Although it has yet to celebrate its first anniversary, the much-hyped Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), has been sharply criticized for its lack of Black programming. However, OWN is about to unveil its first African-American series, a reality show titled “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” premiering on Saturday, October 15 at 9 p.m.
“In the beginning, it was my singing that had soul,” said Robbie “Miss Robbie” Montgomery, owner of the popular St. Louis soul food restaurant dubbed Sweetie Pie’s. Now 71 years old, Montgomery was once a background vocalist for soul luminaries such as Ike & Tina Turner, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, honing her culinary skills on the road during the segregated 1960s, when she and her band mates were often denied access to “whites-only” restaurants.
A health scare ended Montgomery’s singing career but not her enterprising spirit. Armed with the family recipes handed down by her mother, she sold her soul food sensations from the trunk of her car before opening her first Sweetie Pie’s restaurant 15 years ago, with the help of her family. Eight years later, Miss Robbie opened her second location in the Mangrove neighborhood.
Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” Sweetie Pie’s, which has attracted a high profile clientele that includes Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Academy Award-winning actress Mo’Nique and even President Barack Obama, is truly family affair, with Montgomery’s son, Tim Norman, serving as her business manager and right-hand man. They are ably assisted by Tim’s longtime girlfriend, Jenae, and to a lesser degree by Miss Robbie’s nephew Lil’ Charles, who “works hard at not working,” and can often be found behind the building taking a cigarette break.
Then there’s Pops, the kitchen manager who is always willing to offer sage advice, and Jazzmin, who apparently has a problem with authority — Tim‘s authority in particular.
According to the network, the hour-long debut of the eight-episode premiere season, follows Miss Robbie as she juggles the chaos of running her popular soul food restaurants while dealing with her boisterous family. While helping her to manage the restaurants, Tim also consults friends and family for advice as he gets up the courage to propose to his Jenae, who just happens to be pregnant. Viewers also learn that getting the business loan to allow for her planned expansion of the Sweetie Pie’s empire may not go as Miss Robbie planned.
As if the mouthwatering shots of sizzling fried chicken and catfish weren’t enough, as the season progresses, Montgomery will open herself to the possibility of love and marriage despite her “senior citizen status;” and plan her annual birthday bash, which will include a reunion performance of the Ikettes. The family will also cope with medical emergency and celebrate the birth of a baby boy.
“‘Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s’ features a strong, loving family as they work together to run their St. Louis soul food restaurant. We look forward to viewers welcoming the Montgomery family into their homes,” said Lisa Erspamer, executive vice president, programming and development, OWN.
A fascinating book with a Philadelphia connection is currently causing a stir on social media and in the world at large.
“Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” written by Kevin John and Susan Whitall, chronicles the rise and fall of the charismatic soul singer who spent several years as a Philadelphia resident and once graced the stage of the historic Uptown Theater. As was often the case during John’s era, his earthy rendition of “Fever” reached a much wider audience as a cover by pop diva Peggy Lee.
“This is something that we wanted to do for my father,” said Kevin John, the elder of Little Willie John’s two bright and talented sons. Both Kevin and his brother, Keith, who are extremely close, were born in Philly and attended George Washington Carver Elementary School. Kevin recalls being about eight years old when the family moved to Detroit, but the book, which features a foreword by Motown icon Stevie Wonder, is filled with nostalgic references to the City of Brotherly Love.
“I wanted to do this 20 years ago, but my mother, she did not want to relive, rehash the memories, and it was only after my brother and I talking to her this time that we convinced her that this would be a good time to do it,” Kevin explained during my recent interview with the John brothers.
“It’s always been therapeutic for me. To this day, my mom can’t listen to my dad’s music, and when my brother and I were growing up we listened to it, but I was the one who listened to it most of the time because for me it was a connection. It was very therapeutic for me.”
Kevin states that the emotionally-charged project took about six years to complete, and that Susan Whitall, also a Philadelphia native, was the perfect choice as his co-author.
