Thursday, May 23, 2024
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‘Coming to America’ star Tommy Davidson headlines House of Laffs in Wilmington

Editor’s note: This interview has been trimmed for length.

Everyone knows Eddie Murphy is back with his new, long-awaited comedy film “Coming 2 America.” But not as many folks know Murphy created a TV show in 1989 based on the original 1988 hit film.

That obscure show is something comedy legend Tommy Davidson is very familiar with. After all, he was tapped to star in the CBS pilot, which never took off.

Thirty years later, Davidson is pleased more people are discovering the show, now streaming on YouTube.

Comedian Tommy Davidson has already sold out three of his five shows at the House of Laffs comedy lounge in Wilmington this weekend. The two remaining shows are at 10 p.m., Friday and at 7 p.m., Sunday. (Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Davidon)

“I’m glad that came to light because Eddie Murphy doesn’t put me in any of his movies, and I haven’t worked with him since then. It just feels good to be able to be included in that project I did and get a little bit of light on me,” said Davidson, who’s going to headline five shows at the new House of Laffs comedy lounge in Wilmington Friday through Sunday. 

Three of Davidson’s shows already have sold out at the Wilmington comedy lounge. The only remaining shows are at 10 p.m. Friday and at 7 p.m. Sunday. That’ll be followed by four shows by fiery drag queen Flame Monroe next weekend. 

Davidson is most famous for starring in the innovative sketch-comedy series “In Living Color,” created by Keenen Ivory Wayans, which debuted in 1990. Whereas “Saturday Night Live” appealed to a mostly white audience, “In Living Color” was a love letter to the hip-hop community.

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The cast included up-and-comers like Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, along with the Wayans family (Marlon, Shawn, Damon and Kim Wayans) and David Alan Grier. The Emmy Award-winning show launched Jennifer Lopez into stardom, who was just a dancer on the series.

Davidson went on to do a host of films and TV shows, most notably as a voice actor in cartoons and guest spots in other shows, such as “The Proud Family,” “Lilo & Stitch: The Series,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Booty Call,” “Zookeeper” and “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

His latest appearance was in the new ABC show “Soul of a Nation,” a six-episode series where audiences travel across the country, unpacking issues critical to Black Americans through intimate storytelling. A number of people in entertainment have been tapped  for the show including Nick Cannon, Deon Cole and Kim Coles, with guest hosts such as Jemele Hill.

Delaware Online/The News Journal spoke to Davidson about why the TV show for “Coming to America” didn’t work, the lasting impact of “In Living Color” on today’s pop culture, and his passion for social justice.

What was the “Coming to America” TV show about?

It was a pilot for a sitcom. I played Prince Akeem’s little brother that came to America.

Comedy juggernaut Eddie Murphy created the “Coming to America” TV show on CBS in the late ’80s that starred comedian and actor Tommy Davidson. (Photo: Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for Netflix)

Why didn’t it get off the ground?

There’s various reasons. It’s just hard to get a pilot done anyway. But the script wasn’t as funny as I thought it could be. I really tried to get Eddie’s help to come down to the set. It was has company. You’re funny, I’m funny. Come down here and help me get this thing cracking. Because I was young, I didn’t know as much as I know now. So I got a writer saying, “Say this and say this” and I’m knowing damn well that ain’t funny. But I didn’t have an authority figure to say, “Let him say this.” It was one of those situations where I didn’t have enough power to have my own creative say-so.

Sounds rough.

That coupled with the fact that every time one of Eddie’s movies came out, I’d audition and never get it. I’m watching [Dave] Chappelle and Martin [Lawrence], David Alan Grier and all of these guys next to him in movies. I love him. But the most positive thing is he’s a great dude and he’s been around a long time. He’s the king. There’s no doubt about it. It probably just has to do with jealousy on my part [laughs]. If everybody’s playing basketball and you’re at the court where everyone’s having fun, you’re gonna want to play, right?

