Revisit the wisdom of one of the best actresses in the business (have you seen Grey’s Anatomy?) with this 2008 interview with Loretta Devine. Since the interview was originally published, Ms. Devine has lent her talents to S.T.A.G.E., a benefit for APLA, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and, of course, Divas Simply Singing!, among many more.
Actress Loretta Devine Speaks with A&U’s Chael Needle About Her New Movie, Dirty Laundry, and its Stand on Homophobia in the Black Community, as Well as Her Own Stand in Support of Those Living with HIV/AIDS
Oh, God, no. You don’t think like anything like that is going to last. You hope…,” says Loretta Devine, sotto voce, when asked if she ever thought the pandemic would be as urgent today as it was more than twenty-five years ago. “That’s like all the stuff that’s going on now, with all the disasters, and everything being brand new. It’s this late in my life and so much is happening that I’ve never seen before. New terror, new disaster. It’s almost like the world is sick. Even Mother Nature is sick—it’s like she has a cold and she’s sneezing snow in the wrong areas! If you think of everything in a larger, broader scale…it’s like the world caught a bug or something and they can’t get rid of it.”
It’s December and the Hollywood writers’ strike is well over a month old but Devine is busy working on her new TV show, Eli Stone, whose scripts had already been written before the strike started and could be placed in the hands of the actors and production crews. Another script—this one an unfinanced feature and without major stars attached—had been placed in her hands a little over two years ago by actor, writer, director, and producer Maurice Jamal (The Ski Trip), who saw Devine in the role of Evelyn, a Southern matriarch who loves her three children but who won’t hesitate to raise a cornbread frying pan to drive a point home, in his film, Dirty Laundry.
At a Penny Marshall-directed Vagina Monologues charity benefit, Devine, who was part of that evening’s cast, learned of Jamal’s script and his wish that she play Evelyn when, thanks to mutual friends, those infamous six degrees of separation collapsed and the dreamer was able to make a serendipitous connection with the original Dreamgirl. After reading the script, she signed on. Thanks in part to Devine’s marquee name, and strong support from its producers, including Nathan Hale Williams and Keith Boykin [A&U, January 2005], among others, the pitch became a reality.
Dirty Laundry, released nationwide at the end of December, enjoyed stellar business and enthusiastic audiences in limited release in New York and Los Angeles during the weekend before our interview. The Houston native is sincerely pleased, encouraged, when I congratulate her: “It’s great. It is—because we did not have a lot, a lot, a lot of press, as far as getting [word about the film] out there, letting people know where it is and what it is.”
Devine is also tickled about what must seem like an embarrassment of riches. Eli Stone is slated as a mid-season replacement; her movie, This Christmas, opened at number-two at the box office recently; a new movie from David Talbert called First Sunday is out this month; and Dirty Laundry, which garnered Devine a best actress award at the 2006 American Black Film Festival, and itself took home the audience award, is set to remind audience members of the type of sensitive acting they have come to expect from her performances, from Waiting to Exhale to TV’s Boston Public to Punks to the Oscar-winning Crash and a cameo performance in last year’s film version of Dreamgirls.
Dirty Laundry, released by CodeBlack Entertainment and FOX, unfolds with natty magazine writer Patrick (Rockmond Dunbar) having flown back to his small-town childhood home in Georgia where everyone knows him by his rather unglamorous birth name, Sheldon, to return the young boy (Aaron Grady Shaw) who has been sent to the doorstep of his big-city apartment, claiming to be his son. He finds a mother (Devine) still waiting for him to come to his senses about his direction in life, a sympathetic sister (Terri J. Vaughn) who has her own dreams of escape, a brother (Jamal) intent on giving him the cold shoulder, and a gaggle of nosy church ladies, led by his aunt [Jenifer Lewis (A&U, May 2005)], who are as showy about their righteousness as they are about their Sunday hats. He convinces himself that nothing much has changed in ten years, and promptly distances himself from the boy he used to be as easily as he brushes off the boy who needs his love now. The don’t-be-a-sissy attitudes that drove him away seem to still be in full force, and, when his boyfriend shows up and word gets out that he is gay, the family members have to spill their own secrets and try to iron out their issues, albeit in their own dysfunctional way. As Evelyn says, “This ain’t Soul Food and we ain’t the Cosbys.”
