and Kathy Griffin, during the pandemic and his self-reflection for months in isolation. She remembers the decade when DJ Pierce (better known as Shangela from “Drag Race”) lived in his basement while trying to break into the entertainment industry. She tells the harrowing story of the man who swindled her out of $50,000 but emerges triumphant, recalling how his testimony in court led to a prison sentence for the serial fraudster: with nothing but real tears,” Lewis wrote.

“When I tell the truth, the electricity goes up my spine,” she says. says the AFI crowd. “I’m damn possessed by this.”

” She already has aura, confidence and star projection,” the New York Times wrote of Lewis in 1983, just after Bette Midler recruited her as one of her backing vocalists, the Harlettes. “She is the essence of show business – a dazzling-voiced singer, a hard-hitting dancer, a vigorous comedian, a coiled source of energy.”

At 65, Lewis remains all of those things; his high kicks are legendary. She made several at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where “Black-ish” was honored earlier this year, a tribute she cites as one of her proudest moments.

Although Lewis, a native of Kinloch, Mo., has worked in Hollywood for decades, it was “Black-ish” that marked his breakthrough into mainstream fame. Like many veteran black artists, Lewis is enjoying the kind of career revival and appreciation her fans have always wanted for her.

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“Jenifer Lewis was one of the first black women I ever saw on TV that wasn’t ‘Sesame Street,'” said Hannah Oliver Depp, whose Silver Spring and Petworth-based Loyalty Bookstore has hosted the Lewis event, to the crowd at AFI.

A perpetual scene stealer, Lewis is loved for a range of roles. She’s Will’s Aunt Helen on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” coldly delivering one-liners that make her recurring role on the show (eight episodes in all) seem much larger. It’s Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport, who tells Hillman students “You’re on my list!” on “Another World”. She is the mother of Anna Mae Bullock in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, the cult classic film about Ike and Tina Turner. She’s Jackie Washington, an R&B diva groomed for a return in the cult classic fictional film “Jackie’s Back!” She’s Grandma Ruby on “Black-ish,” calling her biracial stepdaughter anything but a child of God (“Rae Dawn Chong” was a particularly memorable beard).

In her latest role, on Showtime’s “I Love That For You,” she plays Patricia, the icy CEO of a home shopping network called SVN. “It’s my best work,” Lewis said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I went into it like a fitted glove.”

“My career has excelled at a level I wanted as a kid. But even ‘I Love That For You’ they waited until I was 65 to make me a porn star!” she jokes, while earnestly celebrating a role that sees her “grinding” over handsome young men with no lines.

“And now I am mobbed in the streets. Even if I lower my head, they tell me ‘Jenifer Lewis!’ I’m like ‘Aah!’ “Even masks can’t hide his identity: his Shakespearean diction is instantly recognizable, no matter how many layers of fabric underneath. “All I have to say is, ‘Baby, let me see that dress.’ “Inevitably,” she said, “someone will say, ‘Excuse me, Miss Lewis…’

Lots of celebrities talk about mental health issues, but few have taken fans through their treatment and recovery journey like Lewis did. When Kathy Griffin, struggling in the aftermath of the controversy over a 2017 tweet that showed her holding a mask resembling President Donald Trump’s severed head, took a large amount of pills, she called Lewis. “I think I have a little problem. I took sleeping pills,” Lewis Griffin recalls saying in his book. “I think I took too much. And I don’t want to die.

“I knew Jenifer wouldn’t be afraid of a suicidal friend,” Griffin said in a phone interview. “She wouldn’t run in fear and she wouldn’t insult me.” What Lewis did was sit with Griffin for hours and she was still there when she woke up the next morning.

“I just think she’s so funny and smart and resilient, and I look up to her,” Griffin said. “I love her because she doesn’t talk. When you talk to Jenifer, it’s like you’re really going to talk about things.

This is true even during his book tour. “I didn’t come all the way to Maryland to tiptoe through the tulips and tell you about the chapters in this book. Read it!” Lewis tells his fans. “I came here to tell you to take care of yourself. And vote.

Activism, Lewis said, is her biggest priority at this point in her life. “Show business is like brushing your teeth. All anyone has to say is “places” or “action” and I’m in. ” But “America is in big trouble right now, so there’s nothing more important. It should be important to everyone,” she added.

“Women need to shut down this country,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court’s recent dismantling of Roe vs. Wade. ” We have to wake up. We have to get down on one knee. And we also have to lie down, and I don’t mean on the… couch.

But Lewis, walking in his joy, still has hope. “These are not dark times. These are times of awakening,” she said in July as she accepted her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The actress, who loves to travel, recalls a recent trip to Kathmandu in Nepal, where she got to see Mount Everest, the Himalayan mountain she dreamed of climbing as a child.

“My phone just got smashed against the window, and there was a yoga instructor on that flight and she was just happy to be right next to me watching,” Lewis said. “She heard me say, ‘Ever since I was 13, I wanted to climb to the top.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Look at you – now you’re above.’ ”


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