“Years ago, she wrote a story about my dad in the paper, and I was kind of interested because here’s a person writing something about my dad, and people had forgotten about him,” he said. “So I called her to thank her for the article that she’d written, and then I met her some years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We were visiting there and she happened to be there that weekend, and (celebrated Motown studio musicians) the Funk Brothers were there. So somebody introduced us and I asked her — especially when I found out who she was, and I made the connection, ‘What do you think about writing a story about my father’s life and his music?’ And she was ecstatic!
“Once we talked about that, we had a few more phone calls, and I actually invited her over to our house. My wife and I sat down and we talked to her. I don’t want to say we vetted her, but we talked to her, and we told her that if we’re going to do this, the person that writes this has to have a sensitivity where they can talk about all the things that happened — negative and positive — but they have to do it in a classy way. They can’t focus on the negative. That was very important for us.”
Kevin believes that the captivating yet candid biography will go a long way in dispelling the misconceptions about his father and stated, “People often say — and they quote this as if it’s in the Bible — they say, ‘He was little, he was short, he had a Napoleon complex, he was always on edge.’ And if you talked to anybody who we interviewed that knew him, like Norman Thrasher, like the late Levi Stubbs, who we spent the whole afternoon at his house interviewing him, he told (us) he was a fun-loving person. In fact, that was probably his downfall.
“He got along with people very well. He was a prankster, but he got along with people. I’ve been told I look just like my dad. Keith acts just like him. But for me, it’s just understanding the person, his personality. Not the persona — not the person onstage, but who he really was.”
From early indications, “Fever,” which was released in June, is being very well received, although commercial success would appear to be a mere by-product of telling Little Willie John’s compelling story. “My goal was not so much that it was going to be a bestseller, though that’s always a nice thing,” Kevin said. “My goal was that people would find out the truth about my dad, and we’re flabbergasted by the response that we’re getting.”
Depending on the success of “Fever,” the John brothers have considered the possibility of bringing their father’s story to the big screen. The obvious question? Who could possibly play the talented and intriguing Little Willie John?
“If the person has to sing, it has to be Keith,” big brother Kevin said without hesitation. “Nobody sounds like my dad like my brother. So even if he doesn’t play him, the voiceovers need to be him.”
However, Kevin mentioned Larenz Tate, who portrayed Frankie Lymon in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” as a possibility stating, “He’s got the body build — he’s short, and he’s a good actor. But I think to pull the singing off, it’s got to be Keith.”
The engaging Keith John, who was responsible for eliciting the foreword from Stevie Wonder, was a longtime backing vocalist for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, as well as a featured vocalist in the Spike Lee films “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.” “If the opportunity presented itself, I would jump in head first!” said Keith. “The thing that I want people to know about my father is how he had a gift — he used his gift to make people happy, and that all of his peers, even if they didn’t love it, they respected his gift, and he inspired them.” In conclusion, Kevin added, “I would like for them to remember that he was one of the innovators.”
They captivated audiences in the Tyler Perry feature films “Why Did I Get Married?” (2007) and “Why Did I Get Married Too” (2010), and now the outrageous Tasha Smith and the suave Michael Jai White, who once shared a real-life romance, are reunited on the small screen in “Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse,” premiering on Friday, Nov. 25 with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on TBS.
Produced by Tyler Perry Studios and based on the “Why Did I Get Married?” films, “Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse” follows the ups and downs of marriage and dating. According to the network, the show centers on Angela (Tasha Smith), the owner of a successful beauty salon, and Marcus (Michael Jai White) her husband of 13 years. Marcus is a former professional football player who has recently partnered with Richard Ellington (Kent Falcon) and Joseph Jetson (Jason Olive) on a new sports news program called “C-Sports Now.”
Marcus’ business relationship with Richard and Joseph is complicated by the fact that Richard is dating Keisha (Kiki Haynes), Marcus’ ex-girlfriend and the mother of his teenaged daughter. In addition, Joseph’s girlfriend, Leslie (Crystle Stewart), a successful real estate agent, is Angela’s best friend, which sometimes makes it difficult to keep their business and private lives separate.
Co-stars Tasha Smith and Michael Jai White were recently in Philadelphia to promote the show, and Smith returned to her hometown of Camden, New Jersey to address the students at Camden High School as well as the city’s Creative and Performing Arts High School before stopping by the Philadelphia Tribune offices to discuss their involvement in Perry’s latest project.