Everybody wants to play on LeBron’s team.

Right! So I’m like dude, I want to run with you on the court.

Not getting to work with Eddie led you to starring in “In Living Color.” How often do you think about that?

There’s what’s supposed to happen and then what I want to happen. I wanted that to happen so bad. But “In Living Color” might not have happened, because I would’ve been with Eddie.

What do you think of “Coming 2 America” coming out three decades later?

I think it’s great, because: 1. Blacks go back to work. 2. The audience that’s sitting there, just like if it were “21 Jump Street” or any other project … how many movies have they brought back? So it’s good to see us bring back some good nostalgia to ourselves, because [Blacks are] not outside of America, we’re Americans, too.

Who do you keep in touch with most from ‘In Living Color?”

Jim. He was always my buddy before “In Living Color.” And Ta’Keya Crystal Keymah is a good friend of mine. I see the Wayans though. It’s like they’re working a job, you work with them, but you don’t hang with them.

What impact has that show had on pop culture, even in 2021?

People talk about cancel culture or whatever, but you can’t cancel anything that’s not cultural. We’re a part of what made this culture.

What’s the relationship between ”In Living Color” and cancel culture?

There’s no culture to cancel if you don’t have culture. So we added to what the culture is now. How are you gonna minus from nothing? We gave the whole gay culture a boost and a lift and reinforced them as dimensional human beings with our sketches: Two Snaps and a Circle. Through hip-hop culture, we brought that into the living rooms of every home in America and let non-Black viewers know that hip-hop is not some scary, foreign voodoo kind of thing, but it’s something that’s able to be watched by your kids.

You made a post on Facebook recently that you J Lo dissed you. What happened?

She hurt my feelings because she didn’t speak to me. A couple of times I saw her after “In Living Color” she straight up didn’t speak to me. That doesn’t say anything about her as a person. I just wish she would’ve embraced me like I embraced her, when nobody knew who she was. It’s a weird dynamic when someone treats you like a friend and when they get success, then they don’t. That’s weird to me because that hadn’t happened to me until then.

You were adopted by a white family as a baby. When did you realize your family was different?

When I moved to Washington, D.C., and realized I was Black [laughs]. That’s what changed everything. I think it changes every child. Every Black child at some point is told they’re Black.

How were you treated?

Almost killed! I was treated harshly, denied opportunities, you know? I used to work at the IHOP and a white dude came in and started yelling at the cashier. She was an African woman who lived in my neighborhood. He was not nice and calling her [bi***]. She was polite and everything. Then the manager came out and said, “What’s the problem?” He said “this [bi***].” The manager said, “The customer is always right.”

What was your reaction?

He was wrong. White is right because when they ran into the Capitol they sent them home. They arrested white people after they let them go. So what’s that tell you? The foundation of this whole country was raided by whites, and no one was arrested after the whole thing happened. That’ll show you right there what it is … 

Like slavery?

There was a whole ship of us. They already did the math. We’re 100% full, and we’ll probably [transport] 60% or 40% there. It was always about math, it wasn’t about your life. It was about the profit. As long as we see the profit is their No. 1 agenda, then we can’t start to use those seeds of truth to build our economic power.

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How was your experience on “Soul of a Nation?”

Beautiful. But I think my interview was a little too short though [laughs]. I took what I had because I’ve been waiting a long time to be able to express myself in that way. Just being able to finally be heard by us as a group, and just talk about comedy, is beautiful.

Actor Tommy Davidson and actress Rosario Dawson at the premiere of “The Zookeeper” in 2011. (Photo: Michael Buckner, Getty Images)

Malcolm X said only in the Black community do you see entertainers as leaders for a race of people …   What’s your reaction to him calling out this wealth group?

That’s not the real wealth. It’s different when it comes to African Americans in this country, because there’s no economics past the point of what you can see. You’ll see an athlete, actor, or even a doctor or lawyer – anyone who gets to a certain earning level as like: now they have the answer to the economic thing, or their money will help us.

