Erika Alexander has been giving fans laughs since appearing on “The Cosby Show” as Pam Tucker. The accomplished actress transitioned into a more mature role when she joined the FOX classic “Living Single” as Maxine “The Maverick” Shaw, which solidified her status as a household name. The iconic ensemble cast of the latter continues to be a topic of conversation. And while Alexander has mostly shown off her comedic side thus far, her new film Earth Mama will explore some heavy themes and mark one of her most serious roles to date.
In this engaging exclusive with REVOLT, Erika Alexander chats about her favorite television mothers and fathers, Black tropes and stereotypes she’s tired of seeing in television and film, and how she got the role as Linda Diggs on “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.”
Get into the conversation below!
What’s a change in both media and politics that you would like to see overtime?
Oooh, Lord. Right now, there’s a conversation around reparations and Congress is trying to pass the H.R.40 bill, which is actual legislation in the House. It has enough sponsors, but it won’t get through the Senate. Reparations is important… It will change the media because it would start to present data — and not only data for how we live and how slavery marked us, but also the conditions that are inside corporations and why they are there. Also, the things that stand against us that we don’t know like real estate, education, and the military. It’s also in entertainment and believe it or not, passing this bill will have huge ramifications and wonderful consequences for everyone… I believe when we get this going, all sorts of information will begin to pile up.
How did you connect to and prepare for your character in Earth Mama?
Ms. Carmen is a Black woman, and I connected with her immediately (laughs). She has a different role in her life — our director, Savannah, says she’s the mother of these mothers. These mothers have lost their children or get them back from the foster care system. We talk about racism in the film and how the system treats these Black children, mothers and fathers. Both of my parents were orphans and my mother was adopted – I’m from Arizona originally, and she was adopted by a Black woman who tortured her, and she came out the beautiful woman I’m blessed to have and come to know. When I learned about her story as a child and who she really is, those stories matter. If you’re going to consider foster care and adoption — who is answering for raising your children? And how responsible are you for revisiting it? And how you’re better to get your child back, the difficulties, etc. — some of my background has to do with some of these questions that are baked into this film.
Is there a theme in the film you’re happy is being addressed and that you hope starts some conversation?
Racism is baked into everything and is one of the poor, structural mishaps in the foundation of America — but also poverty. Poverty is at the core of racism because you really want to keep someone down, so you can stand up on them and get somewhere. Chris Rock once said he could stand next to someone who is white and not in the best financial circumstances, but that person will often look at him like at least he isn’t Black.
There are so many amazing TV moms fans celebrate on a daily basis. Is there one who you absolutely love? Why?
I love Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable — I loved the way she talked to her children, I loved how she was a professional woman, and her strength. I also loved Mabel Thomas, played by Mabel King, in “What’s Happening!!” and Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle, in the show “Good Times.” I also loved James Evans, played by John Amos, in “Good Times,” and he’s my favorite TV Dad. Also, Fred in “Sanford and Son” played by Redd Foxx — he was a mess as a father, but I loved it. There’s so many great examples of parenting, especially in those ’70s sitcoms, but I love the bodaciousness as they all loved their families and [dealed with] a world that was unfair. Yes, they had problems baked into those stories and narratives, but those mothers were something else, and one of the actresses who played a mother most often is Cicely Tyson – she even played Viola Davis’ mother. I loved them all. I’m glad that they existed, and they were the best example of how to move in life and if you wanted to raise a family, approach it. We got to see different types of Black women in different situations taking care of their children and their families.
You’ve watched hip hop grow into what it is today — literally witnessing its birth. What’s one memory you can share that made you fall in love with the genre and culture?
