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Award-Winning Performer Leslie Uggams Shares Wisdom


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk with those who've made a difference through their work. Today, we're speaking with someone whose artistic gifts have touched the stage, television, the big screen and cabaret.

At the age of six, she was on television on the series "Beulah." By the age of nine, she was a regular opening act at the world-renowned Apollo Theater. As a teenager, she was one of the first African-Americans to be featured in primetime on "Sing Along with Mitch," and she later went on to star in the most-watched dramatic television program in history, "Roots."

Of course, we're talking about the one-of-a-kind Leslie Uggams, who's just received yet another award. She was honored by the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C., with the American Artist Award given for her significant contribution to American theater. And she's with us now from New York.

Welcome, diva. Thank you so much for joining us.

LESLIE UGGAMS: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: You know what? I'm getting tired just reading your bio.


MARTIN: You've been working since you were six.

UGGAMS: Hello.


MARTIN: Don't you feel like drinking some lemonade, just sitting on the porch, rocking?


UGGAMS: I tried that once. It didn't work for me.


MARTIN: Really?

UGGAMS: I drove everybody crazy, and they said get back to work.

MARTIN: People may not know this, but you've already won the Tony. You've won the Emmy, and as I mentioned, that you were just given this award by the Mead Center. Do awards matter at this stage for you?

UGGAMS: Oh, yes. It's kind of nice to be acknowledged, and that people think enough of you that they want to give you something. So I appreciate it.

MARTIN: And this new CD, tell us the story behind it.

UGGAMS: Well, it's "Uptown, Downtown," and it's the story of my life, musically told. And it started out as just a one-night thing at the Jazz at Lincoln Center. And the response was unbelievable. And when you see my show, I also tell a lot of stories about my life, and people were so fascinated by this, and you've got to tell us more, tell us more.

And my great manager husband said I'm going to record this. I love this show. And we recorded it, and it's going to come out in February. And we're really excited about it, because the response from the audience has been absolutely amazing.

MARTIN: Well, it is interesting, because there are some classics. You know, there are covers of some classics. There are songs that people associate with you, of course, and that there are things, of course, that people want you to hear. But it does kind of tell the story of your life on the stage. And I just want to play a little bit from "Born in a Trunk," and here it is.


UGGAMS: (Singing) I was born in a trunk in Harlem, New York City, at a theater known as The Apollo. It was during a matinee on Friday, and they used a makeup towel for my didy. When I first saw the light, it was pink and amber, coming from the footlights on the stage. When my dad carried out me there to say hello, they tell me that I stopped the show.

MARTIN: Well, I have no doubt that you stopped the show.


MARTIN: You weren't literally born in a trunk, though, were you?

UGGAMS: No, no, no, no, no.

MARTIN: But why did you start working so early, if you don't mind my asking?

UGGAMS: Well, I was a ham, my mother said, from - I started singing when I was, like, three. And also at that time, television was in its infancy, and they went around to a lot of the schools that had - were - took tap-dancing and ballet and acting and singing and put kids on television.

And I auditioned for the "Beulah" show with Ethel Waters, and I got the part. And that kind of started my career on TV, and I loved it.

MARTIN: Did you love it, though? I mean, one of your first breaks, I know it was a big break being an opening act at The Apollo at the age of nine. But do I have it right that you would do sometimes 29 performances a week?

UGGAMS: Hello, four shows a day, five on Sunday. That's the way it was at the Apollo then and, you know, I look back now and say, where was the child protective services?

MARTIN: Well, yeah, that's kind of what I'm wondering.

UGGAMS: But, I mean, that's the way it was and I didn't even think of it as being tough. I thought of it as, wow, I'm working with these amazing people. And, you know, looking back, I certainly learned a lot from doing those shows.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you missed having a childhood?

UGGAMS: No, because I hung out in the neighborhood with my friends, you know, I played ball, hopscotch, all of that. My parents were not the typical kind of showbiz parents where everything had to be, you know, study, study, study, study, when it came to tap dancing and all like that. I took the lessons, but they allowed me to have a life.

MARTIN: And speaking of a life, you came of age at a very interesting time in the life of our country, a very interesting time in terms of race relations in the civil rights movement. You were growing up in the middle of that.


