From 'Black-ish,' Jenifer Lewis: 'The Mother of Black Hollywood' In her new memoir, "The Mother of Black Hollywood," Jenifer Lewis chronicles a career that has spanned decades, from Broadway to the hit ABC show Black-ish. Along the way, she played fictional moms to Tupac Shakur, Taraji P. Henson, and Whitney Houston. Jenifer talks to Sam about her long career, struggling with addiction and bipolar disorder, growing up in Missouri, and lying her way into the DNC in 2008. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org or tweet @NPRItsBeenAMin with your feedback. Follow Sam on Twitter @samsanders and producers Brent Baughman @brentbaughman and Anjuli Sastry @AnjuliSastry.
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From 'Black-ish,' Jenifer Lewis: 'The Mother of Black Hollywood'

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From 'Black-ish,' Jenifer Lewis: 'The Mother of Black Hollywood'

From 'Black-ish,' Jenifer Lewis: 'The Mother of Black Hollywood'

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hey, y'all. From NPR, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm Sam Sanders. It's Tuesday, and I, for one, am still kind of trying to ease back into things after Thanksgiving. And I'm guessing some of you listening might be doing the same thing as well. So I want to help us all out with a really fun deep dive guest, Jenifer Lewis. You might know her from "Black-ish."

She plays the grandmother, Ruby Johnson, on that show. But that's just her latest role in a career that literally spans decades on TV and movies, on Broadway. She has done everything. She has a memoir out now called "The Mother Of Black Hollywood." It's called that because Jenifer Lewis has played the mother of basically every black actor in the biz. When Tupac was in "Poetic Justice," she played his mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POETIC JUSTICE")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (As Lucky) I ain't have to be doing this Post Office [expletive] forever.

JENIFER LEWIS: (As Annie) Don't be cussing around me, boy. Who do you think I am, one of your friends? Be glad you have an honest job.

SANDERS: When Whitney Houston was in "The Preacher's Wife," she played her character's mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PREACHER'S WIFE")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (As Julia Biggs) All right, well, Mama, you can look at me from behind.

LEWIS: (As Margueritte Coleman) Girl, don't be talking to me about your behind. I gave you that behind.

SANDERS: When Angela Bassett played Tina Turner in "What's Love Got To Do With It," yes, Jenifer played Tina's mom there, too. And, of course, along the way, she has worked with Janet Jackson and Denzel Washington. And you definitely know that she played Will Smith's Aunt Helen on "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR")

LEWIS: (As Aunt Helen) You know how some men are animals in bed?

JANET HUBERT: (As Vivian Banks) Yes.

LEWIS: (As Aunt Helen) Well, I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Anyway, Jenifer Lewis and I sat down recently and we had a conversation that was wide-ranging and crazy and fun. And I loved it. It also got really real. We talked about Jenifer's bipolar disorder and some other very adult themes. So parents out there listening, this might not be a good conversation to let your children hear.

But for the grownups, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Here's me and Jenifer Lewis talking in New York a couple of weeks back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: For younger folks that might just be getting to know you through "Black-ish," they might not know that you had a long career on Broadway.

LEWIS: (Laughter) Yes, I did.

SANDERS: What are - you did so many shows.

LEWIS: I did "Eubie!" on Broadway with the Hines brothers, "Comin' Uptown" with Gregory Hines and then "Hairspray."

SANDERS: Yeah, and you had a bunch of one-woman shows.

LEWIS: Yes, of course.

SANDERS: And you had some cabaret acts.

LEWIS: Yeah, I've toured in concert all over the world.

SANDERS: That's so amazing.

LEWIS: People don't know me as a singer.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: But they are now because of the Internet.

SANDERS: Yeah. The thing with the Broadway stuff that I love, you know, people forget, even if you weren't getting the role, you were paving the way. Like, you pretty much piloted Effie White for "Dreamgirls."

LEWIS: Yes, I did.

SANDERS: You made that role.

LEWIS: Yes, I did.