The two actors, who are obviously very close, could not be more different from one another, with Smith, who happens to be an identical twin, being quite animated and demonstrative, while the serene White is a man of relatively few words.
“I had known Tyler Perry from ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’ I worked with him on that, and then he had created ‘Why Did I Get Married?’” Smith explained. “I wasn’t supposed to be in ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ He had other plans for the Angela character, and then by the grace of God, it came around to me. He was trying to figure out the whole cast thing and he called me up one day and was like, ‘Oh my God! I know who Marcus is! Do you know Michael Jai White?’ And I was like, ‘Do I know Michael Jai White? Do I know Michael Jai White?’ He ended up having Michael Jai come in as Marcus, and it was the best decision he could have made for both of us.”
White added, “I had worked with him on the original pilot of ‘House of Payne.’ He had financed ten of his own episodes, basically to get that deal, and so I was part of that. That’s the first time Tyler and I worked together. I was in a couple of episodes, but those were never seen by the public. Once the series got picked up, I came back and reprised the character in the airing episodes.”
Smith states that the success of the “Why Did I Get Married?” series inspired Perry to continue the theme on the small screen. “I think he just fell in love with Marcus and Angela, and he wanted a show based on the movie ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ He just chose to spin it off of those two characters,” she said. “I had talked to him first actually and he had said, ‘Do you think you and Michael would want to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Can I call Michael right now?’ And I called Michael, really hoping and praying that Michael wasn’t off in China somewhere filming a movie, ‘cause he’s always in Bangladesh, China or Romania — all over the place! I called him and he was like, ‘Okay.’ He thinks about stuff and I be ready to go!”
The drama begins in the series premiere with a physical confrontation between Angela and Keisha, and White promises varying degrees of the same in upcoming episodes. “You can expect a whole lot of truth and familiarity. Those of us that have those baby mamas out there, and you’re trying to make it all work, you gotta expect some fireworks.”
Smith, who is clearly in love with her character and her new TV family added, “She’s loud and she may be in your face, and some people may have assumed that Marcus may have been a weak man because she’s always kind of running things. But in reality, Marcus is really the stronger of the two because he’s the one that’s not reactive. He knows how to keep control over his emotions and not fly off the handle every time he gets a hunch about anything. I really celebrate Marcus’ character because he’s a man that knows how to show restraint and balance and calm. If everybody was going off the handle, what would that be? And we don’t want to see no man that’s all emotional and losing control every five minutes. Who would respect that?”
While “For Better or Worse” definitely has its comedic moments, White hopes that his portrayal of Marcus will impart a powerful message to viewers saying, “Here’s the thing for me with Black males. You don’t see behavior of a father and husband being necessarily rewarded. It’s just a pervasive thing in the Black community, especially within males, in our own tribal solidarity, the player, the lady’s man — that is the thing that is so encouraged. I feel until other men step up and say, ‘Hey. That’s not the way. Maybe you shouldn’t get this chick on the side. Just because you can get away with it, don’t mean it’s right, or right for your life.’ And I think that’s something that has had a snowball effect in our relationships for so long. A lot of times it’s only until men get much, much older that they realize that it’s just a lot of wasted time and dysfunctional behavior. So I would like for men to see the alternative to honor, and what real manhood — being a Black man is about. And it’s not necessarily how many women you get. This is something that the Marcus character really is learning — that family is the most important thing.”
Walter "Bunny" Sigler, the singer, songwriter and producer responsible for such hits as "(You Are My) Sunshine," "You Got Your Hooks in Me" and "Let Me Make Love to You" by the O'Jays, as well as "Somebody Loves You, Baby" and "Love, Need and Want You" by Patti La Belle, is celebrating the holiday season with a superb new CD of his own titled "When You're in Love at Christmas Time."
Preceded by "The Lord's Prayer" in 2008 as well as "From Bunny with Love & A Little Soul" and "The 23rd Psalm" in 2011, "When You're in Love at Christmas Time," a 12-track creative collaboration with Bryant Pugh, Musical Director at Philadelphia's Sharon Baptist Church, was inadvertently inspired by Lloyd Zane Remick, who has served as Sigler's attorney for approximately 40 years.
