Known for her fierce characters onscreen, Lynn Whitfield is now headed to the stage as another fiery figure in the new stage play, Rebirth! The Musical.
Rebirth! will premiere at Atlanta’s Fox Theater on May 30. Along with Whitfield, the play stars Nephew Tommy of the Steve Harvey Morning Show and Q. Parker of the R&B group 112. The production is set in the year 2156, a post-apocalyptic California where chaos is held back by the rule of one woman: “Mia, Mother of the Earth,” played (naturally) by Whitfield.
“I love playing powerful women,” she says of the role. “I’ve explored a lot of characters, and the villains stick with people. People stop me all the time and ask me to repeat the ‘I vacation in Hell’ line from Madea’s Family Reunion.”
EBONY.COM spoke with Whitfield to discuss Rebirth!, her penchant for scary characters and the challenges of being a Black woman in Hollywood.
EBONY: What is Rebirth! The Musical? Tell us a bit about the play and your character, Mia.
Lynn Whitfield: Rebirth! is a really interesting piece. The story takes place in the future and examines just how easily people can fall into belief systems and be swayed. Ultimately, the message of the play is that personal relationships and spirituality are far greater than one person or thing.
My character, Mia, is the antagonist of the piece. She’s decided to take control of the society and be like a god to the people. I love Mia because she’s strong and powerful, but she’s also afraid. She’s complicated, as real people are. When you look at the Tea Party, it’s overflowing with fundamentalists who feel they’ve cornered the market on truth. She’s that chick, and it’s really interesting to take a look at a person like that and consider how they got that way, why people are attracted to them. That’s what makes Rebirth! so compelling.
EBONY: What do you hope the audience takes away from Rebirth!?
LW: This is a piece that so many church-going people should see. And not just Black people. I’m encouraging people from the entire Christian community to come out, be entertained and challenged about our belief systems. Think about our notions judgment, forgiveness and unconditional love.
EBONY: Mia sounds like a strong figure. I think one of your strongest—even a scary character—was Brandi Webb in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. Where does that ferociousness come from? What are you accessing when you play those types of characters?
LW: I don’t know where it comes from. My approach is to humanize those characters. You know, even the toughest people have a backstory, and villains don’t feel like they’re the bad guys. Take Brandi Webb for example. She wasn’t a villain. She was hurt and felt betrayed and didn’t know how to process it. My goal as an actress is to try to understand and humanize those women so the audience can get something from their stories too.
EBONY: And this isn’t your first foray into the theater. You’re a third-generation BFA graduate of Howard University. Talk a bit about your roots in the theater.
LW: I started at Howard in the drama department. At the same time, I was a fledgling member of the Black Repertory Company in Washington, D.C. When I graduated, I had the great fortune of being in the Los Angeles production of For Colored Girls… And all these years since, I’ve done stage work. This year I’m doing even more. It feels to me like a full-circle moment and I’m excited about it, as well as continuing to explore film and television.
EBONY: Isaiah Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Anthony Anderson, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen—all of you are graduates of the theater department at Howard. Why is that place so special? What did it teach you?
LW: They call Howard University the “capstone of Black education.” Howard was one of the historically Black colleges where people want to go and send their children. Both of my grandfathers went through the medical school, and being in D.C., not far from New York City, it was a natural choice for me. The drama department was so wonderful because it was a place to really train. At one time it was like a conservatory for great talent, and it still is I think. Even the young actor playing Jackie Robinson in 42 studied at Howard.
EBONY: Going through the EBONY archives, you appeared in an article in June 1991 that detailed some of the challenges of being a Black women in Hollywood. Has the reality for Black actresses changed much in the 22 years since?
LW: It has. I think people have emerged and created opportunities. Take, for example, Shonda Rhimes, the writer and creator of Scandal. There are other great examples of big gains, shows like Girlfriends and The Game. These are huge steps forward, but we still need more stories.
Now, rather than dwell on what’s not there, I want to be a part of changing it. We can complain and be despondent, but it’s more important to keep oneself energized and do something about it. We have a Black woman in the lead of one of the most interesting shows on television. We’ve had Oscar wins. I can’t sit around and have a pity party. I’m excited! I’ve explored so many great characters since that time. So I keep it moving, as they say. And in doing so, I’m more enlivened and excited about theater. I’m like a kid that way when it comes to storytelling.
EBONY: The article brings me back to your breakout role in The Josephine Baker Story. You mentioned that portraying Baker and learning about her life taught you so much about being a Black women in entertainment. As you’ve continued in your career, do you find yourself still learning from Baker?
LW: Josephine Baker is such an iconic woman that once you’ve touched her and she has touched you, it never goes away. I’m stuck with her. I’m sure 50 years from now, when they write my obituary, they will mention that I played Josephine Baker. It’ll be on my epitaph. She’s that kind of woman; once you’ve entered her realm, it never goes away. She’s still one of those women that we can never forget. Any time a bronze Venus—and that’s what they called her—can take off her clothes, dance topless in bananas and become the queen of entertainment globally, she’s accomplished something. I don’t think there’s a woman that wants to perform that hasn’t learned from Josephine Baker.
They still play the film. They just put it on Blu-ray. What the film has given me is this: I feel honored that I was a vessel for something that is really important to our culture. You never know how God will use you, and I’m looking forward to a whole lot more. I’ll tell you, if anyone is trying to get rid of me, they’ll have a hard time.