SANDERS: So much so that they still had to pay you once what's her face got it.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, well, Michael Bennett was a genius.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: He started this whole thing where he would workshop a production before you went into rehearsal for Broadway. And if you were part of that workshop, even if you didn't get the role when it went to Broadway, you would be paid...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...You know, a percentage.

SANDERS: And you were workshopping Effie White for the...

LEWIS: Absolutely, I was one of the original Effie Whites and they - Jennifer Holliday was fired. I was hired. And then they hired her back. Honey, let me tell you something. I could sing, but nobody could sing like Jennifer Holliday.

SANDERS: But I would love to hear you sing. I mean, you could sing that song.

LEWIS: Yeah, I could. I could.

SANDERS: You could sing that song.

LEWIS: Well, today I'd have to lower the key.

SANDERS: That's all right. That's all right.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: But, no, I sang it a couple of times. But usually it's just as a joke, you know.

SANDERS: Yeah. I love how in the book, which we'll talk more about in length, you talk about almost at many points in your career having too many talents. And folks were like, well, what are you? Are you a singer, a dancer, a comic?

LEWIS: In those days, you had to be one thing so they could market you as a...

SANDERS: And you could dance, you could sing, you could do Broadway, you were classically trained.

LEWIS: I was funny, I was pretty. Oh, my God, I was a classical actress. I had my B.A. in theatre arts from Webster University, and I came to New York shoulders back, [expletive] first. I was unafraid. I really did.

SANDERS: Yes, ma'am.

LEWIS: My first review in New York City, the headline was "Hurricane Lewis Hits New York."

SANDERS: Look at that.

LEWIS: I had been a hurricane all my life. And that was, of course, because I was bipolar and did not know it. And I was, you know, the mania took control. When you're on stage and when you're performing, you're heightened, and it's an extreme.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: It is an unstoppable force, mania, and then, of course, the depression came with it also. And it was just as dramatic, just as intense. It's a very dangerous disease.

SANDERS: And you didn't figure it out until...

LEWIS: No, I didn't know until...

SANDERS: ...Later in life. How old were you when you...

LEWIS: I was 32, I think, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And, of course, I didn't want to hear that. I'm like, what are you - I've been crazy all my life. What are you talking about? You have a name for me? You know, I'm Jenifer Lewis. You're not going to take my edge.

SANDERS: That's just what I do, exactly. This makes me me.

LEWIS: You know, yeah, this is what I do.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: But, no, it had become dangerous. And it was stopping me from what I wanted - what my dream was.

SANDERS: Well, 'cause you would write about having these fits of just crying, crying, crying nonstop...

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, I cried all the time.

SANDERS: ...Not being able to get up.

LEWIS: I cried all the time. I stayed in bed under the covers. But when I fell apart at an audition for the show "Thirtysomething," I'll never forget, I just - I crumbled.

SANDERS: I remember that scene.

LEWIS: And Peter Horton, who was the director, he said, come on, Jenifer, you can do this. And I couldn't. And that's when I really knew I was in trouble. Something was wrong.

SANDERS: Yeah. One of the things that you write about in the book is that that thing that was wrong would manifest itself in - how should I phrase it? - you had a lot of sex.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah. Well, I had a sex addiction

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: You know, my drug of choice was sex. And thank God it was sex. And thank God, you know, I wasn't doing coke because you put that coke on top of that mania, oh, it's over. So when I asked somebody, how do you do it? They would pass around coke. And I said, how do you do it? He said, well, you just snort it. I said, well, then what happens?

And he said, well, then you feel a drip down your throat. I said, my throat? I said, listen, fool, I have a matinee tomorrow. Ain't...

SANDERS: I've got to sing.

LEWIS: Look, ain't [expletive] going down my throat, you know, but some rest so I can get that ovation tomorrow.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: But here's the thing. The sex worked as, what can I tell you? The intensity in your depression with that disease, with this disease, bipolar disorder, the depression is as intense as the mania. So I used a gorgeous guy to have sex with to bring me down. It was the night-cap. It settled me. Well, ain't that the purpose of an orgasm? Come on now, y'all.