"He wanted me to start with 'Auld Lang Syne,'" Sigler said during a recent visit to the Philadelphia Tribune offices. "I said, 'If I do 'Auld Lang Syne' that's only going to be for a week. I might as well do a Christmas album.' He was talking about next year, and he put the suggestion in my head. I've got my own studio, I've got my [band], and before he knew it, I had it half done, and then he started liking it. The title track, I wrote with Bryant Pugh. He works with Richard Smallwood, but he's been at Sharon for years. He did 'The Lord's Prayer, he did 'The 23rd Psalm,' so he's been my right hand man. I've got (guitarist) Randy Bowland - he's on everything. My engineer is Raymond Earl. Raymond used to be with Instant Funk."
The disc includes familiar sounds of the season including "Little Drummer Boy," "The Christmas Song," "O Holy Night" and "Ave' Maria," in addition to unique renditions of traditional sacred songs and carols arranged by Pugh and Richie Rome, mastermind behind disco divas, The Richie Family. Sigler contributed the original compositions "When You're in Love at Christmas Time," "Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday' and "A Christmas Dream."
This marks the first Christmas album for the personable, flamboyant and fashionable North Philly native, who was given his unusual nickname as an infant by his mother, who discovered that her baby had a fully developed tooth in his mouth, making him look like a little bunny rabbit.
Sigler's most memorable work has been under the banner of Philadelphia International Records, the celebrated label established in 1971 by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. When asked what he believes is his greatest contribution to "The Sound of Philadelphia," Sigler quickly responded, "The love songs, and it wasn't confined just to one artist. I wrote love songs for the O'Jays, love songs for Patti La Belle — all of them were Number Ones, and a Number One for Shirley Jones —'Do You Get Enough Love?' which was written for the O'Jays, but they were out of town, and Shirley got the song."
Sigler's work has also caught on with a new generation, and in 2002, "Love, Need and Want You" previously recorded by Patti La Belle, was sampled by Kelly Rowland and Nelly, and "Dilemma" reached Number One on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart.
While his catalog of songs is a great source of pride for Sigler, who scored a major hit of his own in 1967 with "Let the Good Times Roll," he adds that he also contributed vocally to the renowned and recognizable Philly Sound.
"I did a lot of stuff in the background," he said. "I'm singing background on 'If You Don't Know Me By Now' [Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes]. That's me, Kenny and Huff. Most of the Stylistics — me, Carl Helm and Kenny Gamble. Archie Bell, 'Gonna Be a Showdown,' — that's me Kenny and Huff." Sigler also contributed vocal arrangements for numerous recordings released by the company.
While he still enjoys performing, Sigler is now focused on developing the next generation of entertainers. "What I would like to accomplish is to get my company with my lawyer really going," he said. "It's really moving now, and he said we waited until we got in our 70s to want a company and do all this! I'm doing something with [my] band. I'm going to cut them. I'm even looking for a new artist to be in front — like a girl who can sing and rap.
"I was telling my lady, I said, 'I think I'm going to retire. I'm tired of doing this.' But as an entertainer, when you do that, you're getting ready to push the daisies! You can't retire! If you stop, your life is over!"
For more information, to listen to excerpts from Bunny Sigler's "When You're in Love at Christmas Time" or to purchase this uplifting Christmas collection, visit www.bunzmusicandrecords.com.
Having been on hiatus since last January, “The Karamu,” a popular “infotainment” program hosted by Dr. Richard Cooper, returns to 900AM WURD on Friday, Sept. 16 from 7 p.m.–9 p.m., with a live simulcast airing weekly at www.900WURD.com. The enlightening news and entertainment program is part of the station’s new “WURD After Dark” format, and the topic of Cooper’s first show will be the highly successful but controversial feature film, “The Help.”
Based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is inspired by the southern tradition of Black women working as domestics — cooking, cleaning and caring for white families, particularly the children. These women would stay with the families for generations, with the children growing up and ultimately supervising the women that raised them.
