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An iconic role shapes a generation of Black women

Kimberly Adams and Candace Manriquez Wrenn Sep 7, 2020
Erika Alexander speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

An iconic role shapes a generation of Black women

Kimberly Adams and Candace Manriquez Wrenn Sep 7, 2020
Erika Alexander speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

It’s Labor Day, a day to recognize work, and there’s a lot of work happening right now on racial and economic equity.

Part of that conversation is the legacy of Civil Rights leader John Lewis, the subject of a recent documentary profile co-produced by Erika Alexander.

Alexander is an actress and producer with a long career highlighting characters and their work, including in her own acting career. She’s well-known for playing the role of Maxine Shaw in the ’90s sitcom “Living Single.” The series focused on a group of Black friends living in New York City navigating careers and relationships.

Warning: The following interview contains a racial slur.

Kimberly Adams: “Living Single” ran for just about five years. But it was such a formative show for those of us who watched it. Can you talk about what you feel that show meant in that moment?

Erika Alexander: Well, for me, I was 23 when we started. And for me, I was living their life, but not in that way. I am not college trained, and these women were. It was about four Black women in New York. I played the lawyer Maxine Shaw and she had three friends, Khadijah James (played by Queen Latifah), who was the center of the foursome, and Kim Fields and Kim Coles played Regine Hunter and Synclaire James. And so, there we were, in Brooklyn, New York, living our lives, living our best lives. And so for me, that was a type of aspiration that, up until that point, I hadn’t really thought of myself being a part of. I was an actress and I was doing well, but in that show, they were doing better to me because they had degrees. And that was something that we all aspire to as Black women.

Adams: Many people over the years have said that your character in particular, the lawyer, Maxine Shaw, inspired them. Can you talk about some of the stories you’ve heard and how those make you feel?

Alexander: I have lived long enough to see, not only the show go away and come back into syndication, but also revived on streaming platforms. So I’ve gotten a few generations that have lived, watching these shows, in particular, “Living Single.” And these generations have grown up, and they are now in their 40s and whatnot, and they have attained and achieved amazing things. And one of the things that gives me a lot of pleasure is the fact that they come up to me and said that the Maxine Shaw character, in particular, gave them the seed to not only go into politics and to be a lawyer and to be in the C-suites, but they were glad they saw it because that was a character that looked like them. She had hair like them. She had an attitude. She wasn’t afraid to be confident and own her sexuality. And these are people like Stacey Abrams and Marilyn Mosby and Ayanna Pressley and Mayor De Blasio. And five judges that I saw just after 2018, who won their districts in Texas, ran me down at the Essence Festival last year and screamed and told me, “Do you understand what you mean?” And that’s why representation matters.

Adams: It’s interesting, you should mention people screaming at you because I was talking to one of my closest friends last night who screamed on the phone when I told her that I was going to be talking to you today. She was saying that as a darker-skinned Black woman growing up, she was constantly being made to feel ugly and less than. And when she saw you on TV, as a lawyer, as successful, as being consistent portrayed as beautiful and attractive, that it mattered so much. And I’d like to hear you more on representation in a professional sense, of not just Black characters, but Black characters who look a certain way. [For instance,] your character had natural hair.

Alexander: I think we shouldn’t be surprised as Black people. All sorts of things are happening around us right now. And we’re looking within ourselves to meet the moment and the fact that she saw me in my hairstyle, she should know and if you follow the line, that’s Whoopi Goldberg’s hairstyle in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and when she did her one-woman show. And one of the reasons I had that style on, is that I had just gone on a tour with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on a play called “Mahabharata.” It was nine-hour play. We went all around the world and someone who was doing my hair in London, destroyed my hair – literally pulled it out. It was an interlocking weave and they didn’t know how to take it out.

Now, this is how it works: Phylicia Rashad said go to John Atchison, he’s going to fix you up. And first thing he did was cut off most of it. And then he started to shape it and give it a shape. While I was there, Cicely Tyson was there. And I told Cicely Tyson that I was wondering what type of style I should wear off of it. What should I do? And she said, “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you what to do with your hair.” Now when Cicely tells you something, Cicely Tyson, you hear me? Miss Miles Davis Cicely Tyson? You do it. But, it stuck in me that this Black woman who I admired, these Black women were leading me saying, “Here, he knows how to take care of your hair, here, don’t ever let anybody tell you what to do with your hair.”