Come on now, let's keep it real in these streets.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: But, of course, it was excessive in my case.

SANDERS: Yeah, well, you write about having, like, sometimes in one night, a few suitors.

LEWIS: Well, OK...

SANDERS: Hey, listen, I'm not shaming you.

LEWIS: Well, actually there were five at one point. But, no, I'm just kidding, just kidding. I wasn't crazy, crazy. I mean, after all, I had...

SANDERS: You were in control.

LEWIS: Yeah.

SANDERS: I admire, like, every time - like, it was on your terms.

LEWIS: I chose the where, when, how.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, I was a big, old control freak. I didn't know it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: But I had to - when you are out of control inside, you create that world for yourself.

SANDERS: And so you start to work with your therapist, Rachel.

LEWIS: I went and got into therapy.

SANDERS: Rachel sounds awesome.

LEWIS: Yes, Rachel was...

SANDERS: Rachel gave you some tough love.

LEWIS: Honey, Rachel is fabulous. Rachel don't play, honey. You can imagine - you know, you know she went to her shrink right after my sessions.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: You know damn well she planned her session right after me, honey, 'cause I came in, the Hurricane Lewis.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: You know, but I tell people, you have to have patience.

SANDERS: Well, because you write about how it wasn't just, like, you got the diagnosis and then things were great. It was a process. Talk about that process.

LEWIS: Well, first of all, I had to get there. You don't want to go because you're dealing with those deep, dark secrets. And I, of course, since then, I've come to the conclusion that we are as sick as our secrets.

SANDERS: Yeah, you write that.

LEWIS: You know, there's no shame in my game, baby. I tell it all.

SANDERS: This book, you tell it all.

LEWIS: I lay it on the slab. I lay it on the slab. Yeah, I did it.

SANDERS: You name names.

LEWIS: I did it.

SANDERS: You name names. There was one point I was like, Jon Voight, girl.

LEWIS: That's right. Would I do it again? I most certainly will.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: Yeah, Jon Voight and I had, you know, a one-night stand. It was wonderful. Look, he was a gentleman.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: He was - you know, we talked. We went on a handsome carriage ride through Central Park. We met up at Studio 54.

SANDERS: I love it.

LEWIS: And it, you know, what can I tell you? I had my midnight cowboy, hey.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I got you off track. We were talking about your treatment and that process.

LEWIS: That's OK.

SANDERS: Walk us through, briefly, those steps to being diagnosed and, you know, working on it.

LEWIS: OK, well, I found out, of course, she diagnosed me. And I didn't pay any attention to it, you know. But I started reading about it. And I had all of the symptoms, so I could not deny it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I went to a health spa.

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: And, you know, it's wheat grass in every functional hole in your body - you know, grass, grass, grass - you know, sprouts and grass. So when I left there, I was like, I don't need medication. I'm fine. Oops, can't get off of it.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

LEWIS: So I had a nervous breakdown, literally. When I was filming "The Temptations," I crumbled.

SANDERS: Oh, man.

LEWIS: It was the dark night of the soul. And I called my therapist, Rachel, and I said, OK, I'm ready. I'm sick. I'm sick...

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: ...And will you...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Will you please help me?

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And those are the hardest words in the world to say.

SANDERS: Well, because you're being so vulnerable in that moment and because so much of your persona that you had built from childhood...

LEWIS: Yeah, I was the diva. Oh, honey...

SANDERS: And tough and strong and yes...

LEWIS: ...That was a mask with the tears of a clown. I was the class clown. I was the president. I was the captain of the...

SANDERS: You were, like, class president for how many years?

LEWIS: From seventh grade through 12th.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: When I became a senior, I only won by one vote.

SANDERS: One vote.

LEWIS: Oh, honey, I cussed them out.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: I said, where is the loyalty up in here? But...

SANDERS: But yet this strength, you know, you had to kind of crack that shell.

LEWIS: I was an alpha female and I had to put up a steel wall because I was so vulnerable. And I wrote a show called "The Diva Is Dismissed" that helped me take that mask off...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...And be vulnerable and be human.