Stockett politely declined an invitation to appear on the show, but Cooper will present an in-depth panel discussion on the film. “I have read every op-ed piece in the universe,” said Cooper, who is on the faculty of the Center for Social Work Education at Widener University. “I’ve read about 30 of them, and some of these folks, many of whom are Black women or scholars or activists or thinkers or whatever — many of whom didn’t like it, and my sense is that the academic community, either in Black History or Women’s Studies or just Black women, are not taking to it the same way as I’m seeing in popular culture.
“The national criticism by many of the so-called ‘thinkers’ and writers is that what you simply have is the liberal white woman — kind of like ‘The Blind Side.’ You know, taking care of the Black people. The frustration is ‘do-gooder white woman rescues the poor Black disenfranchised.’”
Cooper’s guests will also include members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization founded in 2007 to organize domestic workers in the United States for “respect, recognition and labor standards.” Through “leadership development, strategic campaigns and alliance building,” they seek to help build a vibrant movement for social and global justice.
“There is a union of women that are organizing as domestics, both in New York and on the West Coast, where they’re trying to increase pay and do these other things,” said Cooper. “They’re running a campaign that says, ‘Wait a minute. If you like the movie, there are real women today struggling to get better wages, better jobs and a state law that says fair pay.’ I’m going to get some of them to be on the show, several of whom are Black or Latino. They’re trying to educate the populace about their struggle.”
The word “karamu” means “a feast, party or communal celebration” and Cooper explains, “The show has always been an attempt to use popular culture, Africanist themes and diverse genres, but to link it to society, social ills, social problems and more importantly, things that we can actually do individually and collectively. So it may not always be about protesting. How does this information help you and what can you do differently by knowing what goes on behind the scenes? It’s a niche that isn’t covered in the same way on an NPR (National Public Radio), but we try to model the program on good radio.”
The Temptations, now genuine American icons, are celebrating 50 years in show business, bringing their smooth sounds of silky soul to Atlantic City with a polished performance at the Borgata’s Music Box Theatre on Friday, Nov. 11 at 9 p.m.
Established by Otis Williams in 1961, The Temptations are now comprised of founding member Williams, Philadelphia native Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson.
“I had no idea I’d still be having fun 50 years later!” Williams said in an exclusive interview from Minnesota. “It’s work, but it’s pleasurable, wonderful work. The only rough part of what we do is the traveling, but the performing, 99.9 percent of the time, is fun. We take time off to rest and rejuvenate the body, then we go back at it again.”
Williams celebrated his 70th birthday on Oct. 30, and recording and performing with The Temps is the only “job” that he’s ever had in his adult life. To commemorate their milestone anniversary, the group released the aptly titled “Still Here” in 2010, and excerpts can be heard at www.temptationssing.com.
“It was an endeavor of our own, because it’s on the Temptations’ label, 1030 International,” Williams explained. “It was the first one on our own label, stepping out of the shadows of Motown, and it was the same procedure that we’ve been doing for all these years — making sure that we could align ourselves with great songs, and we used the same premise for ‘Still Here.’”
The classic Temptations lineup, which was in place from 1964 to 1968 consisted of Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, and captured hearts around their world, beginning with their first #1 hit, the timeless Smokey Robinson composition “My Girl.” This was followed by classics such as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” and “I Wish It Would Rain.”
However, it was upon Ruffin’s sudden departure in 1968 that the ruggedly handsome and talented Dennis Edwards joined the group and led The Temps to their first Grammy Award with the Norman Whitfield-penned “Cloud Nine.”
The Temptations have a strong local connection through tenor Ron Tyson, who joined the group in 1983, and is a former member of Philly-based vocal groups the Ethics and Love Committee. “Tyson brings loyalty and stability aside from talent, so he’s been right there with me through the many ups and downs and changes. He’s been a very good asset,” Williams said.
That connection extends to Philadelphia’s legendary Uptown Theater, where both Williams and Tyson once engaged in Georgie Woods’ much-hyped and fiercely contested “Battle of the Groups” during the venue’s exciting heyday.