People will say because they have money they should do this or do that. But I’ll speak in contrast. I could never see anybody saying that about a Chinese American, East Indian American, Arab American; and I could go on, because the economics in those communities in this country are already taken care of and not in the public eye.

The difference between them is they have an economic wealth that’s not inhibited by the foundation of the country, for Christ’s sake. They don’t have a Tulsa [bombing] in their history. No one has gone into an East Indian American community and destroyed all the businesses and killed all the people who lived there and never let them establish anything again. So that’s the difference.

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Is it strange a tiny group of Blacks are only wealthy because of entertainment?

We can’t take the Blacks who are doing good economically and hold them accountable for the well-being of African Americans in this country, who make trillions of dollars a year as a collective.

From left: Tommy Davidson, Shawn Wayans, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Kim Wayans and David Alan Grier during the “In Living Color” 25th Anniversary Reunion at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo: Mike Coppola, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Fe)

But a major chunk of Black wealth is the hands of Boomers, not the collective.

If we go in public and say “that Black person is doing that, and they’re only making that” then [white people] are laughing at us. Because nobody’s doing this but us. And that’s the way they designed it. You see what I’m saying? So we go at each other while they go to the ‘banks’ … 

From picking the first piece of tobacco, to cutting the first piece of sugar cane, to picking the first cotton flower. Now how did we end up with nothing, when the cotton that we picked is on every white person’s ‘’drawers’’ in the world? When one political system says we don’t like the other political system, who gives up their lives to do do the fighting?

I’m not sure.

We were in the Vietnam War and the Korean War. That was a fight against communism, right? We stacked up boys over there and got our ass stacked up, too. Who owns the businesses in our communities?

Not Black people.

The very people we went to fight. Vietnamese own the grocery stores and all the stuff in our neighborhoods. Koreans own it. We fought the [Afghans]and we went to war over there. If you want to just have a nice little straight line to who benefited from us giving our lives, connect it to the wars and then you’ll know that our firm bedrock has to do with stuff that no one has to know about. When’s the last time you saw the headlines of what the Jewish community is doing with their money? When’s the last time you saw the headlines of what the Korean American community is doing with their money? … 

Could change come faster if more entertainers got educated like you and spoke up? Some of them aren’t able to have this conversation.

Or they’re just not willing, or they don’t feel it’s their responsibility to do so for whatever reason – it doesn’t matter. What matters is like Harriet Tubman said: Do you want freedom or not?

She didn’t say are you coming with me? She said ‘Who’s coming with me?’ And there’s whites who feel that way about us, too. John Brown did not have to die if he didn’t want to. If he was worried about his life he didn’t have to do it. Look at the positive ripple it created, it was those things that led to the Civil War. That’s why it’s really important to study the history of ourselves, so we’ll know the dynamics involved here.

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Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’m very grateful after all these years to have been able to have my fans, because I wouldn’t have all of this if it wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t have the freedoms I have. That’s another reason why I do what I can, because I know who’s responsible for this. How the hell can I sell one ticket if nobody comes? I’d also say pass them on what I just sent you. [Davidson texted a link to the video “The Black Tax: Cost of Being a Black American” with Shawn Rochester.] This is what they can do, they can go on YouTube and watch the “Black Tax.” People are on you TikTok, IG and all this other bull[sh**]. Watch that. Know yourself and know your situation.

What do you mean?

… If someone says come over to my house and the reception goes out on your phone, then you’re screwed, right? Because you’re gonna need the GPS. So you say, hey man, we need a successful community. Whack! Then the GPS goes out. What are you gonna do? We gotta instill our own GPS, we gotta keep it charged so when we turn it on we have our GPS to govern our directions, our moves and our decisions based on what location we’re at. If we can let that computer know where we’re at, it can let us know where we need to go.

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