SANDERS: So this book is called "The Mother Of Black Hollywood" in large part because you've played a lot of mother roles.

LEWIS: Oh, my God - Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, who else? Oh, my God, Taraji P. Henson's mother. Oh, my God, I can't even think of all them.

SANDERS: You were the mother in "What's Love Got To Do With It."

LEWIS: That's right, Tina Turner.

SANDERS: And you were - what were you in "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air?"

LEWIS: I was Aunt Helen.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: (Laughter) Everybody loves Aunt Helen, oh, my God.

SANDERS: Yeah. You did so much. I'm sure you must have - what was the favorite mother role?

LEWIS: "What's Love Got To Do With It."

SANDERS: Really?

LEWIS: Yes...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...The Tina Turner biopic because - and I'll tell you why.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I had fallen in love right before the movie.

SANDERS: With who?

LEWIS: Oh, well, he was a young - well, he was an Armenian guy. And he was gorgeous. He looked like Richard Gere. And he was - he just loved me. No names. I don't even know - yeah, I know his name, but we don't need to call his name.

SANDERS: You're right. You're right. Don't call him out.

LEWIS: That's over.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: He's married with children. But that's who it was. And I was in love. And when you're in love, you don't have a lot of fear in you.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

LEWIS: There's no room for it in your heart and soul.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: So when I arrived on the first day of shooting "What's Love Got To Do With It," it was two big Zelma Bullock scenes. So I walked in and the house was Zelma's house - all the cable and the cameras. And I stood there, I was like - 'cause it was my first big role in a movie.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I stood there and I went, wow, this is all for me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I knew I had a big responsibility to deliver a great performance.

SANDERS: And you did.

LEWIS: And because Zelma Bullock, Tina Turner's mama was from St. Louis, hey...

SANDERS: You felt that role.

LEWIS: ...I gathered up my aunts and my own mother, honey, I created Zelma. And, you know, I met her years later.

SANDERS: Really?

LEWIS: Tina Turner's...

SANDERS: Yes, yes, yes.

LEWIS: ...Mother in a health food store.

SANDERS: In a grocery store, yeah.

LEWIS: And she hugged me and she pulled back from me and she said, in that Tina Turner - oh, my God, Tina looks just like her.

SANDERS: Really?

LEWIS: And she had Tina's form. She was very fit for a woman of her age.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And she hugged me. She said - and I understood this 'cause she was from St. Louis. She said, I wanted to be so dressed up when I met you. Ain't that the sweetest thing in the world?

SANDERS: That is. That is.

LEWIS: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: I love that.

LEWIS: It's so sweet.

SANDERS: I love that. So there's so many great stories in this book, but I want you, for our listeners, to talk about the time you got yourself onto the floor of the DNC in Denver to see Barack Obama...

LEWIS: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Receive a nomination from the Democratic Party to be president.

LEWIS: Oh, my God. Well, they got me a ticket, and it was on the top row behind Obama, behind the podium.

SANDERS: And you were like, we can't do that.

LEWIS: Oh, honey, I started carrying on. I was like, not on this day.

SANDERS: But even before that, you were outside in line.

LEWIS: But I was doing "Hairspray" on Broadway. I was playing Motormouth Maybelle. It was written by my good friends Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. They did the music and lyrics. And I told "Hairspray," I said, honey, a black man is about to accept the nomination to run for president of the United States, and I am going. So get my understudy.

So I flew up there. I stayed with a friend. You couldn't get a hotel room.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I left early because I know when there's...

SANDERS: You know.

LEWIS: Yeah, honey...

SANDERS: Yeah, it's going to fill up.

LEWIS: ...I'm in the theatre. I know to get there. So it was so fun. I got off the bus and 40,000 people were in line to get into that stadium. And this very beautiful woman, she said, Lana Hawkins, which was my name in the TV show "Strong Medicine..."

SANDERS: "Strong Medicine," yeah.