“I have a lot of fond memories of the Uptown Theater,” Williams said. “Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop bringing us there, and bringing headlining shows with various heavyweight acts. I always will remember meeting my friend Kenny Gamble of Gamble & Huff backstage at the Uptown. Philly is a wonderful city and they’re loyal to a fault, so they would turn out for us. I have a lot of wonderful memories of being onstage with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells, the Vibrations, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions … great times at the Uptown!”
This year, the Heroes and Legends (HAL) Awards Scholarship Foundation acknowledged The Temptations for their “unending and tireless work extended over five decades in the music industry,” causing Williams to hearken back to his days in Detroit.
“It was just a wonderful, magical time being at Motown,” he said. “Like I said a couple of weeks ago when they gave us our HAL Award for 50 years, I love reading about history, and you read about King Arthur and Maid Marian –that was their Camelot. JFK and Jackie Onassis, that was their Camelot at that time. Well Motown was our Camelot. It was wonderful times there at Motown, so I love being part of something that is still being recognized and cherished and loved 50-plus years later.”
Indeed the music is still being celebrated worldwide and Williams is quite excited about the release of “The Complete Motown Singles,” a three-CD set of Temptations singles and their corresponding “B-sides,” which includes “Oh Mother of Mine,” the very first single that the group recorded for Motown.
For years, the words “Temptations Forever” have been a mantra for the group, and even after a decorated 50-year career, which includes induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, Williams remains as committed as ever.
“That was a statement that Melvin and I made back in ’69 when we were going through it with personnel changes,” he recalled. “We were in Westbury, Long Island, and Melvin and myself went out in back of the Island Hotel, which is where we were staying. We made a vow then that we were going to continue the Temptations regardless of what or whomever we’d be in the midst of. Mr. (Berry) Gordy has been real supportive, and we just had the feeling that we don’t let nothing but ourselves stop us. So Melvin and myself made that pact, and here it is — I’m still carrying it on after losing my friends. Berry always wanted us to be around, so we have a whole lot of different reasons to continue on. Our fans have always been there, and just a strong belief that The Temps should continue on.”
This belief is so strong that Williams wants the group to continue, even in the event of his own retirement — although that scenario seems highly unlikely. As he happily departed for an appearance at the Mall of America he said in conclusion, “I plan on riding the hair off the horse. When I get off the horse, the horse will be bald!” For tickets to The Temptations concert at the Borgata, visit www.theborgata.com.
Steve Harris, best known for his portrayal of Eugene Young on the courtroom drama “The Practice,” returns to prime time television in “Awake, airing on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Jason Isaacs stars as Michael Britten in the crime series, with Harris playing his partner, Detective Isaiah Freeman. Each episode of “Awake” features clever, well-written scripts, with two intriguing storylines running simultaneously.
“This is all based on an accident that Michael had,” Harris said in a recent interview. “From that accident, in one world, his wife in alive, in the other world, his son is alive. When you start from that basis and you realize that this is all coming from his now split reality, then you can see it divides what I am. I’m actually Michael’s partner in one world, and they’ve removed me from being his partner in the other world, and that where Wilmer (Valderama) is his partner.
“I’ve been his partner for years,” Harris continued. “We’ve been together for years, so we have a sort of comfortable way of being – as with anybody you’ve been with for a number of years, so we’re used to solving cases a certain way. Well, since this accident has occurred, he has this insight from another world. He’s clearly able to find out things that I have no idea about what’s going on. So it’s changed our dynamic a bit, which causes some friction, but I still support him because we’ve been together for so long.”
“Awake” is quite a departure from “The Practice,” where Harris played attorney Eugene Young from 1997 to 2004.
“It’s different, and to be perfectly honest, when you come back to television, primarily when you’ve been somebody who was on another show that was very successful, you want to come back with something that’s good, and something that adds a little spice to the world,” said Harris, who last graced the small screen in “Friday Night Lights” and “Harry’s Law.” “I didn’t want to come back and just be on TV again. The choices that I’ve made to be on television were choices that I thought were good choices because they brought something different to the table. [“Awake”] definitely brings something different to the table. I think it asks people to be involved. I’m hoping the way this show is designed that it has people at least talking about something.”
