Pinkett, actress with passion 'Lyric' star draws on Baltimore upbringing

October 01, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

Talking with actress Jada Pinkett is almost like being in a Sista Souljah video. She punctuates a good number of her sentences with "ya know what I'm sayin'?" but her bullet-tough, straight-from-the-street lexicon can't hide a straightforward sense of urgency and concern.

Her voice is palpably earnest, even over a telephone line from Los Angeles, as she talks about her roles in so-called "black" films, for which she has won kudos for playing women living and struggling in blighted inner-city neighborhoods, as in last year's sleeper "Menace II Society." And she makes it a point to take her upbringing, part of which was in Pimlico, and fuse it with her relentless passion for acting.

Throw in a healthy dose of ambition and you have a woman who has been heralded as one of the country's talented, up-and-coming actresses. And she's only 23.

Currently, she appears in "Jason's Lyric" as Lyric Greer, the beautiful and day-dreaming girlfriend of a young black man with a troubled and tragic life. But the film, she says, isn't just a love story between a man and a woman in inner-city Houston.

"I see it as a relationship story," she says. "There are so many kinds of relationships portrayed in the movie: between Lyric and Jason, between Jason and his brother. It adds breadth to the story. It's about how people make sacrifices for each other.

" 'Jason's Lyric' has a universal situational appeal," she says. "No matter where you come from, you understand what it's like to love and to sacrifice and to run away."

She says playing Lyric wasn't a stretch for her, since she was TC born in Baltimore, with "part of my life from birth to 13 spent in black working-class neighborhoods." Then she moved to the Park Heights and Rogers avenues area, streets that resemble those in "Jason's Lyric." She is quick to say, though, that both she and her acting ability spring from an amalgam of different backgrounds and upbringings. She was 14 when she entered the Baltimore School for the Arts, where she acted in theater plays.

"We all knew early that she had the talent . . . and the charisma and desire you need to climb that particular hill," says the school's theater department head and Miss Pinkett's former teacher, Donald Hicken. "And you could tell she wanted it. She was a pistol here. She tested all of us."

In 1989, she went south to attend the North Carolina School for the Arts. Then, a move to California.

In Los Angeles in 1991, she auditioned and won a role on the short-lived ABC sitcom "Mo's World." Since then, she's appeared on "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," "True Colors," and on "Doogie Howser, M.D." For two years, she was Lena, the Hillman College

student from the Baltimore projects on NBC's "A Different World." Her film appearances include "The Inkwell" and "Menace II Society," in which she played a smart and sensitive single mother raising a son in a gang-controlled section of Los Angeles.

But "Jason's Lyric," she notes, differs from her earlier films because its goes beyond portraying the usual bleakness and misery associated with films about the inner city. Lyric is an idealistic dreamer, although her fanciful desire of love and escape from the 'hood is tempered by the violence that she knows surrounds her. "I was like Lyric when I was growing up, and I knew Jasons, too," she says. "You see them everywhere [in the inner city]. They're just trapped -- they're afraid to go outside their little world. You have to let those walls down."

But while she spins the hope and love-conquers-all themes the film celebrates, she deflects criticism that it, like many of its predecessors, also unnecessarily portrays brutal and unforgiving black-on-black violence.

"I mean, no one's making a stink about 'Natural Born Killers.' This is reality. These are the realities that keep young adults from living life to their fullest. I'm hoping people will gain courage from this movie."

Mr. Hicken, her former teacher in Baltimore, said he had feared that Miss Pinkett would be pigeon-holed into playing girls in and from the 'hood, "after 'A Different World' and especially after 'Menace II Society,' but she's now looking to show a range. And she's certainly talented enough."

She is now working on a film with Keenan Ivory Wayans, and a few months ago, started her own clothing line of T-shirts and sweat shirts.

"It's kind of like underground clothes for women," she explains, with themes like "Sista Love" and "Sista Power" emblazoned on the front. "It's to help negate all those negative images you see on TV or in the movies."

She also wants to expand her talents to include writing and directing films, and once again is seriously unapologetic for African-American filmmakers and films that seem to showcase the misery of living -- and dying -- in the urban landscape.

"Sure, I would like to see black films gain more variety, but right now, this is the only opportunity that we seem to have," she says. "But we should never stop making films about our environment. We should have our black 'Basic Instincts' and black 'Cliffhangers' that will appeal to everyone. Now it's just to develop as stronger filmmakers, but I wouldn't change the direction [black films] are going."

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