LEWIS: ...On Lifetime, television for women. And I was like, Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. Somebody knew me. I knew somebody was going to get me in.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Thank God I was famous. Oh, my God, I was so happy.

SANDERS: But first you had to skip the line.

LEWIS: Yes, I had to skip the line, honey. And I walked - she said, the only way I can get you across this parking lot, baby, is I have to put you in a wheelchair. So, honey, I start sliding my right foot like Igor, you know, Dracula's assistant.

SANDERS: Oh, Lord.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, honey. I put on a performance. And I had to go through security. I kept telling them, I'm with the Jesse Jackson people. I just told any lie I could think of.

SANDERS: At one point, you said that you were Michelle Obama's best friend from college.

LEWIS: Yes. I said, oh, darling - he said, Ma'am, are you a delegate? - because I had sat in the wrong section.

SANDERS: Because at that point, you're, like, on the floor.

LEWIS: Right, I'm on the floor.

SANDERS: Like, in the heat of the action.

LEWIS: Oh, my God. And he said, Ma'am, are you a delegate? I said, oh, yes, I'm one of Michelle Obama's old college friends, lying through my teeth. And he looked at me like, I ain't seen you at none of the parties. I said, oh, my God. So I saw Jesse Jackson Jr. on the front row.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: And he was being a politician, shaking people's hands. And I touched him on the shoulder. And he turned around and before I could say anything, he was like, my favorite actress. And he said, it's so good to see you. I said, Jesse, they're getting ready to throw me out because I snuck down here. And he pulled me back by my shoulder, looked me in my eye, he said, no, they're not. Sit down.

SANDERS: And look at that.

LEWIS: Oh, my God. So there I was...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Ten feet...

SANDERS: Wow.

LEWIS: Right in front of him, in the Illinois section, between Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Spike Lee, watching the greatest speech.

SANDERS: Did you think it would've, you know - to see that happen in '08. You grew up in a very different America. Did you believe that it could happen?

LEWIS: You know, you want the truth?

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I voted for Hillary because I didn't want my vote to be wasted. This is the first time I'm admitting this.

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: I thought in myself, there's no way...

SANDERS: A lot of folks thought that.

LEWIS: ...They will elect a black man...

SANDERS: With that name.

LEWIS: ...As president of the United States. Obama? No. Now, I loved him, but I wanted Hillary.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Now, and here's how that ended. When I was at Oprah's house, I went up behind Michelle. And, you know, she turned around, looked down 'cause I'm so short...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...And the first words she says to me - oh, you make us laugh.

SANDERS: Look at that.

LEWIS: That she even knew who I was, it was just so wonderful. So when she embraced me, I whispered in her ear. I said, you know, black people don't like me. They love me...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...So put me on the front line for Barack Obama. And she looked at me and she said, I'm going to hold you to it.

SANDERS: Wow.

LEWIS: And, baby, I was blessed to meet him at a Christmas party at the White House. You want to know what he said to me?

SANDERS: What'd he say?

LEWIS: OK. OK. Here's what Obama said. And I'm going to try to do him.

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You can do it, you can do it.

LEWIS: Yeah. He said, she plays everybody's mama...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...And sometimes the mean mama.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: And then he looked around the room, and he said, but look at her. She's sweet.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: She's sweet.

LEWIS: And somebody captured that moment.

SANDERS: I love it.

LEWIS: I'm telling you, I've never seen my body language - I look like a 15-year-old girl.

SANDERS: Really? What were you doing?

LEWIS: Gushing.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: I just couldn't believe I was looking into his eyes. And I was there at the inauguration, too. I couldn't put every story in the book...

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: ...But it was similar to the convention.

SANDERS: All right. Time for a break. We are talking with the legendary actress Jenifer Lewis. She has a new book out. It's called, "The Mother Of Black Hollywood." After the break, we'll talk more about Jenifer's small-town dreams in Kinloch, Mo., where she grew up, and how she never stopped believing that she could make it big in the Big Apple. BRB.

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SANDERS: Let's talk about your upbringing. You were one of seven children, grew up, like, literally dirt poor - taking stuff to an outhouse, taking the pail of whatever outside.

