“You all look beautiful, and it fills my heart to be able to celebrate with you and your families today.” Thus began remarks from Jenifer Lewis ’79 to thousands of Webster University graduates and their families at The Muny in Forest Park or watching online during the 96th commencement ceremony. Lewis was “home” again, returning during her alma mater’s centennial year to share inspiration and wisdom with 6,574 graduates from 110 countries.
During the ceremony, Lewis received the Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree for her outstanding stage and screen career and for her many international community engagement efforts. In her commencement address, Lewis thrilled the audience with words – and song – as she recalled her own personal journey from the poverty-stricken St. Louis suburb of Kinloch to starring in the entertainment industry and dealing with her own challenges along the way.
“Now Kinloch sits directly on the border of Ferguson, where, throughout the 1960s, I was warned never to go alone,” Lewis said. “We were not welcome in Ferguson. But see, Ferguson had a movie theater and Kinloch did not. So there I was. Alone.”
Lewis recalled how, as a 12-year-old, she spent Saturday afternoons at that theater, “eating my popcorn, imagining myself starring up there on the screen. Little did I know at that time, I was setting a standard for my entire life. Racism? I wasn’t thinking about racism. I had a dream. And that dream took me to Hollywood, Broadway and concerts all over the globe.”
After graduating in 1979 from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts, Lewis’s dream quickly became reality; she landed a role in the Broadway show “Eubie” within a month. That launched a successful entertainment career spanning more than 35 years and resulting in more than 200 television appearances, 60 films and four Broadway shows. “Class of 2015, there is a point to this,” she said. “When you have a great passion to do something, to be someone, as I’m sure all of you do, there is nothing that can keep you from achieving it. In fact, if you are breathing you are unstoppable.”
Currently, Lewis is cast opposite Laurence Fishburne in the number two comedy in America, ABC’s “Black-ish,” and has been invited to be a regular cast member on the show during its upcoming second season. Her latest movie is “The Wedding Ringer,” starring Kevin Hart. Other film credits include “Think Like a Man” and “Think Like A Man Too,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” the “Sister Act” films, and “Beaches” with Bette Midler. Disney fans recognize her distinctive voice as Flo in “Cars” and “Cars 2” and as Mama Odie in “The Princess and the Frog.” Her television work includes six seasons on “Strong Medicine,” “Meet the Browns,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “A Different World.” Lewis has co-starred opposite Meryl Streep in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of “Mother Courage and her Children” in New York City and earned two NAACP Theater Awards for her one-woman show “The Diva Is Dismissed.” Last year, the multi-faceted entertainer received an electrifying standing ovation at Carnegie Hall while singing with the New York Pops orchestra.
Growing up, Lewis’s idols were all what she calls “triple threats” – versatile performers who could sing, act and dance, such as Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as singing idols Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman. And even though Lewis feels gifted with that same versatility, she says her first love is singing and that she favors onstage work over television and film. Lewis’s own one-woman shows are her favorite performances. “It’s immediate,” she said. “The connection you get with all of those eyes; there’s nothing like it.”
But, for all her professional success, Lewis has faced numerous challenges as well. Those challenges provided the framework for Lewis’s message to Webster graduates.
“There are three things I want to share with you today,” she said. “One: The elevator to success is broken. Take the stairs. Two: It’s when you are hardest hit that you mustn’t quit. Three: Love yourself so love will not be a stranger when it comes.”
After that first Broadway show, Lewis moved to LA, but her career languished. “I went on audition after audition, but I didn’t get a job! I didn’t understand. That elevator to success got stuck between floors,” she said.
Lewis became depressed and ultimately was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “The unpredictable force that is life itself demanded that I take the stairs,” she said. “But sometimes climbing steps is hard. Knees hurt. Back hurts. Outta breath. Sometimes you will slip and fall. And when these hits come, take the opportunity to reflect; gather up some wisdom before you make the next choice. Then grab hold of that rail and keep it moving! Keep. It. Moving.”
That statement segued naturally to Lewis’s second piece of advice for Webster graduates. “Some of my hits stopped me dead in my tracks,” she said. In addition to bipolar disorder, those hits included losing more than 200 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson. “Sometimes it hits you so hard you don’t know what to do at first,” she said. “But then I got up and I did my utmost to help however and wherever I could.”
One such example: Her early work as a member of a group called Divas for Dollars in the 1980s, which, through impromptu musical performances at New York nightclubs, raised more than $30,000 to help people affected by AIDS. She remains today a forceful proponent for AIDS education and treatment and has performed at more than 15 AIDS walks around the country. She is particularly proud of launching more than 10,000 walkers on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Lewis is involved in other community efforts as well. Her numerous one-woman shows have raised funds for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and last year, she received the Ally for Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Lewis also speaks to groups across the country about eradicating the stigma targeting people suffering from mental illness. She also has been involved with the Big Sisters/Big Brothers organization.
For Lewis’s third point – Love yourself so that love will not be a stranger when it comes – she said, “Finding your deep passion, your dream as it were, is an important step in finding love for yourself. Find your passion; pace yourselves. Help others when you can. Help even when you think you can’t. Because, make no mistake, when it is all said and done, it is our humanity that will matter above all things. So love hard.”
For Lewis, her work is never done. New milestones include receiving the Career Achievement Award from the American Black Film Festival organization during the recent “Best of the ABFF” Awards Ceremony. Other luminaries to receive this prestigious honor include Spike Lee and Morgan Freeman. She also is writing her (as yet untitled) memoir, to be released in mid-2016 by publisher Harper Collins.
When asked if she had one piece of advice in particular for this year’s graduates from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, Lewis said, “Live your dream, stay in your passion. Don’t ever let you stop you.”