MARTIN: The entertainment industry in some ways seems to have been at the head of the curve and in other ways just way behind it. And I just wanted to ask, when was your kind of moment of awakening when you kind of realized where you were, you know, in the scheme of things? If you get my meaning. In terms of sort of racially and realizing that, wow, you know, that there are these things going on out here that affect my life.

UGGAMS: Well, to start, for me, at seven years old, I was on a television contest called "The Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club." Each week you won a prize, a washing machine, you know, a dryer. The grand prize was a Nash Rambler car. And before I came on, a young African-American boy had won. He was a tap dancer and he won the grand prize. And then I came along and I kept winning.

And when it got too close to the fifth week, I remember during rehearsal one of the directors, kind of asked me an odd question, and I didn't think much about it, but what would I do if I didn't win? And I don't remember what my answer was. I was only seven. But what happened was that that night at that time they had a, what they call a meter, and, you know, people would applaud and then the meter would go from zero to 100.

And they had a man, and you could see him from the stage going underneath the clock and he tied the clock so that I wouldn't win. And I was shocked. And, you know, I'm seven years old, so tears were coming out of my eyes. And my mother was offstage and everything and I didn't win.

MARTIN: They didn't want you to win because another black kid had won one.

UGGAMS: Yes. And the people, the Nash people didn't want to give another car to a black kid. Now, the thing is, my mother and father couldn't drive anyway. So if I had won that car, they would've had to sell it or something, because neither one of them could drive. And, you know, and some of the things that we won in the building that I lived in, they didn't even have enough electricity for some of the things, prizes, that I had won anyway. And that's when, you know, my mother sat me down and said, tell me what the world was about.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're speaking with actress, songstress, diva, star, Leslie Uggams, for our Wisdom Watch conversation. And among the other pioneering moments is you had your own show. In 1970, you hosted "The Leslie Uggams Show," where you were one of the very few African-Americans to star in your own television program. What was that like?

UGGAMS: It was exciting because, first of all, I didn't expect that to happen. It came out of the blue because, really, I had been working on meeting with writers for a sitcom. And all of a sudden, I'm told, oh, you're going to have your own variety show. As excited I was about it, there were some undercurrents that were going on. Here we go again, you know. They had fired the Smothers Brothers because they were too controversial.

So, what other way to take the heat off, I got my own television show. And I'm thinking, this is great and everything's going to be wonderful. And we had some wonderful people on it. John Amos, who, before he was an actor, was one of my writers.

MARTIN: People remember him from "Good Times."

UGGAMS: "Good Times."

MARTIN: He was a star in "Good Times."

UGGAMS: And my father, Kunta Kinte, in "Roots." We didn't last very long, but we made our mark and I brought people on that show that CBS kind of scratched their head. Because I had Sly and the Family Stone and The Turtles and Stevie Wonder and The Temptations and people like that. And so, which had never really been on a show that was a weekly kind of show like that before. So I made my mark. I got my revenge back.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you a little bit more about the whole television scene. But you know I have to talk to you about "Roots." We have to talk about "Roots."

UGGAMS: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Because people who may never have understood that you are such a distinguished singer and star of musical theater will know that you were in "Roots," which is the TV miniseries in 1977, broke all kinds of records for viewership. You played Kizzy.


MARTIN: And you played an enslaved American. And I just want to play a short clip from the series. It was a very powerful role. It had some incredible moments where you exposed Americans to things they might not have known about slavery and the degradation of slavery, particularly as it was experienced by women. But I'm just going to play a scene that you played with actress Sandy Duncan, where she - reminding you that she taught your character to read.


MARTIN: At a time when it was forbidden for enslaved Americans to learn to read.

UGGAMS: Right.

MARTIN: And here it is.


SANDY DUNCAN: (As Missy Anne Reynolds) You remember when we used to play school and I would be the teacher and you'd be the pupil, what fun we had?

UGGAMS: (As Kizzy Reynolds) I remember.

DUNCAN: You were such a good student, Kizzy. You learned so fast. You even read from the Bible. Oh, (unintelligible) sakes alive, I remember you reading this exact thing. Here, Kizzy, see if you can still read it.

UGGAMS: Oh, no, Missy Anne, I couldn't do that. No way. Master ever find out...

