After “Living Single,” Erika Alexander felt stuck

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Best known for playing Maxine Shaw on the iconic sitcom “Living Single,” Erika Alexander is making her directorial debut with the documentary “The Big Payback,” about the first tax-funded reparations bill that passed in Evanston. The film airs on PBS’ “Independent Lens” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 16.

Alexander codirects with Whitney Dow, who has a background as a documentary filmmaker, which “made the transition for me into a director very easy,” said Alexander. “He was very patient and he has a natural teaching personality and I love to learn, so it was fairly smooth. And because I’ve been on sets since I was 14, it felt like a very natural place to be.”

Alexander’s acting credits also include “The Cosby Show,” “The Long Walk Home” and “Get Out” among many high points.

From left: Patrick Dancy and Erika Alexanderin a scene from "Living Single."

When asked about a low point, she recalled a role that came after her success on “Living Single.”

“I’ve been lucky, I don’t have many extreme experiences. But just being in show business as a dark skinned Black woman is extreme and we often live in a state where you don’t feel the joy as much — you enjoy those moments, but you don’t experience them as high points sometimes because there are so many things that rebalance the scales.

“But one experience does stand out.”

My worst moment …

“I had just finished ‘Living Single’ and had gone out into the world again as an actor — but one who had accomplished something, not only on ‘Living Single’ but also years of indie film, the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays at the Public Theater. So I thought I had accomplished enough and proven myself enough to have respect in this space.

“But when ‘Living Single’ ended, nothing happened for me. And I think I was a little bit heartbroken about all of that. So that feeling of not being recognized for my accomplishments transferred onto my next experience, which was a miniseries (from 1998) called ‘Mama Flora’s Family.’ It was part of the ‘Roots’ saga and I was going to be playing young Flora. Cicely Tyson was playing the elder Flora.

“As the younger Flora, I was doing all the emotional work of: This family has now gotten out of slavery but she was in a different type of slavery. She was basically an indentured servant to a Black family that had means and she was getting raped and abused by the master, played by the wonderful Shemar Moore. And then they literally take her baby.

“Before I got the role, there was a lot of back and forth about the salary. I didn’t think it was enough because here I am, carrying this lead role with Miss Tyson and the amount wasn’t respectable — it was a lot less than many of my co-stars were getting. And I had just come off ‘Living Single.’ All of that was in my mind. I try to be humble, but I thought my accomplishments should mean something by this point. And this was the lead role in a big saga.

Erika Alexander attends Hulu's "Wu-Tang: An American Saga" premiere in 2019.

“So I originally said no — and was treated pretty badly by the powers that be because I had the temerity to say no. I even got a call from one of the producers who was screaming at me that I would never work again. But when I heard what they were going to pay me, I thought, well, no. They ended up pushing up the salary — it wasn’t by much — so I would say yes and I capitulated, but I also felt a little bullied by it.

“So that’s some background.

“There’s a scene where I’m on a train in Atlanta. I’d lost my baby and I was supposed to be upset about it. Everything is hard to film because a big deal to roll this train back and forth on an actual train line. Of course it was going to be a scene that was emotional and I was crying. I’d never had any issue with those scenes before, even though they’re pretty stressful because the director is worried about getting the shot and making sure they’re getting the emotion.

“But I suddenly go numb. I mean numb. I couldn’t feel anything.

“It was frightening. I didn’t know what to do. It was like I had left myself. And maybe it was because I was building up this scene in my head, but also because I was so frustrated and angry about the lead up to getting this job.

“So everyone’s waiting for me to do the scene and I go numb. This has never happened before.

“I’m sorry, it’s hard to talk about.

“I got up and I ran off the train, back to the makeup room. And I said, ‘I can’t film anything.’ Makeup is always a refuge for actors and they said to me, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’

“Then the assistant director came and said, ‘Is this ready?’ They didn’t understand why I got up and zoomed past the cameras as quick as I could. So the makeup people said, ‘Oh, we’re just touching up something.’ They covered for me.

“I tried to get myself together enough to go back and I was pinching myself because I could literally not feel anything except the embarrassment and the terror of not feeling like I could act. That’s when, being a veteran — and I was less than 30 at the time — kicked in and I knew I had to go finish the scene: The show must go on.

