The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jenifer Lewis isn’t done baring her soul

Jenifer Lewis, queen of the high kick, says her “career has excelled to a level that I wanted as a kid.” (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
7 min

Jenifer Lewis sashays into a theater at the AFI in Silver Spring, Md., where fans are waiting to hear her talk about her new book, “Walking In My Joy,” a series of stirring, laugh-out-loud vignettes about her life. She enters to the sounds of another diva as Aretha Franklin, singing “A Deeper Love,” blasts on the speakers: “Now I’ve got love in my heart / it gives me the strength / To make it through the day.”

The event is part toast — to Lewis and her fans — and part roast for, well, anyone who should catch Lewis’s playful ire: “Now sit down, you’re getting on my nerves,” she jokes after basking in applause. “I got one nerve left!” For the veteran of TV, film and Broadway, it’s also part cabaret: Within a few minutes of her entrance, Lewis plops down at the piano to sing a signature tune, one that has gone viral several times over: “I don’t want nobody — ” she belts, pausing to ask if she’s allowed to curse (a privilege no one familiar with Lewis’s work would ever deny her). Given the all-clear, Lewis lets loose: “I don’t want nobody, f---ing with meeeeeeeeeee / In theeeese streets!”

“In These Streets” is the subtitle of Lewis’s book, which features the same kind of soul-baring honesty the actress offered in her 2017 memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.” In that book, Lewis candidly discussed living with bipolar disorder and a sex addiction that she brings up matter-of-factly to the crowd at AFI. “I didn’t know I was bipolar then. I rather enjoyed that part of it,” she cracks as the audience erupts in laughter.

In “Walking In My Joy,” Lewis recounts reaching out to famous friends including Brandy Norwood and Kathy Griffin during the pandemic and her self-reflection over months in isolation. She recalls the decade DJ Pierce (better known as Shangela of “Drag Race” fame) lived in her basement while trying to break into the entertainment industry. She tells the harrowing story of the man who conned her out of $50,000, but she emerges triumphant, recalling how her testimony in court led to a prison sentence for the serial fraudster: “Y’all know I performed … ‘the truth the whole truth and nothing but’ with real tears,” Lewis writes.

“When I tell the truth, the electricity goes up my spine,” she tells the AFI crowd. “I am damn near possessed by it.”

She already has the aura and the confidence and the projection of a star,” the New York Times wrote of Lewis in 1983, just after Bette Midler recruited her as one of her backup singers, the Harlettes. “She is the very essence of show business — a singer with a dazzling voice, a high-kicking dancer, a lusty comedienne, a coiled spring of energy.”

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

Though Lewis, a native of Kinloch, Mo., has been working in Hollywood for decades, it was “Black-ish” that marked her breakout into mainstream fame. Like many veteran Black entertainers, Lewis is enjoying the sort of career renaissance and appreciation her fans have always wanted for her.

With ‘Abbott Elementary,’ Sheryl Lee Ralph is finally getting her flowers

“Jenifer Lewis was one of the first Black women I ever saw on TV that was not ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Hannah Oliver Depp, whose Silver Spring and Petworth-based shop Loyalty Bookstore hosted the Lewis event, tells the crowd at AFI.

A perpetual scene-stealer, Lewis is beloved for a variety of roles. She’s Will’s Aunt Helen on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” coolly delivering one-liners that make her recurring role on the show (eight episodes in all) seem much more expansive. She’s Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport, telling Hillman students “You’re on my list!” on “A Different World.” She’s Anna Mae Bullock’s mother 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 primed for a comeback in the cult classic mockumentary film “Jackie’s Back!” She’s Grandma Ruby on “Black-ish,” calling her biracial daughter-in-law everything but a child of God (“Rae Dawn Chong” was one particularly memorable barb).

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 walked into it like a fitted glove.”

“My career has excelled to a level that 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 genuinely celebrating a role that sees her “grind” on handsome young men with no lines.

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

Many celebrities talk about mental health issues but few have taken fans into their treatment and recovery process the way that Lewis has. When Kathy Griffin, struggling in the aftermath of the controversy around a 2017 tweet that showed her holding a mask made to look like the severed head of President Donald Trump, took a large quantity of pills, she called Lewis. “I think I’m in a little trouble. I took some sleeping pills,” Lewis recalls Griffin saying in her book. “I think I took too many. And I don’t want to die.”

“I knew Jenifer wouldn’t be scared by a friend that was suicidal,” Griffin said in a phone interview. “She wouldn’t run in fear and she wouldn’t call me names.” What Lewis did do was sit with Griffin for hours on end, and was still there when she awoke the next morning.

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

That’s true even on her 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 her fans. “I came here to tell you to take care of yourself. And vote.”

Activism, Lewis said, is her biggest priority at this stage of her life. “Show business, it’s like brushing my teeth. All somebody has to say is ‘places’ or ‘action’ and I’m on.” But “America is in a lot of trouble right now, so there’s nothing more important. It should be important to everybody,” she added.

“Women have got to shut this country down,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court’s recent dismantling of Roe v. Wade. “We’ve got to stand up. We’ve got to take a knee. And we have to also lay down, and I don’t mean on the … sofa.”

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

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

“I had my phone just smashed against the window, and there was a yoga teacher on that flight and she was just happy to be right next to me looking out,” Lewis said. “She overheard me say, ‘Since I was 13 years old, I wanted to climb to the top.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Look at you — now you’re above it.’ ”