DUNCAN: Who's going to tell him. Here. I just want to see if you've forgotten everything I taught you. Kizzy.

UGGAMS: And I gave my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and falling. I...

DUNCAN: It's perceived. It means you saw, you knew.

UGGAMS: I perceived that this also is vexation of the spirit.

MARTIN: Of course you went on to win the Critics' Choice Award for this role. And, you know, it was such a, you know, "Roots" is still such an important moment in television history. But I'd like to ask, what did you think about the role? You know, there are people who played in roles like this. For example, like, say Rita Moreno in "West Side Story." On the one hand she was happy to have the work and appreciates that other people appreciated it.

But in years later she's still kind of irritated about it. You know what I mean? She was, like, hey, you know, they made me wear brown makeup and all this other mess. Talk to me about it. Your (unintelligible).

UGGAMS: Well, "Roots" for me was just an incredible experience. And I was so happy to play Kizzy because Kizzy was, even though she was a slave, she was a strong, strong woman. And even though she had been raped by the master, she adored her son, Chicken George. And she raised him right. And she had a great father who taught her that. And I feel this today, we have to tell our children the stories, the history of the family so that they know their history and they can tell their own kids, and that's what Kunta Kinte had said to Kizzy.

You know, I'm going to tell you everything from Africa that I went through and I want you to - when you have your own children, to tell these stories and they could tell their children the stories. And it was a great role to play. And, also, the history of - went on that we don't get in the books when our kids go to school. You know, they have only certain people, Washington Carver and the peanut and things like that.

But they don't have the true history of what went on. And what I loved about "Roots" is that it showed that we came from kings and queens in Africa and had a beautiful life. But then we were kidnapped. But at the same time, our own African people sold us to these people who kidnapped us. So, I mean, there was a lot to learn. And after I did the show and it was airing, young people would come up to me and say, oh my goodness, we didn't know. We didn't know. And they didn't know.

And that's what's the great thing about Alex Haley's book, "Roots" and the fact that it was on television. People learned a lot that they didn't know, and they still don't know because it's still not in the books at school. But that's another story.


MARTIN: And - another story. And, also, the whole question of what's on television now. I'm wondering if a program like that would even be on television.

UGGAMS: We seemed to have gone backwards when it comes to stories - it doesn't seem today the opportunities for writers to write stories and get them on television, you know. We're back to, we're on a television show, but we're the best friend of the best friend of the best friend. And especially when it comes to a drama. We're still laughing, you know, but when it comes to a real drama about African-American people, it's not there. And it's sad. And I can't give you the answer of why we don't have as many shows as we should have, but it's frustrating.

MARTIN: So, what's next for you? You've done it all, you know, Broadway, cabaret, movies, television. What's next for you? I think they have some room in the astronaut program, I think.


MARTIN: I'm just trying to think of something you haven't done.

UGGAMS: Well, you know, I love working and I always loved doing different things. And there's a couple of plays that I have been looking at that we did a reading of and I'm hoping that something will happen with that. There's also a musical that I did based on Lena Horne, which we did in Philadelphia. Broke the house record there and then went to Pasadena Playhouse and broke the record of the history of the theater.

That is a wonderful story. And then, of course, you know, we're doing my one-woman show "Uptown Downtown." It's being received extremely well. And so we're going to be doing that other places. And that's what we're doing. And I'm also enjoying life. I'm a grandmother for the first time. I'm so excited. I have a 13-month-old granddaughter named Cassidy. And we're having a good time just hanging with her. And so life is good.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. That's wonderful.

UGGAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we call this segment Wisdom Watch, so we'd like to close by asking our guests if they have some wisdom to share.

UGGAMS: Well, you know, I believe, follow your dream. It doesn't always come right away, but if you have a passion about something, stick with it. And don't give up. And as my father used to tell me, no one can tell you can't. You can.

MARTIN: The Tony and Emmy award winning performer Leslie Uggams was recently given another award, the American Artist Award, which was granted by the Mead Center at the Arena Stage. And she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Her latest album is called "Uptown Downtown." It will be available in February. And she was with us from New York.

Leslie Uggams, thank you so much for joining us.

UGGAMS: Thank you. I had a wonderful time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.