The acting gene apparently is quite prevalent in the Harris family, given that Steve’s younger brother, Sherwin “Wood” Harris, has starred in such high-profile projects as “The Wire,” “Above the Rim,” “Remember the Titans” and “Oz.”
“My brother is about to open the first African-American play on Broadway of ‘Streetcar Named Desire,” Harris, a Chicago native, said proudly. “He’s going to be playing Mitch, and Blair (Underwood) is playing the lead. Nicole Ari Parker is in it. So we’ve been very blessed, and God willing, there will be a lot more of us in the future.”
If history is any indication, that will definitely be the case. Harris has appeared in top-grossing films including “Bringing Down the House,” “Minority Report” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and his diverse career shows no signs of slowing down. He would like longtime fans and new viewers to join him in his latest primetime endeavor.
“First off, I would like them to watch it, and then I would like them to judge for themselves,” Harris said in conclusion. “On television in particular, I’ve taken roles that represent people that you would want to see every week, and that’s always been important in my television choices, versus film or theater or that sort of thing, and I think that this is a guy that stands on his own. Like in “The Practice,” you saw a lawyer that could stand on his own. I’d love for people to watch and judge for themselves.”
“Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” returns for a new season on TBS, premiering with two back-to-back half-hour episodes beginning at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21. The season debut of the popular comedy series is titled “A Mother’s Payne,” followed at 9:30 p.m. by an episode titled “Up from the Ashes.”
“Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” now in its seventh season, focuses on a multi-generational working class family that “experiences all of life’s struggles with faith, love and most importantly, humor.”
LaVan Davis stars as Curtis “Pops” Payne, an Atlanta firefighter who believes that his home is his castle. The engaging Allen Payne plays his nephew, CJ, who has moved in “temporarily” with his kids, while Curtis’ son Calvin (Lance Gross), a slacker who shows up at meal time and on laundry day, adds to the family confusion. Fortunately, Curtis has his loving but no-nonsense wife, Ella (Cassi Davis), to help him keep it together. Former “Cosby” kid Keshia Knight Pulliam recently joined the cast.
“House of Payne” premiered in June 2007 with ad-supported cable’s #1 sitcom telecast of all time among key adult demos, households and viewers. The show has won numerous NAACP Image Awards and ranks among the top sitcoms on cable. The show’s creator, playwright, director, media mogul and self-made millionaire Tyler Perry, ranked #25 on the recently announced Forbes “Celebrity 100,” serves as executive producer on the program.
“The Dark Knight Rises,” the highly anticipated finale to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, hits theaters Friday July 20, and despite its lengthy 2:45 running time, the film should keep even the most casual Batman fan completely engaged from beginning to end.
In this final chapter, Christian Bale returns as the Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, who took the blame for crimes committed by Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight,” and has been in exile for eight years. A broken man, physically, emotionally and financially, he has been holed up in Wayne Manor with his faithful friend and assistant Alfred (Michael Caine) with no intention of ever leaving the sprawling estate.
In the meantime, Dent, now deceased, is being hailed as a hero on “Harvey Dent Day,” and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), has done a commendable job of maintaining order in Gotham City — until now. As the metropolis is celebrating the “legacy” of Harvey Dent, an unknown foe by the name of Bane (Tom Hardy) emerges, hell bent on destroying Gotham and everyone in it. Bane proves to be even more sick and sinister than the villains before him, and when it becomes clear that Gordon can’t handle him, Wayne, who believed that he would never again don the Batsuit or embrace his Batman persona, is forced out of exile.
Unfortunately, time and injuries have taken their toll, and with so many years since his last confrontation, Wayne’s physical capabilities are severely diminished, and his super hero skills are a bit ... rusty.
To make matters worse, Bane is a beast! A definite departure from the evil, yet campy villains of the past, such as The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin. There is nothing even remotely amusing about Bane, who could be any titanic individual walking down any street in America and just goes insane.