LEWIS: Absolutely.

SANDERS: How did growing up where you did, in a segregated town outside of St. Louis, that poor, how did it affect the artist you are today and make you who you are? I can feel a lot of the church in everything that you do.

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. My mother was a great woman.

SANDERS: Yeah?

LEWIS: She worked two, three jobs to feed all seven of us. I was the baby. So by the time I came along, honey, she was exhausted. She was 26 with her seventh child.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

LEWIS: And she was, like, you go tell your big sister. So I was starved for attention. She had time to feed us, clothe us, keep a roof over our head...

SANDERS: And that was all she could do.

LEWIS: But there was no time for affection.

SANDERS: She was kind of a tough woman.

LEWIS: Yeah, she was tough, honey. She told us, she said, one of y'all land in jail, I'll leave you there.

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: Like I said, when my mother said something, you listened. But she also instilled work ethics in us. My mother got off welfare purposefully.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: She didn't want nobody coming to her door and asking her for this and that and then telling her how to live.

SANDERS: And then, like, she eventually, you say, scrubbing floors, she saved up enough money to buy a house for you all.

LEWIS: That's right. We got a new house. We were so happy. We were running through the house. We had more than one bathroom. We had running water. You know, and she took the stairs. That's where I learned how to take the stairs, to be patient for what it is that you want.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I admire her for it. I admire her for it.

SANDERS: And, you know, it's clear that you love her, but you also had to acknowledge some of the negative traits that you saw in her were in you. Talk about that and how you reconciled that.

LEWIS: I most certainly will. I was molested by the pastor of my church when I was a teenager, and my mother was in love with him. And I ran in the house. I told her. I could clearly see she was angry.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And she attempted to have a conversation about it, but, you know...

SANDERS: She didn't want to.

LEWIS: She couldn't.

SANDERS: So she didn't confront him about it.

LEWIS: And then we - no, she confronted him.

SANDERS: OK.

LEWIS: But then we never talked about it. See? So I was left with it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And we never discussed it again. So she wasn't the type of woman that would sit down and talk about things. She just kept moving through life. It was another time, another generation. Only five generations...

SANDERS: You suck it up, you move on.

LEWIS: ...Five generations from slavery, child.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: We had to eat. My mother had to make sure we had food, you see? So I confronted him years later.

SANDERS: You called him up.

LEWIS: And I also confronted her in a letter, and years later - you know, it was rough times to do that - we talked through it. And, you know, you can only go so far. I'd had a lot of therapy. She hadn't. You know, so - but she did acknowledge it. She did apologize.

SANDERS: Did you forgive her?

LEWIS: God, yes. I don't know that I even like that word, that I forgave her.

SANDERS: Why?

LEWIS: Let's just put it like this. I became forgiving in my own soul.

SANDERS: And it's an active thing.

LEWIS: Because, honey, let's face it. When somebody hurts you that bad, you don't forget that [expletive].

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: But I became a forgiving person. Let's put it like that. Now, him, he also apologized.

SANDERS: And you sure did call him out in that book.

LEWIS: I sure did.

SANDERS: By name. Yes.

LEWIS: The name of that chapter.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And I know you will bleep it, but, when I called him, it was like, hello, Jenifer. We've seen you on television. We're so proud of you. I called - I said, it ain't that kind of call, [expletive]. I sure said it.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: And I said, you hang up this phone, I'll fly back to St. Louis and I'll blow that pathetic little storefront church of yours. I'll blow it up.

SANDERS: Wow.

LEWIS: I was so mad, but I got - I felt so free after I confronted him. And I want to say to everybody out there...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Nobody has a right to touch you or emotionally abuse you.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: So you tell, and don't let that suffocate you and your life and you're sitting somewhere eating yourself to death or crying yourself to death. You're worthy of a good life. And guess who I had to be forgiving of? Myself.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEWIS: You know?

SANDERS: What does that process feel like? 'Cause the hardest part must be forgiving yourself.