And I didn’t know this at the time, but I had just done a movie with Whoopi Goldberg, “The Long Walk Home.” A young woman in Brooklyn said, “I have these new locs, they’re called new locs and they’re made out of yarn, and I want to put it on your head.” And I said sure because, at the time, I had shaved it completely off. She put those new locs on and I went into that audition in Hollywood, a few weeks later, and I just laid it out there. Before I might have worried that a straight style was what I needed. It was the era of beautiful women, but most people were wearing relaxers and I wasn’t. But I stepped in there with the type of confidence that they [Black mentors] gave me. And so what you saw with Maxine Shaw had been built in my mind by people like them. Again, that’s the seed being passed along, and that’s what people felt.

Adams: Speaking of hair, specifically, the Crown Act, which has been adopted in seven states, prohibits discrimination based on hairstyles, particularly hairstyles worn by Black women.”Living Single” was in 1993. And it’s all this time later, and this battle over natural hairstyles being worn in professional workplaces is still happening.

Alexander: Isn’t it shocking? I actually met an assemblywoman or councilwoman in New York, who was one of the sponsors of that. And when she said she was working on it, that was last year. I couldn’t believe she was serious. I thought we were past those things. But it turns out we needed legislation to give people the right to not be fired or not promoted because of those things. I’m sure it’ll still happen, but it’s the beginning. Basically, what we’re seeing is that people all over miss opportunities because of the shortage of knowledge and resources. And the shortage of knowledge and no access to expertise or mentors stop people from learning about how the world looks.

Adams: The characters on “Living Single” talked a lot about their work. All of them were professionals in their own right, many of them very successful. What do you think having an ensemble cast like that that was so focused on work meant?

Alexander: What it meant for other people is that you can come and laugh with them and go on their journey, but obviously, this is normal. This is not something that should be seen as outside of what Black people do. And for us, it was normal how many Black women and Black men have been mentored by these people, by seeing them. But often, it’s relegated to being something, especially then by the way, it was the ’90s in the hip hop sort of gangster mentality had taken over. People walking around with their hind parts all out and booty showing. Men, grown men, they didn’t pull up their pants because the prison culture had taken over. They needed to be reminded of who they are. We are the children of James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells. And we had been told that we were [N-word]. That’s the truth. We suddenly took back that narrative and said that you are not. You are capable of not only great things, the expectation is that you should be great, because that’s who you are. That’s what happened. And then “Scandal” came after that. There was a lot of discrimination and racism that we went through just after those ’90s years that were glorious and full of progress and characters and fun and all the things that we thought we were getting. And then they shut it down in 2000.

Adams: Specifically talking about several shows that came out in the ’90s that centered a variety of Black experiences, particularly in comedy and sitcom.

Alexander: There you go. And we needed Shonda Rhimes to bring Kerry Washington and Viola Davis back to remind us who we were. But they had not had that example since Diahann Carroll.

Adams: You were talking about the ’90s. And sort of that moment, and for a certain segment of the population, those shows were the ’90s. But, in broader culture, everyone’s talking about shows like “Friends.” And you’ve written quite a bit on, sort of the dynamic between what “Friends” was in the culture and what “Living Single” was in the culture. And I’m hoping you can explain that a bit more.

Alexander: You know, for some reason it’s taken hold in the zeitgeist because of the story that we told about “Living Single’s” beginnings, its origin story. We were in our production a year before “Friends.” We were both on Warner Brothers. And at the time, after the pilot, an executive came down and they had a list of names. And they were trying to see what they should name the show because the show was originally called “My Girls” and Yvette Lee Bowser, who created the show, named it that, but it hadn’t tested well, apparently. They were testing names and there were few names on a piece of paper. And one of them was “Living Single,” blah, blah, blah and “Friends.” And we were, of course, chosen to be “Living Single.”

