Dramatic diva

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Wednesday January 24, 2018
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The Mother of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis; Amistad Books, $25.99

Outspoken, versatile, iconic actress and comedienne Jenifer Lewis' new memoir "The Mother of Black Hollywood" is a revealing tell-all that spares no detail of the Hollywood scene-stealer's life. Loaded with f-bombs, raw observations, and plenty of frank humor, she dishes the particulars of a life spent either in front of a camera, in bed romancing a man, or on stage before a crowded theatre. "After 259 episodic television shows, 63 movies, and four Broadway shows," she curses at not being able to remember her lines on "Black-ish" when she first started on the popular ABC sitcom.

At 60, Lewis shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. She considers herself a born entertainer, rising from the trenches of a childhood spent in a poor Missouri town, singing with wild abandon at the local Baptist church, where she recalls clutching "the side of the back pew, steadying myself in dramatic fashion." Her flair for performance would carry her out of a St. Louis college straight into New York City in 1979, "unstoppable" and ready to conquer the Manhattan stage. A hit list of cabaret performances, Broadway appearances, and TV shows follows as her career exploded, including many castings as the family matriarch, which informs the book's title.

Lewis is also frank about her struggle with sex addiction (anecdotes tucked inside the curiously-titled chapter "Dick Diva"), as evidenced in the many love affairs she juggled while gracing the stage and screen, including several frolics with Gregory Hines. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 33, a hurdle the actress needed to scale with therapy. Fans familiar with Lewis' Instagram posts know that she still carries a particular love for "a big D," but that her disorder is well under control.

She poignantly recalls performing at a benefit gala for an AIDS charity at Studio 54, and commemorates the scores of young friends, designers, actors, and others who perished from the disease. "They dropped like flies. It was a silent war that was never declared," Lewis laments.

Photographs illustrate her life from a child of six years to protesting at a Black Lives Matter rally. Lewis is an amiable and foul-mouthed tour guide throughout the slings and arrows of her life, including what she believed to be a great achievement in getting a part in Tom Hanks' "Cast Away" only to have most of her scenes cut out of the final version. She also writes about the joys of working with a star-studded cast in the side-splitting mockumentary "Jackie's Back."

In addition to starring as Ruby Johnson in the sitcom "Black-ish," now in its fourth season, Lewis has also teamed up with "RuPaul's Drag Race" star Shangela to produce a hilarious YouTube scripted comedy series. This witty, outrageous memoir will have fans of Lewis itching to see what she will come up with next.