LEWIS: I will tell you one thing. It's hard.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: And it's a process. It doesn't come overnight.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I wanted to do it because I wanted to see on my face what was on everybody else's face, which was laughter and a smile. 'Cause when I left, I don't leave a room unless I leave them laughing.

SANDERS: There you go.

LEWIS: So I wanted to laugh, and I wanted to smile. I didn't want to be depressed all the time. And I was, when I was untreated bipolar. So I worked hard. I worked hard.

SANDERS: So let's go back to you being a kid and performing in front of an audience for the first time. You describe your 5-year-old self in church in Kinloch, Mo., and you wanted to sing and you wanted to sing, and you begged them. And they finally let you sing, and you describe your full diva-ness at 5 years old. What was the song you sang?

LEWIS: It was called, "Oh, Lord, You've Brought Me A Mighty Long Way."

SANDERS: And you talk about...

LEWIS: And I was 5.

SANDERS: ...Rearing that back...

LEWIS: That's right, honey. I did a back bend, I snatched the church fan from the usher and fanned myself. I was so dramatic coming down that aisle. Because you have to walk down the aisle...

SANDERS: Yeah, I know.

LEWIS: ...To get to the squire (ph) stand, which represented the ship that would cross the River Joy (ph).

SANDERS: How long was your walk?

LEWIS: Well, I stretched it out to about five hours.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Can you sing a bit of the song?

LEWIS: (Singing) Whoa, oh, Lord, you brought me a mighty long way.

SANDERS: I endorse that.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: But I was doing all that screaming. It was like, yahhh (ph), you brought me, Lord.

SANDERS: So you knew then.

LEWIS: Yes.

SANDERS: You knew you had the bug then.

LEWIS: When I saw the reaction of the congregation, it washed over me like a tsunami, a tsunami of love. And, honey, I put my thumb in my mouth, my eyes crossed. I went back to my seat in the choir stand, and I was thinking, this is life. And I never looked back.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to talk about "Black-ish."

LEWIS: Hey, "Black-ish."

SANDERS: That show is so good.

LEWIS: Oh, my God. You want to talk about a cherry on the top of my career? Wow.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: They're addressing all the modern-day issues...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...To push these boundaries. ABC, I'm so proud of them. I'm so proud of Disney. They're allowing it to manifest, to help. We need these conversations now. The police brutality, the N word, depression.

SANDERS: Yeah. Deal with it all. That's good.

LEWIS: Kenya Barris, the creator of "Black-ish," is a genius. The cast is amazing. Anthony - my chemistry with him - we are just damn fools together, Anthony Anderson and I. Tracee Ellis Ross.

SANDERS: You knew her from "Girlfriends," right?

LEWIS: Yes, we did "Girlfriends" together. Our Ruby and the Rainbow relationship is just - we have so much fun. Child, we come in there and laugh, and then we have to go at each other. The children are great.

SANDERS: So good.

LEWIS: And I described working with Laurence Fishburne in the book. I tell everybody. They say, oh, my God, how was it working with Laurence Fishburne? I say, honey, it's ice cream, cotton candy and Christmas morning. Hey.

SANDERS: That sounds good.

LEWIS: Yeah.

SANDERS: So your character, Ruby - how would you describe her?

LEWIS: Ruby is sassy.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: She's a hot mess.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: She's got a good heart, though...

SANDERS: And she loves those kids.

LEWIS: ...And that's why everybody loves her. She loves her grandbabies. You know, she just went through a lot in her life, too. Come on. She done shot her husband.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: She done drove the car through - 'cause done scammed her son, you know? She got scammed. Then you find out she was a scammer. And then she scams her son.

SANDERS: What's the scene where you're trying to scam on the street as Ruby? You're, like, a veteran who can't walk.

LEWIS: We re-did Eddie Murphy's scene in "Trading Places" where he's begging for money on the streets, pretending he can't walk. The policemen pick him up, and his legs come down to the ground.

SANDERS: And he says, I'm healed.

