“Black Mother of Hollywood” performs at Powell

Jenifer Lewis performs with the St. Louis Symphony’s IN UNISON Chorus at Powell Hall during a Black History Month concert Feb. 10. PHOTO BY MAX BOUVATTE

Within the pristine and classic walls of Powell Hall boomed a powerful voice accompanied by deep chants and traditional African beats. Singing was Webster University alumna Jenifer Lewis, accompanied by the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus during the annual Black History Month Celebration on Feb. 10.

The choir, a 120-person ensemble, lined the back of the stage. The orchestra of string, percussion, brass, woodwind and pianos sat in the foreground as Lewis added her strong voice to the concert. Lewis was the featured vocalist of the evening. Conductor Kevin McBeth directed the performance of African and African-American cultural stories told through music.

Lewis graduated from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts program in 1979. She soon became successful on Broadway and in Hollywood. Lewis said she  has had a lot of dreams come true, but still connects with her roots in St. Louis.

“Last year I sang at the infamous Carnegie Hall in New York,” Lewis said to the audience. “But I must tell you in all honesty, nothing compares to tonight.”

Lewis’ career started quickly when she performed a small role in “Eubie” on Broadway only a month after graduation. She began landing screen roles, starring in 60 films and making over 250 television appearances.  She eventually earned the title “Black Mother of Hollywood.” Her better-known roles were as Aunt Helen in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and the voice of Mama Odie in “The Princess and the Frog.” She also performed as Motormouth Maybelle in Broadway’s “Hairspray,” a role that was originally written for her.

Dean of the College of Fine Arts Peter Sargent worked with Lewis when she was still a student of Webster’s Conservatory. At the time, Sargent was chairman of the Conservatory. He said Lewis’ personality and perspective are reasons for her achievements.

“She’s always been that kind of high energy, exuberant person,” Sargent said. “I think that’s why she’s had the success she’s had. She had incredible talent by being an entertainer and she backed that up by being a wonderful person.”

Steward Stiles, sophomore music major, was selected to be a part of the IN UNISON choir this season through the Young Artists Program of St. Louis. The program selects up to four college music students from the St. Louis area for a paid spot on the choir for the season. Stiles was one of two students to receive the position out of over 100 applicants. He’s been performing with IN UNISON since October and will continue through April.

He and the rest of the choir rehearsed together for the performance at Powell Hall every Monday starting in January. The week of the performance, Lewis came to St. Louis to practice with the choir as well. Stiles had the opportunity to speak with her and he said they connected through their experiences at Webster. He said although she has had an extensive career, she still retains her passion and energy.

“She’s a very lively person. As loud as she is on TV, that’s how she is in person,” Stiles said. “She’s very nice and really has a sense of humility. She doesn’t forget where she came from.”

The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON chorus was able to book Lewis as the vocalist for the event because her older sister is a choir member. Since Lewis was originally from St. Louis, many of her family and friends from the area attended the Powell Hall concert.

Stiles said it was the biggest turnout for IN UNISON in their 18 years of performances. For the first half of the concert, IN UNISON performed traditional gospel songs starting with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” during which they invited the audience to stand and sing with them.  They also performed “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Lewis’ first performance on Powell’s stage that evening was a narration of the 19-minute long, four-part performance of “Kabo Omowale (Welcome Home Child).” The song captured the progression of African history, starting with sounds that mimicked traditional African life through chanting and deep drums. It moved forward to imitate games of childhood through hand games and double-dutch. Two women in the audience turned to one another and played along with the old hand games.

In the last half of the performance, Lewis performed “Black Don’t Crack,” a powerful song of pride. She also sang “I Know Where I’ve Been” from “Hairspray.”

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