What I like about this movie is that you’re in love with the characters before you really find out who or what they were. Which didn’t allow you to go, ‘I can’t deal with that’…you really got to know Rockmond before you made a decision about him,” she says about the gay character whose heterosexuality appears to others to be cemented by his newly discovered paternity. “You knew who everybody was before you went, ‘Ahhhh, oh my God,’” she notes, mimicking that moment of identification before you have a chance to label someone as so different that it makes a difference.
As Devine describes her character, Evelyn is a woman who drinks, smokes, and has a lover but also has worked hard, raised a family, and goes to church every Sunday. She “still went about her life as most people do, doing what she had to do,” she says about a character for whom she has developed a deep fondness because of—not despite—Evelyn’s contradictions, memorably realized in the film by her cigarette ash seemingly always hovering over a pile of freshly laundered clothes. “When I did Preacher’s Wife, Penny Marshall, the director, was like that. She’d have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth twenty-four/seven,” she says with a giggle, imitating a stage direction in Marshall’s famous brogue. “And I always loved that about her. Because we were in the church shooting and she had that cigarette in her mouth….” Evelyn is based on Maurice Jamal’s own mother, she tells me about the woman she says she had the pleasure to meet, and, significantly, “based on her acceptance of what he is, and what he’s decided to do, in that he’s very outspoken about how he feels and who he is….”
The film is careful about drawing these characters with complexity and, in turn, drawing you into their lives. “And Maurice is able to do it with comedy,” she points out, mentioning that Jamal’s unusually long but hilarious monologues do connect. “The audience just laughs and they enjoy themselves as they’re getting information that they wouldn’t get any other way.”
Comedy in other words helps break the silence about issues not often discussed in families, and in particular traditional black families in the South. The family’s reticence to talk about Patrick’s sexual orientation is part of a larger web of silence that holds characters back from talking about issues like fat discrimination, parental sacrifice and sabotage, and careers that take them far from home, among others. Devine became involved in the movie in part because of the way homophobia has hampered a proactive response to AIDS in the African-American community.
“I think everybody in the black race knows about homosexuality [but] no one wants to step up to it. There’s a lot of denial about it. Even the people who are homosexual a lot of times don’t tell anybody,” says Devine about silence, an effect of homophobia that can become a shield—but also a weapon. “You fear the unknown. The things you hear about it, a lot of times—if you’re not living in a world where you’re exposed to it—are false things, or pieces of things,” she says, mentioning TV and its overabundance of “men in gowns.” “Then you have women who fear that their husbands are going to be taken away. You have all kinds of reasons of why people are afraid of homosexuals, and the lifestyle and life experiences, and what effect it will have on their life, how it will change their life [for the worse]….So any information that clears the air…,” she says about stories like Dirty Laundry that bring out the known but unsaid.
“In one of the screenings, a questioner asked, ‘Well, didn’t they know he was already gay?’ We got a chance to talk about the denial and how people do know, especially people in your family, and they just push it back or push it aside, and go, ‘If I get him the right girlfriend, if I take him to the right church, everything will change.’ They overlook those things. People don’t want to deal with it. It’s like an added problem,” she says. “And [Jamal] brought all of that out in the film, I think. Even the fact that the boy’s lover came on Sunday, which is something that upset the mother—the fact that it happened on a Sunday,” she notes, perfectly at ease as a student of the film as well as one of its stars.
While the film does not directly touch on AIDS, it does suggest that ideals like God and family are often privileged at the expense of loving ourselves, and can put us at risk for making less than safe choices. Homophobia, and especially the assumption that homosexuality, and by extension AIDS, is a concern mainly or only for white folks, plays a part in preserving the ideal of the traditional black family, an ideal under siege in racist America.
