Jennifer Holliday is still telling you that she’s not going…anywhere. The original Dreamgirls star is using her 60th birthday to not only inspire a nation but send a message to fans of all generations that the fight for life is bigger than focusing on the loss. At a time where soo many Americans are feeling the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidential election, there have been other causes that have fallen to the shadows of our minds and of our conversations. Two of those issues are homelessness and AIDS awareness and prevention. When AIDS Healthcare Foundation announced their subsidiary cause Healthy Housing Foundation needed a fundraiser, the Broadway star decided that not only could she offer her support, she could use her God-given gift to broaden the spectrum.
Jennifer will headline a 90-minute virtual concert event, scheduled for Monday, October 19, 2020, starting at 8:00 pm (EST) produced by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and the Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition (BLACC). Tickets, which can be purchased at stellartickets.com are $20 and $60 for VIP tickets, which includes a virtual meet & greet. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Healthy Housing Foundation, and their critical work in helping individuals and families move from homelessness to housing and providing truly accessible affordable housing for low-income families.
With her career launching at the early age of 19 in the production of ‘Your Arms Too Short to Box with God’ she would move on to star in the iconic Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which introduced her soul-stirring vocal abilities to audiences across the globe. Earning her the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and Drama Desk and Theater World awards for her acting performance. She has also won a Grammy for her pop cover of the anthem “And I Am Telling You”, and a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance for her song, “Come Sunday”.
Jennifer has done many cameos and appearances portraying Dreamgirl Effie White, including on tour and at the Muny in 2012. With a stellar stage career transitioning over four decades, she has performed in the touring company of “Sing, Mahalia, Sing,” starred on Broadway in “Chicago” appeared in a three-city-tour of “The Color Purple” as Sofia, was featured on the album, “My Favorite Broadway Ladies” as one of “The Queens of Broadway” while also releasing a number of gospel and R&B albums. However, all of those accolades would be nonexistent if it wasn’t for one person.
Jennifer Holliday: Well, actually, I did not aspire to be on Broadway. I actually got discovered down in my hometown of Houston, Texas, while singing in my Baptist church choir. A young man named Jamie Patterson was in a chorus line at the music hall in Houston. He wanted to go to church and someone recommended my church. After service, he came to me and said that I had a voice that could work on Broadway. I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I wasn’t even really interested in singing at that time. About a month or so later, he said, “Hey, there is this musical that would be great for you.” And I said, “well, you’d have to ask my mother cause I’m technically not grown yet.” So he asked my mother about me coming to audition for this show. Of course, she said “no”, at first. Then he was able to find an adult chaperoned and my mother, let me go. And that show was called ‘Your Arm Are too Short to Box With God’, I auditioned and I got hired all in the same day. I have been in show business ever since.
SUAVV: Wait, you didn’t want to sing? What did you want to do? What were your dreams aspirations before the Broadway audition?
Jennifer Holliday: Not that I didn’t want to sing, but basically I only sang in church, so it was not something that I looked to aspire to. I thought maybe a lawyer, a judge, or something like that. My childhood idol was Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who was the Congresswoman for our district in the third ward of Texas. I really admired her. I wanted to be like her. She just made such an impact on me. I just wanted to be like her.
SUAVV: Some of my favorite quotes are from Barbara Jordan. So she’s an amazing figure to be able to look up to. Now, you get to New York, get on Broadway, immediately excel, and then you get on Dreamgirls and win a Tony, then you win a Grammy, it’s the only thing that missing from you right now is Oscar. So we got to push for that. (both laughing) When you get to that level of your career, and you now have this fame and this notoriety that came to you at a young age, how did you deal with that early on?
Jennifer Holliday: I will have to tell you that it was very difficult. First, because as the star of such a big show and having to sing, everyone was expecting me to be wonderful, amazing, or whatever. It became a lot for me and having eight shows a week to do. And it also became very lonely. So that’s when my battle with weight began, I began to really gain lots and lots of weight which also unfortunately worked for the character. So no one kind of complained that I kept growing. But, you know, didn’t handle it so well.
SUAVV: And I read on your bio that you actually helped in creating the character of Effie.
Jennifer Holliday: Well, all of us in the original cast helped to create our roles in what they call a workshop. So Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Divine, and Jennifer Lewis, who a lot of people don’t know she was in the original as well, got a chance to create our own characters and have heavy input.
SUAVV: Okay, gotcha. I’ve been having a conversation with friends for maybe the last two or three weeks. People think that once you hit a certain level of like stardom, success, or notoriety, that things like the loneliness and things that come along with it aren’t really there. And, you know, people will aspire to have other people’s lives. And one of the big things I’ve been like pushing recently is, you have to understand people’s entire story before you say, “I want that person’s life”. Cause you don’t know what that life entails. So for you, how did you break that cycle?
Jennifer Holliday: Well, I don’t know if I can say that I did break the cycle. And I do think that unfortunately today with social media and everything, that I think is going to be even harder for stars as they move forward. Because they have bought into this idea that the fans must know every detail of our waking and going to bed. So a lot of the fans look at people as if they don’t have problems, and even if they do have a problem, well, your money can fix it. You know? Personally, I don’t know if I was able to change any of that. I’ve had a long bout with mental illness and suffered greatly from clinical depression and over the many years. What I have been able to do, I feel, is I have been sharing my realness with people from the stage when I’m singing. I always try to take a little time to let them know that we are real people and that our pain is also real. We experience the same things that they do. And I try to be just as transparent as I can. And then of course always just, you know, sing from my heart. So, the emotion is real. I think that maybe that’s why I relate to so many people, because I do take the time to make sure that that they know that I’m not all just fluff.
