I experienced something this past Saturday that I’m sorry people missed. It was a show that touched my heart. It didn’t just entertain me, it revealed to me the huge heart and the heartbreak that a star has experienced in her lifetime. It showed me that everyone, no matter what their success in life, can find themselves with demons to fight and also find the bravery to fight those demons and grow from the experience.
That is part of what I experienced as I watched “Black Don’t Crack,” Jenifer Lewis’ one-woman show at 54 Below, a nightclub located at 254 W. 54th St.
Lewis was hilarious with her words, facial expressions and body movements. But more than that, she made the audience feel like we were all her best friends and she wanted to share her problems with us, including being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and going to therapy, as well as her funny moments on the set of TV series like “Strong Medicine,” a series she was on for six years that had Whoopi Goldberg as its executive producer. By the way, Goldberg was in the house on Saturday.
It was obvious that much of the live show was planned, but there were also many funny moments that just happened off the cuff, again contributing to the reality that Lewis is a very down-to-earth lady who willingly wears her heart on her sleeve. What you see in her movie and TV roles isn’t just the characters she plays–she normally gives caring, common-sense answers to questions or dispenses sound advice, and the woman is really like that in real life.
Lewis speaks her mind and lets the profanities fly, but she isn’t offensive, she is simply real. Her humorous moments, which occurred throughout the show, happened because she has a gift for connecting with the audiences.
One can identify with the sadness she has faced. She shared how she didn’t spend much time with her father growing up and how her grandma raised her and taught her to be strong.
Lewis is a performer to be cherished because she is just so candid on stage, and it is obvious that she loves performing in front of a live audience. She enjoys it because, as any extraordinary entertainer, she feeds off what the audience’s reactions are at the time. She will easily go off script, and she is naturally funny. When she goes into the feeling of the moment, she fires back at people like you wouldn’t believe but are happy to witness.
Lewis has such an enormous heart, is such an incredible talent and has so much energy. As she took us down the journey of her life, the songs she performed were perfect in sharing her heart. She started off with a funny song that made her seem anything but humble–which by the way, she is. The song was “Look at Me.” Then she performed the show’s title song, “Black Don’t Crack,” which also served as a tribute to the Black divas who came before her.
Lewis had a marvelous exchange through the night with her accompanist–who also happened to be her co-writer on many of the songs–Marc Shaiman. Mark Alton Brown co-wrote the show.
Talking about her diagnosis and being a spokesperson for bipolar disorder, her performance of “Crazy” had the audience in tears laughing. There was a part in the song where she gave examples of what it means to be bipolar, and she was brilliant. She had everyone cracking up.
As beautiful as Lewis is, she shared that she hadn’t had much success in the romance department. But within the last three years, she met a handsome, retired marine sergeant, Arnold Byrd. While her earlier songs in the evening were revealing and funny, her next song was tender and moving. It was obvious that she has a deep love for Byrd as she gently rendered “I Got Lost in His Arms.”
Throughout the evening, Lewis demonstrated her vocal gifts; this lady can definitely “sang,” as she would probably say, but she also showed her vocal versatility. After telling us of her new love, she spoke of her ailing body and the outrageous things that her doctor recommended be done to help her “age gracefully.” Lewis had four-letter responses to the doctor’s recommendations, if you know what I mean.
Lewis took her audition for “Grey’s Anatomy” and used it to share that she has “Hot Flashes” and experienced one at the audition. She told stories and delivered songs that everyone can relate to, and the audience couldn’t stop laughing.
Then, again giving homage to the divas who came before her like Josephine Baker, Leslie Uggams and Leontyne Pryce, she performed an entertaining number called “Sang Bitch.” By the end of the song, she shared that at her eulogy, she does not want tears. She got the audience on their feet and had us all declare at her, “Sang bitch!” which she did. What a moment!
Lewis definitely understands that entertainment is a mix of funny moments with meaningful ones. The song she performed next was “Grandma Small,” in which she told about the beautiful, supportive relationship she had with her grandma growing up as the youngest of seven children. You can see that she is touched by the song and it is a wonderful tribute to her grandma.
The laughs returned as she performed “The 11 O’Clock Number,” which Shaiman wrote to let Hollywood cast and crew know about the deadlines for theater performers–going on stage for an 11 p.m. spot doesn’t mean showing up at 11 p.m.
Lewis explained that Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who created the songs in “Hairspray,” first offered her the role of Motormouth and had her in mind when they wrote “I Know Where I’ve Been.” She took the audience on a powerful journey as she took us to church with this song. She brought it home! Lewis ended the show with a slow, lovely version of “Here’s to Life.”
If you hear that Lewis is doing a live show, run to get tickets–you won’t regret it. Lewis is truly a marvelous, funny lady, and the atmosphere at 54 Below is relaxing and welcoming. Go to www.54below.com to see what else is coming up.