Last October’s Divas Simply Singing!, a charity benefit in which Devine participated, and the beneficiaries it selected this year, Balm in Gilead and Women Alive Coalition, prove that faith, family, and community-specific responses to AIDS are an integral part of fighting the pandemic. Divas Simply Singing!, which turned seventeen this year, featured Jennifer Holliday, Natalie Cole, Deniece Williams, RuPaul [A&U, June 2005], Jenifer Lewis, Ledisi, and Ann Nesby, was created by Sheryl Lee Ralph, as part of the Divas Foundation, in honor of the many friends she has lost, and one of those—to which the Dreamgirls reunion of Devine, Ralph, and Holliday attests—is Broadway superstar Michael Bennett. Before he died in 1987 from AIDS complications, Bennett helped give audiences not only Dreamgirls, but A Chorus Line, Company, and Follies, among many other productions.
Asked if she ever worries that people like Bennett might be forgotten, Devine responds, “Oh, God, I don’t think it’s possible to be in America—be American—and forget Michael Bennett. The shows he created just had legs of their own,” she points out about the man she considers a genius. “Everything he’s created has stood the test of time. Chorus Line is on Broadway now again. Dreamgirls is a movie now and they’re doing it in all the high schools all over the country, all over the world. And I think they’re taking it back to Broadway. So I think his legacy is so great that he won’t be forgotten. I think he’ll be studied always in the universities, and anyone who’s interested in anything is going to have to know about Michael Bennett.”
Devine first heard about the AIDS crisis when she was in a show with Gregory Hines, Comin’ Uptown, and one of the actors died. “All these people started dying and nobody knew why. I think that was the start of it…because it was a long time before they said what it was, and that it was an epidemic, and [they] started closing the bathhouses and all of that. It was a while before it started touching home and started happening to the people who you loved directly.
“I can remember, oh God—it was a devastating, frightening time,” she says, but exciting as well, “when everybody was doing everything. That was in the eighties, and everything started shutting down around about then and [people were] putting the freeze on everything. Everything was declared bad, bad, bad!” she giggles with gusto. The urgency to respond may not have changed, but Devine feels we have made strides in fighting stigma and raising awareness. “I don’t think it’s as bad in that people are more aware of what you can do. I mean, you used to be afraid to go out and eat in a restaurant if anybody gay was working there. There are some things that have changed, that were so crazy initially. People just didn’t know. When you don’t know nothing it’s like so scary. My mama used to put Clorox in her water when anybody would come over! It’s just fear, flat-out fear.
“I don’t think the fear level is as great and in some ways that’s detrimental because people aren’t putting the rubbers on. In the black community it’s really bad, with the down low and people not admitting anything. It’s everywhere. It’s not just homosexuals that are sick, it’s everybody. It’s just like with anything: If you’re going to sell drugs to anybody, everybody’s going to eventually get some. You bring it to one community, everybody [is affected] because everybody goes out, everybody gets around….It’s going to touch everybody at some point in some way. There’s nothing that happens that doesn’t touch everybody at some point in some way.”
Funding towards a cure, finding more and better ways to help people living with HIV/AIDS to deal with the disease, and supporting people like Sheryl Lee Ralph are some of the ways that Devine says we can help. Besides Divas, Devine supports Project Angel Food, P.A.L.S., has been a long-time participant in S.T.A.G.E., and she also helps out two breast-cancer nonprofits—What a Pair and Les Girls. “It’s not all just AIDS, it’s so much stuff going on that’s affecting everyone so…” she explains about the time and energy she gives, and the connections she makes among issues of health. “It’s all a part of the blessing for me. I get to do all these wonderful things that I love, which is acting. And I’m so blessed; I work all the time. You have to balance it with your services so usually when people ask me to do stuff, I try to be there as much as I can, besides what I just give anyway.”
Even though Hollywood has made some efforts to raise awareness about AIDS, Devine feels that the disease “still doesn’t have a voice. As many benefits are done about it and one-woman shows that are done about it,” she says, referring to Sheryl Lee Ralph’s multicharacter AIDS show, Sometimes I Cry, “it’s still sort of taboo, no one wants to [address it]…It’s still a real scary area for everybody and that gives it power.”
Chael Needle interviewed gospel and R&B singer Coko for the December 2007 issue.