Jenifer Lewis is passionate about AIDS.
The actress and entertainer has lost over 200 friends to the disease, dating back as far as 1979, when she visited a sick producer in the hospital and was told by her mother, who was also one of the attending nurses: “Put a mask on. We have no idea what this thing is.”
Jenifer Lewis is outraged.
She’s seen dancers, makeup artists, hairdressers, choreographers—all people she worked with—fade away while still in their prime. She’s had friends return from visits to Africa with horror stories about people dying by the thousands, children being abandoned, towns ravaged as if by war, indeed, by a different kind of war.
Jenifer Lewis is a soldier in the fight against the deadly disease.
“All I can do is be a light,” she says, “and trust that those who are asleep will in their own time wake up.” For Lewis, being a light means lending her broad-ranging talent to AIDS causes whenever she can, especially appearing at benefits and fundraisers whenever she’s asked.
That talent is no small offering. A singer, actress and—the term really applies here—diva, Lewis has been gracing the stage and big and small screens with her versatile voice and bawdy sense of humor in a wide range of projects for many years. Currently she stars in the Lifetime Television hit drama series “Strong Medicine.” But perhaps her crowning achievement to date is her critically acclaimed turn as Tina Turner’s mother in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. The role earned her an NAACP Image Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. She received a second nomination for her sharp-tongued performance in The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.
Lewis has been in a plethora of other films, ranging from comedies like the Sister Act movies and Blast From the Past to dramas such as Panther and Poetic Justice. On the small screen, she has been seen in a wide range of shows, including Murphy Brown, Friends, Touched By An Angel and Girlfriends. She’s also done plenty of theater, including Dreamgirls and Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises on Broadway. Her one-woman show, The Diva Is Dismissed, garnered two NAACP Theatre Awards for Best Actress and Best Playwright. She played a lesbian judge in CBS’s Courthouse and has worked with the likes of Robin Givens, Martin Short, Pam Grier, Stockard Channing and her dearest friend Bette Midler, with whom she appeared on the “Tonight Show” during Johnny Carson’s final taping.
So where does someone this busy find the time to lend her name to AIDS benefits? Or better still, why? Call it the direct result of losing so many friends in the entertainment business over the last twenty-plus years. “That in and of itself makes AIDS important to me,” she says. “I’d go to places like New Orleans to do a show, call up a hairdresser I liked there, and find out he’s dead. I’d go to Buffalo and look up a makeup artist to do my makeup and hear: ‘oh, he died the year before.’ One time I lost three friends in one day.” She also lost her best friend in 1990. “I miss him terribly,” she says, the tears swelling in her voice.
The pandemic in Africa is also a prime motivator and source of anger for Lewis. “It’s criminal that so few people know about AIDS running rampant in Africa. It’s ashamed that it’s still all so hidden. How people don’t think this is not going to come into their own backyard is beyond me. I’m still very angry at the US government for not doing as much as they can do.”
Lewis is quick to jump at the opportunity to sing at benefits and fundraisers as a way of channeling her anger and grief into productive outlets. One such performance was her unforgettable, humorous rendition of “Goldfinger” from the James Bond film at the annual AIDS Project Los Angeles Commitment to Life benefit concert. The number left the audience roaring with laughter.
“Each one, teach one,” and “each one, save one” are two phrases that come up often when Lewis speaks about her contribution to the war on AIDS. “It’s too vast for any one individual,” she said, but that doesn’t stop her from doing her part, including educating her adopted daughter. “I told her everything she wanted to know about sex and sexuality and then some, then made sure they were eight or nine boxes of condoms in her room.”
When it comes to black Hollywood doing its part in the epidemic, Lewis believes that the industry is not doing enough. “We all need to get up every morning and start doing things. There should be a march on Washington. People should be taking to the streets every day about healthcare. I know it sounds naïve but it is not naïve. There are not enough warriors, not enough common warriors. Everybody needs to wake up and take an extra step.”
The years of dealing with AIDS used to discourage Lewis, but no more. “I learned to get up,” she says now. “I have to get up. We have to remember whose shoulders we’re standing on, people who faced water hoses and dogs to get where we are.”
And so Jenifer Lewis remains a soldier.
When asked how she’s dealt with so much loss and grief, she says: “Honey, I lived it. I wept. I felt the feelings.” And perhaps because she has lived it, she’s nowhere near giving up. “We have to keep communicating, participate when asked, give back. A lot of people out there are doing a lot more and I honor them. I’m still fighting and will continue to do so with every breath of my body.”