So Ty, you know I’m the mother of the Wu-Tang [on “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”] (laughs). It was amazing – RZA is one of 11 children, and all 11 children had to approve me as their mother, so I feel like I have a special designation by someone who is iconic and comes from an iconic family. When I think about hip hop, I just have to share how much I love Queen Latifah and it’s interesting how I was able to meet her. I loved her because she was a tomboy like me; I felt what she was saying, and she’s in the same category as Salt-N-Pepa, remembering them as being sexy. These ladies are my peers and we were hustling together — we would work and go outside wanting to be entrepreneurs like Robert Townsend and Spike Lee, and we did. They would put in the work and do every gig, whether it was family parties in the backyard, clubs, etc., just to put themselves out there. What I love about hip hop is that it was like [WeWork] before WeWork (laughs). You worked wherever you had to — whether it was in people’s basements like the Wu-Tang; if you like The [Dungeon Family], they were in Rico’s mother’s basement. We were trying to have more than what was being offered to us.
There’s always conversations on gatekeeping hip hop – especially because it’s harder for Black artists to break into country, pop, rock and more. What are your thoughts on that and the notion that Black people created a lot of those genres, too?
We did create it. We are not hip hoppers – African Americans are 13 percent of the biggest culture makers in world history, which is a fact. If you look from jazz, blues, ragtime, country – that’s what they are really gatekeeping, which is absurd. The banjo is from Africa and these tools they are using are from Africa. Look at Mother Thornton and her guitar playing; she was magnificent. We don’t need permission to do anything because we created so much of the culture the world is now using to express themselves — we gave them the inspiration tools. We are the aliens that they took from across the ocean to rock their world and make their fingers twirl. We don’t need permission to do anything – what we need to do is stop asking for permission and own it because we do own it. Act like you own the thing. Walk into any room and when they put on The Rolling Stones, those are the grandchildren of Little Richard and other Black rock stars who put the time in. They were the real futurists. There’s nowhere that we can walk and not say we haven’t reshaped the world, and that’s the sound of the universe it’s sending out to the aliens — but the first people to receive it were the original orphans and the diaspora. There’s no gatekeeping to a person that is already in the room.
What is your all-time favorite hip hop song?
“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy.
If you could have any rapper name-drop you in a song, who would you love to do the honors?
Oh, my Lord. I would’ve loved if Tupac or Biggie Smalls would’ve [name-dropped] me. If I had to choose someone living, I would love it if I heard Snoop Dogg say my name.
There are so many tropes and stereotypes in television and film when it comes to Black characters. What’s one you’re tired of seeing?
Gangsta porn. I’m tired of that narrative that we only derive power from the streets and drugs, and how we’re fighting for a piece of turf. We know the true power is in the system of education and being seen as a person who can perform in C-suites and around money. I always tell people we’re storytellers, but one of the worst stories we tell ourselves — and we took it from the idea of white supremacy telling this to us — is CP time. I hate that. I always say the darker the skin, the earlier you’re in, and that’s the story we need to be telling ourselves. The stereotypes aren’t true — we couldn’t build America being late and the minute we take that one, we give ourselves the permission to be late. Ty, you know me and you can’t afford to be late to be taken seriously or earn a gig. We embrace that, but it’s damaging. The gangsta stuff is played out, and I don’t like the materialism or the prostitution culture mindset that is tearing down Black women, making us feel like we need to “chase that bag.” No you’re not – you’re gonna go get an education, and do the best you can and work until you reach your goals. You got to show up. Let’s show those people.
Are you a fan of reboots?
No, I’m sorry (laughs).
You must have a “Living Single” group chat. Who is the most active, most silly, and who is the “glue”?
I’d probably have to say the most silly is me (laughs) and Kim Coles. The most active person is probably T.C. Carson because he’s always performing somewhere and telling us what he’s doing. He just did a cooking show, he’s singing, and he uses that to invite us places. Most of us, you probably wouldn’t know what we’re doing (laughs). We were just active in there – Dana Owens [Queen Latifah] would pop in the chat after it’s already going and then she’ll say how it’s hilarious. We love each other – our show’s creator, Yvette Lee Bowser, is in that group chat and she’s quite active, too. I appreciate that we try to keep in touch with each other because life happens so quickly, but thank God for technology.