And a year later, “Friends” came out and had the same setup: six friends of a certain age, 20-something, all making it in New York and their lives and their journeys. And they were on NBC, we were on Fox. And we saw very clearly how systemic racism works within story and also support of shows. I’m not taking anything from them to say that they made both those shows. But there’s a clear break in how they were marketed. And what happened when a show that was the white face version of “Living Single” came to the fore. And David Schwimmer, who was being so nice a few months ago, was giving an interview and he said …

Adams: He played the character Ross.

Alexander: Ross, he played this character Ross on “Friends.” And he said he wished there were more Black people on “Friends” at the time and he had pushed as an actor to get that. But, he said one day there will probably be a an all Asian “Friends” or an all Black “Friends.” And so I wrote and said, well, that’s going to be hard because you’re the all-white version of “Living Single.” And suddenly, the internet took off and they started to talk about what they had been talking about for years. And it got so full of passion and people pushing and saying, “Why are our ideas stolen?” “Why do we not get our credit?” And they’re right about some of these things. I wrote an article and put it out and to address it and talk about the larger thing. He didn’t know what he was saying. He didn’t mean to be disrespectful. But what it talked about underlying was the fact that from, rock and roll on, we have not gotten our props. And what ends up happening is we don’t end up getting the the money value of our time and the money value of our ideas. And that’s a problem.

Adams: I suppose there’s a pretty direct comparison to be made between what happened to the cast of “Friends” after that show, and the cast of “Living Single” in terms of opportunities and pay. And in your article, you even highlight the idea of a reunion show and the comparison of the money that’s offered to do a reunion show for these two shows.

Alexander: Yes. And their reunion show, it was written, that they were each going to get about $2.5 million or so to do their reunion. We got some lovely craft service, a flight to get there, and maybe, for the use of our face and image, probably a couple of hundred dollars or whatever that is in the SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) minimum. That’s what happens.

Adams: I just want to make sure that I understand you clearly. The cast of “Friends” for their reunion show, same company, was offered millions of dollars and you guys got whatever the minimum was for your usage and a flight?

Alexander: Yes, yes. And we were happy to get it. We didn’t know any other way. Black people are so used to not getting with they deserve, that you don’t even know that other people are getting those things. It’s because they [fans] made such a big hubbub about it. We were like “wow,” but we’re not the only ones. Viola Davis has talked about this. Monique has talked about this. Octavia Spencer’s salary had to be pinned to Jessica Chastain. Jessica Chastain did that so she [Octavia Spencer] could get a wage that she deserved. This was after she won the Oscar and had been nominated twice before. This is what we’re dealing with. So systemic inequities in pay are all across the board. And people say, “Well, why should we care what spoiled actor celebrities get?” Because we are reflection of you. We’re not spoiled actors and celebrities. We’re small businesses. We’re small businesses who happen to perform and we’re entertainers and we seed the culture of America and America seeds the culture of the world and we’re not getting our due. That’s why you should care.

Adams: Maxine Shaw, your character from “Living Single,” projected and many of those characters projected, this sort of image of what could be and the possibility and what was for many people. But for others, it was the first time seeing something like that on TV. What is the version of that today? The image, the people, the representation that needs to be seen? Who is today’s Maxine Shaw? What would she look like?

Alexander: She looks like Ayanna (Pressley), who just lost her hair with alopecia and still stands strong with beautiful bold lipstick, and clothes and her voluptuous body. She would look like Michelle Obama, who goes on creating the stories and narratives around us, but also making sure that she stands up and lifts us to a higher place. She would look like Lizzo, who proudly has her big body and her flute. She would look like Tank from Tank and the Bangas, Tarriona Ball, who is a poet and a genius. She would look like me and you, Kimberly. We are her.

Adams: We’ve lost John Lewis. But, you have this amazing film about him and I wonder if you two discussed your role and “Living Single” and these themes that you’re talking about? As you guys were working together?

Erika Alexander: We did not. Because John Lewis, I don’t think watches that much TV. But, he treated me as special as he treated every Black woman that came in his presence — like I was his daughter. But I have to say from a man who spent his life fighting for us and our voting rights, and putting his life and his body as collateral, that was totally fine with me. And because of him, I’m here today and I want to say thank you to both to all of you because giving me this platform to talk about this and discuss these things is exactly what he fought for.

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