As Wayne keeps an eye on Bane and struggles to work himself back into crime-fighting condition, he finds an unlikely ally in Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who by day is the cunning Selina Kyle. He also gets a brilliant assist from Det. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), with whom he has quite a bit in common. Can the Caped Crusader & Company defeat the crazy and deranged Bane and finally take his rightful place as the savior of Gotham City?
While the mandatory pyrotechnics, special effects and technological toys are in place, principal writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan have also crafted an ambitious, thought-provoking screenplay that features a surprising revelation at the end. Bale is compelling as the brooding Bruce Wayne, who is clearly at a crossroads. The devoted Alfred continues to encourage his friend and employer, who is still battling his personal demons, to basically get a life, while the brilliant and stoic Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) desperately tries to hold things down at Wayne Enterprises.
I initially had my doubts about the ethereal Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, and while she lacked the sassy edge of Eartha Kitt and the sex appeal of Julie Newmar, who both played the feline felon in the “Batman” TV series, Hathaway handled herself in the role, adding her own brand of quirky sarcasm. She still looked a bit skinny in the form-fitting cat suit though. My only criticism is that the low, raspy speaking voices of both Bane and the Batman sometimes made it difficult to understand what either of them were saying.
With captivating performances, engrossing storyline and a little something to keep you wondering at the end, “The Dark Knight Rises” is proof positive that heart-stopping action and a compelling story can co-exist. (Rated PG-13)
Continuing its tradition of thought-provoking productions, Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., presents “The Whipping Man,” a Civil War drama by Matthew Lopez and directed by Matt Pfeiffer.
In “The Whipping Man” playing on the Arden’s Arcadia Stage from October 27 – December 18, Caleb (Cody Nickell), a Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home after the Civil War and is reunited with his family’s former slaves, Simon (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) and John (James Ijames). All members of the Jewish faith, the three men celebrate “newfound freedom” on Passover.
“We’re at the end of the Civil War, and Richmond, where they live, was devastated,” esteemed actor, director and educator Johnnie Hobbs Jr. explained during a recent interview. “He’s in this home by himself, waiting for the family to return — waiting for his own wife to return, waiting for his daughter to return, and he’s pretty much held up in the home. One evening, in comes a confederate soldier who lives there. His name is Caleb, and I take care of him and have known him since he was a young boy. There’s another slave and we’re both recently freed.”
While the subject of slavery is routinely addressed on both stage and screen, Hobbs maintains that “The Whipping Man” takes “a different look at it,” saying, “We look at the different layers, and the writer, Matthew Lopez has penned s very fascinating piece of work that I think a lot of people would get some new insights on.
“Simon has been a slave for many, many years with this family called the De Leons,” says of his character, Simon. “He’s recently freed, this is 1865, so this is post-Civil War, and he’s a man of strong character, very religious, and has been raised in the Jewish faith. He does not read, he does not write. He speaks Hebrew — he’s never been at the table with the family with the seder, but he and his wife would hold seders in the kitchen. They were given permission to hold their seder in the kitchen. I just think it’s really quite an interesting thing for a man to be brought under the Jewish faith. At the same time the play, not only does it explore that element of him, but it also looks at the confluence of his own Christianity and the Jewish. It’s a very provocative kind of play.”
“We are proud to introduce up-and-coming playwright Matthew Lopez to Philadelphia audiences with ‘The Whipping Man,’ says Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden’s Producing Artistic Director. “This unexpected story rooted in history will inspire great discussion about religion, identity and freedom, and I’m thrilled with the team of artists we’ve assembled to bring the play to life in our stage.”
Hobbs, a tenured associate professor at Ira Brind School of Theatre Arts at the University of the Arts, and perhaps best known for his longtime association with Freedom Theater, made his Arden debut in the 2009/10 production of “The Blue Door.”
“The Arden, they’re a highly respected regional theater and they’re doing challenging work and making an effort to really look at Philadelphia talent,” Hobbs said. “Not just go outside, but look at Philadelphia talent, and they’re very proud of it. They do a lot of quality work, and quality craftsmanship in terms of the designs and the aesthetic, and the collaborations that go on, so it’s really a pleasure to work at the Arden, and this kind of play is a pleasure to undertake and quite challenging.” For tickets to “The Whipping Man,” call (215) 922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.