One of the iconic members of 90s television, Erika Alexander blessed the Breakfast Club with stories of her career, childhood, and gems for the audience.
Upbringing & Childhood
Being one of 6, the 4th child, in a family which relied on her father’s abilities as a religious and spiritual figure, life was hard. Whether in Arizona or later on in Philly, dumpster diving, checking for loose change between cushions, collecting cans, that was part of life. Then, to add onto that, her parents were orphans and experienced abuse coming up which shaped their parenting. Especially her father because, with him ordained at 6, because he had this almost magical touch for healing, it led to him, as an adult, becoming a bit of a hypocrite.
The way it is shaped, and you can look at her father prepping her to deal with someone like Bill Cosby, the man the public knew and the man behind the curtain were two totally different people. He might have been a healer to strangers but to those closest to him, there was a certain distance. Call it old school parenting, if you like, but combined with poverty, it made the man who was her father, who died fairly young, before 40, not the loving father figure many kids would want.
Also, it profoundly affected her beliefs and opinion on religion. Similar to many millennials now, because of how toxic and unhealthy religion was presented to her, she found herself distancing herself from it. Mind you, not damning it, for she sees how it can be therapeutic and helpful. However, taking note that the cure can easily become a position in the wrong hands.
Stepping Into Stardom
Being one of 6 means taking turns and sharing. One of the things she and her siblings took turns in is having an extracurricular activity paid for by the family, and her turn was around the time she was in 9th grade. In this, she was sent to a program in which the instructor had everyone audition for this production, Alexander’s first credit My Little Girl. In fact, she auditioned 8 times and did 4 screen test. Following that, she kept on acting and did the Royal Shakespeare production and that is when she was spotted by Camille Cosby.
Now, let it be noted, after her first taste of being on set and acting, she did more productions and auditioned for The Cosby Show. The issue is, and this seemingly kept being an issue throughout Alexander’s career, how to package her? Yet, has become her belief over time, “The wheel turns.” What may not work then does now and all you have to do is be prepared. So, Mrs. Cosby saw her, noted her performance to her husband, Alexander auditioned at his home and in no time she was on the show.
Of which the reason to Alexander was to address the criticism of The Cosby Show not being relatable. Something which is noted by rappers like Ice T, who grew up in South Central LA, as well as The Breakfast Club member Charlemagne The God, among many others. Yet, Pam brought in a respectable hip-hop flavoring to the show and once they figured out what to do with her, the character became a hit.
Cosby & A 90s Kind of World
And with mentioning Cosby, as Kenan Thompson did during his interview and Lisa Bonet recently did in one unassociated with The Breakfast Club, so comes the question of: Did he do anything to you? Of which Alexander says no. He just, as Thompson said, was not the person who he often appeared to be. Despite presenting himself as this ideal father who would talk to you, give you a sense of autonomy, and be the jokey-joke parent, Alexander notes he lacked “decorum and class and would violate people.” Mind you, violate in this context, before her eyes, doesn’t mean sexually. More so his ego made him into someone unexpected. Yet, with him being the only show in town, especially for young Black actors, and Alexander understanding men like him through her father, she doesn’t present the idea she had any personal issues with him.
Pushing us up to Living Single, originally named, My Girl, but once could have been named Friends. A name which came up after My Girl didn’t test well and ended up with the show which would become the watered down version of the iconic program. One in which Alexander notes had its beauty in how many people it inspired to be lawyers but also was a little bit of a rough time.
Mostly because the cast were treated dirty. At the height of the program, she, a reoccurring character who was quickly made into a regular within the first season, was paid $55,000 an episode in comparison to Friends, at its height, which got each actor $2.5 million each. On top of that, the lot they were in, nicknamed “The Ranch Lot” didn’t have air conditioning and heat, food services was crackers, cheese, and barely enough to be called sustenance, and coming from The Cosby Show, really put things in perspective for Alexander about how the industry is.
Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself
Leading to the question a few might be asking, what happened after that? Well, there was the package issue. Once the “Black Renaissance” got abruptly ended, so came the idea there wasn’t a market for the Maxine or simply Erika Alexander types. How can you be a comedic Black woman if you are not fat, loud, and/or rolling your neck? Now, could Alexander have played that role? Yes. However, when you know better you do better and look at moving backwards as regressing.
Think about it, Alexander was part of two iconic franchises showing a different perspective on Black American life. One as a teenager and then as an adult. Why would she then join something which not only presented a segregated idea of America but also didn’t push the conversation forward? She had come too far for that so, to keep the lights on, she took guest starring spots here and there, including on Queen Sugar and Beyond, while working on another hustle: Writing. Something she has worked on with her brother, and Tony Puryear, her husband.
One of their productions are Concrete Park and this opened the doors for Alexander to work with Joss Whedon on a Buffy The Vampire spin-off named Giles. And during all this, Alexander would keep working in acting, taking meetings to get stuff out there. You know, just biding her time until not the often named, “New Black Renaissance” but rather what she calls “a market correction.” Which has led to her working on a horror movie called “Doll Face,” for she is a horror movie fan, as well as a Boys Choir of Harlem project which reportedly will be named “Rise and Shine.”
Beyond that, of course, there is the idea of her revisiting the character of Maxine, but to that she implies that she’d rather find the next iconic character for her career than let her career be defined in just that one role.
“For Black people, the past is painful, present precarious, but the future is free. We always create the future. That’s why you have rock and roll, and the blues, and jazz. We’re the aliens you took from across the ocean to rock your world and make your planets twirl.”
“They left blueprints for us, but it’s in a book.”
“Poverty, […] they say it can give you strength but it can also weaken you because, it’s not the love of things, it’s because you don’t have anything and so you start to manipulate people based on what you think they can give you.”
“They talk about the love of money, but the lack of money is just as corrupt and as dangerous and disruptive.”
“The wheel turns. […] If [you’re] doing things, creating things, sometimes you have to wait for your moment. It’s like real estate, it can hold its value but finish it. Don’t [leave it] half done because its time will come.”
“People say, ‘Well, do you go to church?” and I say, ‘Not often because all the sinners are there.'”
“I think whoever fed you religion, is how you take it in. So if they fed it to you and they were corrupt, then you don’t take it in as being pure.”