October 2007 Interview: Malcolm Jamal Warner

Transcript

Introduction:
Malcolm Jamal Warner is a an actor, director, spoken word artist and playwright whose career has spanned over 20 years. Best known for his role as Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Warner now leads the jazz/funk band, Miles Long. I caught up with Malcolm before an electrifying performance at the National Black Theatre Festival this fall. Malcolm, welcome to Blackademics. Good looking out, Weusi!

Pierce Freelon:
This is the 18th Black Theatre Festival, I was wondering if you could talk about the significance of Larry Leon Hamlin and what is the Black Festival all about, what is his legacy?

Malcolm Jamal Warner:
The National Black Theatre Festival is really an important event for theatre actors, directors, writers, producers because it really gives a lot of us a chance to showcase a lot of our new works. My one-man show Love and other social issues, I debuted here in 2003. It was the first venue that I was actually able to put my show on. So for a lot of new playwrights, this is the perfect opportunity to put your work up in front of people.

PF:
Going with that, how does the media shape Black people’s perceptions, identity and self-esteem and how do we take control of that? The Black Theatre Festival seems to be one venue for that, how else can we take control of the way the media shapes perceptions of Blackness.

MJW:
I think there are a lot of different levels of trying to take back how we are portrayed in the media. A lot of it, in terms of film in television, one comes from the consumers because here there’s a demand, there’s a supply. So often, we talk about not being happy with the images that are being portrayed out there. Yet as consumers, we still have a tendency to patronize those very things that we say we don’t like. So I think on one hand, the people have to really understand their power, their viewer-ship power, their consumer-ship power. We’re at a time where everything is really controlled by advertisers, so I think we have to really understand, as people of color, our power as consumers. And at the same time, those of us who are in the industry, actors, writers, directors, I think we have to be a little bit more responsible about the work that we put out there. No one’s putting a gun to our heads to act in, to write to direct, to produce, film and television that continues perpetuate negative stereotypes. So at the end of the day, there’s a responsibility that we all have to take, as consumers and as people of color, in the industry.

PF:
Okay, two more questions, real quick.

MJW:
No problem, no problem.

PF:
You addressed manhood yesterday in the poem you closed with. There’s a deficiency specifically of positive images of Black males. How do you address that in your poetry, and throughout your artwork, in your plays and everything?

MJW:
Well, I was very fortunate to come out the box on a show with Mr. Cosby. He was very intent on combating those negative stereotypical images of people of color. So that really gave me a certain platform and for me, it kinda set the bar. So when I choose work, it’s like, okay. Even though it was 20 years ago, I can’t go from a show that was such a high standard of quality, such as the Cosby show, and then go out and do Bullshit. So for me it kinda, the show gave me a really great platform. As I’ve gotten older, I’m always hard on cats who take the kinda roles I won’t take. One of the reasons I don’t necessarily work as much as I think I should is because I turn down so much work. Because I’m not interested in perpetuating those negative stereotypes. But as I get older, I’m trying to have a little bit more compassion and understand that everyone doesn’t have the financial ware withal to be a meticulous about the work that they choose. So for me, it really starts out with the kind of work that I choose to go out for and choose to accept as an actor.

PF:
Okay, and this kinda goes in with that. We’ve done the film and television but with the music specifically, and the spoken word, poetry, what we’ll be seeing tonight. What are your priorities as an artist, artistically and spiritually?

MJW:
Well, I think my priority is one, to myself, honesty. The hard thing about being an artist is putting yourself out there and being out there and being vulnerable. But because of the way I was raised by my father, and then had a supplemental raising by Mr. Cosby, there’s a certain responsibility that I take very seriously in terms of understanding the power of my role in the media and understanding that there are young people that do look up to me and those of us who are living in the public eye. So my other priority is to really to be able to continue to show that being positive doesn’t have to be corny, you know? Being a good person doesn’t have to be corny. I mean, so often so many of the young people are caught up into the Bad Boy image and the thug life that a lot of Hip-Hop perpetuates. When in fact, a lot of those Hip-Hop artists don’t really live those lives. They aren’t really the thugs that young kids grow up and aspire to be. So for me, I take on a personal responsibility to try to do what I can to try to combat those stereotypes, because I want young kids to be able to look at me and see that being positive can be cool. Being a good person is actually a really cool thing.

PF:
And you mentioned, “Read a Book” yesterday. I’m feeling you on that.

MJW:
Man, man, yeah that’s my favorite joint, right now, Read a Book.

PF:
Read a book, raise your kids

MJW:
I think that song is a perfect example of being able to really put the message in your face. But again, it’s not corny, there’s nothing corny about that, it’s hot. So I look at that and I kinda raise my hand, like “YES” there are people who are fighting the fight as well. I no longer feel like I’m just by myself. Because for a long time, I really felt like I was fighting this battle by myself because when I would go to schools and speak to kids, my message is about positivity, about self esteem, about self love about self accountability, always came off corny to these kids because they wanted to hear from Snoop and Tupac and Biggie so now, I feel like there’s what I call a positive music movement. And that song, Read a Book is a perfect example. I think finally the tide is turning. Every era is a rebellion to the era before it. I think now there’s so many of us who are finally saying enough of the negative enough of the violence and the misogyny and all the negative things that are associated with Hip-Hop. It’s a perfect example of people in the Hip-Hop community taking the image of Hip-Hop back, and flipping it and making it positive, how we started out. So that’s exciting about where Hip-Hop is going.

PF:
Yea, yea. Okay, thank you so much!

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