Kim Wayans still remembers the scandalous night her older brother Keenen came out to the family as a stand-up comic. “Oh my God! My mother hit the ceiling. She was not having it. She was like, ‘A comedian?! You’re not funny! You never made me laugh in your life!’ ” Kim says in a thick New York accent. “If he’d said, ‘Hey, Mom, I’m gay,’ it would just be, ‘Okay, here’s my gay son, Keenen.’ But my mom really, really stressed education in our household. She saw that as our ticket out” of their working-class life in low-income housing. So when Keenen decided to quit Tuskegee, “Mom was not happy.”
We’re talking about big family revelations because of Pariah, a small-budget film in which Kim plays a Brooklyn mother struggling disapprovingly with her daughter’s gender nonconformity. From the entrance of the Maritime Hotel, where we’re having a light lunch of chicken and sautéed spinach, Kim can see the windows of the fifth-floor four-bedroom in the Ninth Avenue projects that once housed her parents, Elvira and Howell, and their ten kids. After graduating from Wesleyan University, Kim followed Keenen to L.A. to do stand-up. She gets her mother’s outrage, though: “Showbiz was not something she thought her kids should be pursuing. But, you know, we proved her wrong!” Their parents came around after Keenen bought them a house in New Rochelle and an apartment in Battery Park City. “Now Mom’s happy as a clam!” says Kim. “She’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, I told Keenen he should go on and do stand-up.’ She’s taking credit for his career!”
Keenen went on to create In Living Color, the hugely influential sketch-comedy series starring Kim and their siblings Damon, Shawn, and Marlon. He also made the megahit Scary Movie, the highest-grossing film ever directed by an African-American. Several members of the next generation of Wayanses, including Damon Jr., who stars on ABC’s Happy Endings, have also declared themselves comedians. And when one of Kim’s nieces announced she was gay, she says, “it was a nonissue. Nobody was surprised, and nobody gave a hoot.”
Pariah doesn’t have quite as sweet an ending (though, as in the Wayans family, the message is in part about the importance of education). The film depicts the discomfort of a family in Fort Greene as their teenage daughter, Alike, played by Adepero Oduye, sneaks out to lesbian nightclubs and starts dressing like a boy. It won Breakthrough Director honors for Dee Rees at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and has been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for best film made for under $500,000 as well as best actress for Oduye. The movie is also something of a new beginning for 50-year-old Kim: It’s her first shot at a dramatic role.
“I’ve been wanting to do some dramatic work for a while now,” she says, standing out at the Maritime in a purple dress and a leopard-print cardigan and with exuberant hair, “but those opportunities just aren’t available for me because people see me as, you know, a wacky comedian and they think that’s all I can do.” Kim’s agent had to beg just to get her an audition for Pariah. “They were pretty skeptical,” she says, of her playing the mother, Audrey. But “later they revealed to me that they saw one angry black woman after the other, and Dee was right at the point where she was gonna rewrite the role because she felt something must be wrong with the role if nobody is getting the fact that this woman is vulnerable. And she said I brought that to the table.”
Kim, who’s been married for nine years to actor Kevin Knotts, doesn’t have kids herself. “I’m Auntie Mame,” she says. “I think it’s because I come from a huge family that I don’t feel the need. I’ve always had kids to love and to coddle. When I get tired of them, I take them back home.”
Still, she felt immediate compassion for the mother she plays. “My heart just broke for her,” she says. “Audrey’s such a sad and isolated character. Her marriage is dissolving right before her eyes, and she wants to hold onto her little daughter with her piggy tails and her pink sweaters, and she’s got this religious mind-set, so she believes that what her daughter is doing is against God. As misguided as she is, you know, Audrey loves her child. She’s trying to save her child from what she believes is pure destruction. It’s just sad!”
Kim hopes Pariah will be her gateway to “a career like Robin Williams or Barbra Streisand or Whoopi Goldberg. You know, it’s like, as an artist you want to express your full self. You don’t want to either have to make ’em laugh or make ’em cry if you can do both.”
Until then, though, she and her brothers are shopping around a sitcom pilot she co-wrote called Growing Up Wayans that would be a modern-day take on their childhood, starring Kim as the matriarch of a large brood in the projects, with her character’s husband being based on her father, a Jehovah’s Witness who took on job after job—cabdriver, supermarket owner, ice-cream-truck operator, cosmetics peddler—to put food on the table. (Her mother went back to school and became a social worker after her kids were grown.) “It’s a really funny show with a lot of heart, and it reflects what’s going on today in terms of the difficult economy and how hard it is for families to make ends meet,” she says. “You know, it’s interesting to me that so much of the population is living under the poverty line, but when you look at television, you would think that everybody is upper-middle class or wealthy.” The pilot’s story line is based on the time her father quit a high-paying job because it would have required him to take clients to strip clubs and he didn’t want to disrespect his wife.
Kim’s brothers call her Connie the Heart, after the sister in The Godfather, because, she says, “I’m the person who cries at the drop of a hat, who’s always reminding everybody to be kind, who’s bringing 40 people together for Thanksgiving and Christmas.” The Godfather was a Wayans family obsession along with the Jacksons. “We used to watch every single thing that they did. They were a large, close-knit poor family that made it. They gave us such inspiration.” Later she adds proudly, “We’re the Jackson family of comedy.”
Her youthful desperation to get into showbiz was the basis for Li’l Magic, her precocious, untalented aspiring-actress character on In Living Color. “I came out the womb knowing that this is what I was gonna do,” she says. “I was always, like, slappin’ a wig on my head and dancing and singing and performing for anybody who would give me the time of day.” They couldn’t afford costumes, so Kim made her own. “I was always dragging my poor mother to some school production, and sometimes she’d be so embarrassed she’d want to slide under the table, because, you know, all the other little girls had on their cute little pink tutus and here I come with a curtain on and a lampshade on top of my head!” She practically falls out of the booth cracking up at the memory.
The city has changed a lot since then. Kim remembers walking by the Maritime’s portholes and imagining the lives of the sailors inside. Later it was a youth shelter “that helped the community,” she says. “Now it’s a fancy hotel that the community—at least the community that I remember—can’t even afford to stay at.”
She lives in L.A. these days and doesn’t get back to the old neighborhood much. When I ask if she’s seen the High Line, she says she’s never heard of it. “You know what’s funny? We couldn’t even go down there when we were kids because it’s the meatpacking district and it was, like, so dangerous. I know this block. I know Chelsea, the Village. But Tenth Avenue, Eleventh Avenue, that was like, ‘Don’t go down there!’ ” Seeing the boutiques and Apple store dismay her. “Manhattan is for the wealthy now. Pretty soon, poor folks are gonna have to, like, live in the Hudson!”
She gets up; she’s got a busy schedule of trying to get as many people as possible to see this little movie. The audience reactions to Pariah are what she loves best, in particular one she got recently from a woman at a screening in D.C. “She was very heavy in her soul,” she says. “And she said, ‘This movie taught me that I have to go home and love my child no matter what. I have to love my child no matter what.’ ” Kim’s voice breaks. “That’s what it’s all about. I mean, the critical praise is wonderful and all that, but if you can just touch one heart, if one mother goes home and hugs her child that she had become, um, estranged from because of sexuality or any other issue, then we’ve done our job and …” Her eyes fill with tears. “Look at me. I’m getting all, like … excuse me.” She laughs, her face now wet. “Connie the Heart. There she goes. There she goes.”