SUAVV: Right. Right. And then that realness and relatability goes into the current situation. You are, you’re turning 60. And instead of spending your birthday lavishly on vacation with friends and family, you’re spending that day for the charity of other people. What guided you to make that decision?
Jennifer Holliday: Well, I have been a friend of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation for many years. I’ve helped them do many events and it just seemed like a good pairing at this time with the Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition, and they have this subsidiary the Healthy Housing Foundation that is for low-income people. And they’re providing homes so that people and families can go from homelessness to housing. It seemed like a good fit for me only because of my relationship with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and my relationship with the LBGTQ community as well. I just felt comfortable. I was just like, let’s do this. And because I didn’t know when they would have another opportunity either because a lot of galas and fundraisers and all of that stuff has been canceled for a lot of people. So it’s hard for a lot of charities to raise money right now.
SUAVV: Yeah. And especially with the current environment and housing was already going on a boom. So you could barely afford to live anywhere at this point. I see a lot of people jumping from city to city trying to find cheaper housing and a job at the same time. So for anyone to step up and say, “this is a problem, let’s do something about it.” I think that it’s amazing to use your star power, to do something, to contribute towards that. (Jennifer says “AWWW Thank you). Now when, when you talk about HIV and AIDS is something that I think at this point has been pushed so far to the back of our community’s mind that is not taken as seriously as it needs to be. Especially when you get to the point where it’s like, “if I get it here as medication.”
Jennifer Holliday: That’s, the mindset. Yes. That’s the mindset, if you get it, you can get a cocktail or something or some kind of medication and you’ll be okay.
SUAVV: Right. And it’s, it’s so it’s still so serious in the community. How important was it for you, again, having that relationship in the community to say, you know, what this needs to be addressed again or seriously?
Jennifer Holliday: (She takes a moment ) I don’t really know because unfortunately, it’s taking the toll on women in the black community young women, young black women, I guess not asking or afraid to ask for protection, you know what I’m saying? And so I don’t know how we can unwrap this to where it moves back into the point of seriousness, as long as people think that there’s, not a cure, but they know that they can live a long life.
SUAVV: Right. When you have an event like this, what is the perceived outcome for you?
Jennifer Holliday: Well, my perceived outcome, if I can just really be honest with you, is a sense of release for my own self. I was beginning to sink a little bit into a depression because as artists and singers, we need an audience, not only just for our financial support but our just whole being. This is what we are, you know? We perform, we bring hope, we bring comfort, we give inspiration through our music, and our art, and it was beginning to kind of take a toll on me. I was not going to celebrate at all because I was torn. You have all of these people who have lives lost to this pandemic, but at the same time, I said, well, I need to affirm life. Because if I live past this pandemic, I will have to have a life. You know? “What happens when you go back outside” is my statement, you know? That’s why I said I would do the concert. And then, that’s when I said well, let’s bring some other people along as well.
SUAVV: I love that. With this concert, you’ve put together a band with background singers and all. This sounds amazing.
Jennifer Holliday: Yes. It’s a six-piece band and two background singers. We’re going to be doing it from a beautiful theater. It’s called the Bronner center for performing arts. I wanted a sense of a theater and it’s amazing because it wasn’t the way I was going to go at first. And that was even before they announced that Broadway was going to continue to be shut down until to May or June. I just wanted to be at a theater. I’m a Broadway baby, as you know. And. I just wanted a place big enough that I could let my whole big ol’ voice just shout. Not only shout in the song but shout out, I just want to scream, you know? I can imagine how many people just want a big scream right now with everything that’s going on. That’s kinda how I felt. I was like, I just want to sing the big scream. So, I chose a theater, and it’s like a one-woman Broadway kind of show.
SUAVV: Right! Because again, we don’t know what’s happening with this pandemic. For those who don’t know, you’ve never stopped really working and you’ve been still performing, still doing shows, you’re still involved in the arts and in the culture. With all of that said, how do you feel now coming from where you started in ‘79 to this point and seeing the diversity and the multitude of black people getting into theater, getting onto Broadway, and having success in that area?
Jennifer Holliday: I feel that Broadway, for the first time, was ahead of the rest of the country. Because for a long time, it has been just for “the great white voice”, and they had already begun moving in toward a better, more diverse, and inclusive scene. Otherwise, Hamilton wouldn’t have been able to thrive or even get where it was, you know what I’m saying? So I think that they were well on their way. I’m glad at where this Broadway is, I’m just so sad that they are suffering this great loss. Because I don’t know how many shows will actually be able to come back after this. And then I don’t know how long it will actually take for them all to get back up. Even to have financial resources. Some of the producers may just have to let some of those shows go. I really feel that they have been making every effort that they could to be more inclusive and be more diverse and they were ahead of the rest of the country before this whole “wokeness” movement.
SUAVV: Right. Right. The last thing I would want to ask is even though you’ve lived a life and you’d had a legacy built for you to this point, what do you want the legacy of your life to be?
Jennifer Holliday: I think that my signature song will always be the main connection to me. ‘And I’m telling you, I’m not going’. I think that I would want people to look at it as a song of survival, not just a great love song that came out of a play. And that my life was one where I was continually fighting like Effie in the play was fighting to be heard. But my own personal life also became where life imitates art, where I’m constantly having to fight for myself. So I guess I would want people to know that I continually tried to show up for my life and fight for my life. And that that’s still what I’m doing, you know? So, it’s like this concert is not just for me and something fun to do for my birthday. I needed to do this for my whole mind, my whole mental self, to say, Jennifer, just fight. Just go, you know, and stand up for everyone who can’t do a show right now, you know?