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.”