LEWIS: It's hysterical. Yeah, I'm healed, black Jesus. Black Jesus. You know, she's constantly calling black Jesus. But everybody loves Ruby, and I'm having the time of my life playing her.

SANDERS: Yeah. You write in the book, though, that - so they asked for you personally to play this role. But your first day on set, you write that you were kind of terrified. Why?

LEWIS: I was so nervous.

SANDERS: Why?

LEWIS: Well, I had just come off vacation, and I had eaten so many desserts.

SANDERS: (Laughter) But the way you describe that fear the first time on that set, how'd you get over it?

LEWIS: Well, I trusted what I had done all my life...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Which was to make people laugh. And when I delivered that first line...

SANDERS: What was the first line?

LEWIS: Oh, I can't remember what it was.

SANDERS: It's OK.

LEWIS: But whatever it was...

SANDERS: It worked.

LEWIS: Everybody broke into laughter.

SANDERS: I love it.

LEWIS: And all of my fear went away.

SANDERS: And the show has this unique role in the culture right now because, like you said, it's not just a comedy show. They're teaching people things.

LEWIS: It's the magic of the writers.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: The writers are the stars of "Black-ish." When we get those scripts, we're excited.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: We're getting ready to do something that's going to make a difference and not only make a difference. But it's going to make people laugh.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: It's going to make them think.

SANDERS: Yes.

LEWIS: It's going to pull out - it's going to make conversation around the dinner table.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEWIS: But the thing is is that I am honored to be on "Black-ish." Like I said - I can't say it enough. It's a cherry on the top of a very long career.

SANDERS: So then if this is the cherry, what's next?

LEWIS: All right. Something's brewing.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK. OK. OK.

LEWIS: I can't - I swear to you, Sam, I can't announce it yet. But something really big is brewing.

SANDERS: I'm excited for it.

LEWIS: Yes, I'm excited, too.

SANDERS: I'm so excited for it.

LEWIS: And, you know, I don't announce things, honey, until that contract is signed...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEWIS: ...Because in this business...

SANDERS: You never know.

LEWIS: ...It comes, and it goes.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEWIS: It goes, and it comes.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you for sharing your story in the book and sharing it here with me now. And I want you to - last question. How is your art different and your work different now that you've gone through this process of being vulnerable...

LEWIS: Oh, my God. I'm free.

SANDERS: ...All of your mental health - you're free. What does that mean?

LEWIS: Well, let's just say it like this.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I'm not scared of too many things.

SANDERS: I like that.

LEWIS: I'm like, bring it, bitch. Let's talk through it. Let's work through it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Or you go your way, and I'll go mine.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Because I don't go in for stress. I'm 60 years old, baby. I got about 35 more summers left. You don't get it if you're coming in a negative way. I don't have time for it anymore.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I have a beautiful life now. I'm knocking on wood.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEWIS: I'm very grateful. You know, I lived the American dream.

SANDERS: You did.

LEWIS: I went from a poor little girl in Kinloch, Mo.

SANDERS: And now look at you.

LEWIS: And now 70 movies later.

SANDERS: That's right.

LEWIS: Come on, [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: I did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Ok. That was the original diva, Ms. Jenifer Lewis. Her new memoir is called "The Mother Of Black Hollywood." It's out now. Put it on your must-read list pronto. She spills all the tea. There is so much in there. I loved, loved, loved this book. Also, thanks to Jenifer for calling up my Aunt Betty.

Hey, Betty. A friend wants to say hi to you really quick.

BETTY: OK.

LEWIS: Hey, Betty. This is Jenifer Lewis. How you doing, babe?

BETTY: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: Girl, no. No. Somebody else sounds like me. Now, you know damn well it's me. Ain't no other voice coming at you like this (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right. That's it for us. We'll be back in your feeds on Friday with our weekly wrap on the news. A reminder to all of you - send me the best thing that happened to you this week. Email me at samsanders@npr.org and do not forget to brag. Also, we'll tell you again, but support this podcast. Support your local public radio station. Go to donate.npr.org/sam to do just that. All right. Thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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