“So I somehow got through the scene, a lot less successfully than I wanted it to be. I was probably having an anxiety attack. To this day I can feel it pretty viscerally.

“Afterward, we went back to base camp and I started to sob. Suddenly all of the emotions I was supposed to feel for the scene came out. And I could see that the PAs didn’t know what’s wrong. I didn’t know what’s wrong. I was embarrassed because I’m strong and I don’t do these types of things, but I couldn’t control it.

“I went back to my trailer and the PAs tell me, ‘Miss Tyson wants to see you.’ And I thought: Oh please, I just want to go home. But I know I can’t not go see Cicely Tyson. So I go in and she can just see on my face that a battle has gone on. Eyes red, face puffy. I walk in and I kneel at her lap and sob. And first she chastised the PAs by saying, ‘Why didn’t you bring her to me earlier? Why didn’t someone come get me?’ And then she says to me: ‘Erika, breathe. Breathe.’

Erika Alexander attends the Tribeca Festival earlier this year.

“And I’m thinking: What, are you kidding me? I am breathing!

“She wanted me to move in with her and to take me under her wing. And I didn’t do that, but I would go to her house and she would walk me through the script, line by line, just trying to get me back on track. And she took me to church with her.

“The whole time, I felt so ashamed. I had these long skirts, these slave-looking skirts, so you couldn’t see it but my knees on set were just knocking. Everything terrified me.

“But we got through it. Miss Tyson got me through it.

“As an actor, you’re paid to channel human emotions. And I was being human in the worst way (laughs) — not on time, not on cue. But my body, my senses were so hammered by not feeling loved or appreciated as an actor.

“Because I was like: Is this my future? There had been people saying I was so good and I should have my own show — and then nothing happened and you’re back to square one with newcomers in audition rooms. And then someone’s screaming at you that you’ll never work again.

“Well, I’m just grateful for Cicely Tyson, who put me on my feet and gave me the best piece of advice I ever got: Breathe. Her instruction got me through it, along with my willpower and my need to please.

“So that was one of the worst moments. But it was also the key to regaining and finding myself.”

Was the numbness about not feeling supported on this project and that her role was rooted in traumatic material and themes?

“It absolutely was. Because I had started my career as a teenager playing a rape victim in a play called ‘Under Pressure.’ I hated that role. I am a decidedly happy person who likes to joke around. But I think they correctly assumed that I had the emotional IQ to get there. And I did. But I didn’t like the role.

“So I played a child of molestation. Then in my first movie role “My Little Girl” (from 1986) I played a foster child. Then in a TV movie I was Oney Judge, who was a slave of George Washington’s. And I was doing very serious plays at this time, too. It was all very intense work and I didn’t realize that this trauma was building up in my body.

“By the time I got ‘The Cosby Show’ (in 1990), it was a nice break because it was comedy. But even there I played someone from the wrong side of the tracks, you know? I was always being asked to bring a certain amount of dark energy.

“When I got Max on ‘Living Single,’ I was 23 and I felt like an old veteran who had done a few tours of duty. I was so ready to lean into the comedy. And maybe because they weren’t paying attention, I felt free. And I played her like how I was on the inside.

Erika Alexander in 2018 at a discussion about subminimum wage workers that depend on tips for their living in New York.

“I’m just realizing now looking back, when I was filming ‘Mama Flora’s Family,’ I was wondering: Am I back in that cage? Because I went from Max to Flora — is this my destiny going forward? Will I have to play these really dark characters that don’t seem to get me any further?

“And I think my body said: No. Because being good at something wasn’t getting me anywhere. I never said it out loud, but my body did.

“Because no matter what I did, or what I could control, it wasn’t going to get me the due I thought I had earned. And people telling me I was good was even worse. It was horrible to hear ‘Oh, you should have your own show’ when nothing would happen. People who were hiring would come up to me and give me all this praise, then hire someone else. Not one sitcom offer. Not one. Or I would go to auditions and they’d say, ‘You were the best in the room, but they wouldn’t let us hire you.’

“Just nothing. I was back to square one again.”

The takeaway …

“Breathe and they can’t eat you.

“I apply it to everyday life: Breathe, Erika, and they can’t eat you. You’ll survive it.”

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

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