Talk about life imitating art. Cocoa Brown was elated when director Tyler Perry called her about a new job. He needed a funnywoman who could deadpan lines and co-star alongside Nia Long in his next film—last week’s The Single Moms Club—and she’s the one who fit the bill. At the time, she was eight months pregnant with her son, and Perry (whom she works for on his OWN sitcom, For Better or Worse) jokingly asked her when that baby was coming out, because he needed her on a soundstage.
Little did Perry know that Brown, 41, was going through her own personal struggle at the time. Right before they started filming, she and her husband separated, and ultimately divorced. She found herself suddenly single. Suddenly a mom. And suddenly really relating to her Single Moms Club character Lytia, a single mom trying to figure it all out.
EBONY: Did you learn anything from your character that you could apply to your real life situation?
Cocoa Brown: Absolutely. I think Lytia was just so hard on herself in the sense that she felt she failed with her two oldest boys, because they ended up in jail. That’s why she’s so hard on her youngest son. When my son was first born, and then when I became a single mother, I was kind of critical. I thought everything I did was going to mess him up; didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to ruin my kid.” You know? I was reading every book, every article. I’ve got stacks and stacks of parent magazines.
What playing Lytia taught me in her interaction with her son Hakim was, you do it with love, you do it with patience, and you do the best you can. No one really gives you a manual. You can read all the books you want, but being a parent should be something engrained in you. Once you bring this little person into the world, you’ve got to play it by ear, but you’re using love and you’re using your common sense. Don’t be so hard on yourself. All you can do is hope that they’re better than you are and just try to make that happen.
EBONY: What about what you brought to the character, based off of your very recent experiences with divorce and being a single mom?
CB: I waited until I was 37 years old to get married. I wasn’t young. I waited for what I thought was the right man. I thought this was going to be it—one-hitter quitter. And when it didn’t work out, to think: Now I’m about to get back out and start dating again? I don’t know what these men are about. And now I have a kid… so I really can’t just be out here dating frivolously. I have to really look at if you’re somebody that I would want around my child.
I got why she had that wall up, because I began to build that wall. And I’m still dealing with that wall now that I’m fully divorced, and really trying to get back out and date again. Now it’s just not me that would be involved in this. I’m the first woman that that little boy’s going to love. I have to set a precedent, I have to set an example. So I can’t be out here dating all kinds of men and whatever. I have to be very, very, very selective, especially if I bring him around my kid.
EBONY: You’re experiencing a career highlight, but you have unexpected challenges in your personal life. How do you reconcile that dynamic?
CB: Honestly, I don’t feel like I have challenges in my personal life. With my divorce— and it wasn’t pretty—everybody says, “but you seem so positive!” And I said, “Because my motto is, ‘out of the bull crap came the blessing.’ I have this beautiful little boy, and if I was to be angry or regretful or anything, I’m regretting him, I’m angry at him.” That’s insane to me, because that little boy makes me so happy. I’m setting a precedent for the woman he chooses one day, because I’m the first woman he loves. So I gotta make sure he doesn’t bring home nothing ratchet.
EBONY: This role was obviously right on time for your life. It’s relatable, and that’s why many Tyler Perry fans applaud him. Why do you think his work resonates the way it does?
CB: Because Tyler does it with no filter. He shows the real human experience from our point of view, and I think a lot of times when they try to ridicule him, it’s because as a culture, as Black people, we have a tendency of not wanting to air our dirty laundry. Because Tyler puts it out there with no filter, because he wants the realness of it, he allows the actors to bring their own experiences to that character. He gives us the liberty to make that character our own so it’s real and its genuine, and a lot of times it’s going to be unfiltered.
I think when they talk about Tyler, they’re like, “He’s putting our business out there!” But you know what? That’s what we need to do, open up that dialogue and talk about a lot of things we try to sweep under the rug. The first time we worked together, he told me that he trusts my funny and that he trusts me to do what I do, and he would never question my funny. And I was like, “wow, this man trusts me like that!”
He just gives you such a positive energy when you’re working with him to make the characters your own. I think that people need to cut him a break, because you know what? Nobody’s really telling our stories that way. He is. Give him his props for that. Not too many people in Hollywood get that pass.
EBONY: He couldn’t have possibly known what you were going through when he told you to get that baby out because he wanted to put you in this film…
CB: No, ’cause I was still married and everything when I was pregnant on the second season of For Better or Worse.
EBONY: So what did he say when he found out that, lo and behold, this was your new normal, walking into this new role?
CB: I know he doesn’t care for my ex-husband too much, because he’s made choices to not be present in our son’s life right now. That’s between him and his god! I’ve been blessed with an incredible village of people, especially men, especially Black men who loved me and who loved that little boy enough to step up and fill that void. And I think that maybe Tyler commends me for that, that I didn’t sit there and have a pity party. I got up and dusted myself off. I was a mother and I did what I had to do, and I keep doing what I have to do, because that little boy comes first.
EBONY: And yet your professional life is thriving. For Better or Worse comes back next month. What else is happening?
CB: I have a role in the new Martin Lawrence and Kelsey Grammer sitcom, Braddock & Jackson. And I’m about to mess some people’s heads up because I’m playing a 60-year-old woman named Miss Precious. And Thelma Hopkins, who plays Martin’s mother, I play her best friend.
It’s so ironic how it came about, because I was literally just there doing a table read for a friend, and Martin and the producers really liked the energy and what I brought to the role when I was reading for his mother. They ended up bringing me in to play her best friend, and they aged me a little bit. I’m still a sassy mama, but it’s funny to me, because I’m literally just acting like my mama.