LOS ANGELES — Jenifer Lewis wanted everyone in the audience to know Feb. 26 that the hardships she has endured in her 61 years of life never stopped her from pursuing her dreams.
“I want you guys to know that I came through the fire,” she said. “Untreated bipolar disorder, molestation, abortions, knives at my throat, attempted rapes, poverty as a child. Nothing was going to stop me from my dream.”
Lewis, renowned actress, comedian, singer and activist, accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award during the 27th annual NAACP Theater Awards at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel downtown.
The crowd of more than 450 erupted into applause and bursts of laughter throughout her speech. But amid the knee-slappers, Lewis emphasized that her love for acting kept her lifted.
“Have a passion,” she said. “It was my dream that sustained me. That’s why I’m standing here with this big old smile on my face, doing what I do.”
Lewis, whose work in American cinema and television spans decades, is best known for her movie roles in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and the Disney-animated feature “The Princess and the Frog” as Mama Odie.
On television, she had recurring roles in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Girlfriends” and currently stars in the comedy series “Black-ish.”
Lewis’s costar in “The Princess and the Frog” and the voice of Disney’s first black animated princess Tiana, Anika Noni Rose, was presented with this year’s Trailblazer Award. Originally from a town in Connecticut, Rose said in her acceptance speech how unwelcoming L.A. felt to her when she first moved here.
“[Los Angeles] is a place where you have to carve your own groove, where you find yourself in a mudslide. … All of us are finding characters, but the most important thing for us to be within that is ourselves,” Rose said. “And this is a city that will take yourself from you if you allow it. I don’t accept that.”
Eventually, Rose said she was able to find a place of belonging and visibility among her African-American peers in Hollywood.
“So often we are not seen, so it is very important for us when we see each other to take a moment to stop, to look closely … to say ‘I see you,’” Rose said.
That night, many others were also seen and awarded including Brandon Victor Dixon, the recipient of the NAACP’s Spirit Award and a Tony nominee who currently stars as Aaron Burr in the Broadway company of “Hamilton.”
Hosted by actress Wendy Raquel Robinson, the awards ceremony was attended by other celebrities like Glynn Turman, Isaiah Washington, Angela Robinson, Margaret Avery, Obba Babatunde, Darius McCrary and Richard Lawson.
Rhythm-and-blues singer and 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi was among the performers that night.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson addressed the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP in a letter featured in the evening’s program. Wesson said that since its beginnings, the NAACP chapter has destroyed the many barriers that have hindered people of color while reinforcing positive black images.
Wesson congratulated the winners and nominees that night whose work in theater, he wrote, shows their dedication to “promoting, celebrating and cultivating the African American experience.”