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Vanessa for Once Upon This Aisle

Sherie Holder-Olutayo

Vanessa for Once Upon This Aisle

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If there is any truth to the idea that life points you in the direction you were meant to walk in, then Vanessa Williams is living proof of this. The actress who at age 14 made it into New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts and later graduated from New York’s Marymount College with a degree in theatre and business, has not stopped working in Hollywood or Broadway since.
At 49, she looks years younger than her age as she saunters into the lobby of the Crystal Cove Hotel with an ease and light-hearted nature that makes you feel like you’ve know her all your life.
No doubt it’s easy for many of us to think that she’s one of our longtime girlfriends, especially those of us who have followed her onscreen career during her five-season stint as Maxine Chadway on the hit series, Soul Food, or on other shows like Murder One, Melrose Place, Law & Order.
Though many people have often confused her with fellow actress and singer Vanessa L. Williams, this Vanessa has charted her own authentic course in film and theatre and has no plans of slowing down.
“I’m so grateful to be blessed to do what I love doing, telling stories in all different kinds of ways through music and dance and movies,” she said, beaming. “I’ve been very fortunate but I’m still hungry, which is why I’m here. I’m hungry to do the films that my talents can service. You’re often trying to convince people to put you into their aesthetic. I’m not going to wait for Woody Allen to cast me when I’ve got Claire Ince to write a film that I’m perfect for.”
That hunger that fuels Vanessa’s passion for acting has brought her to Barbados, in the effort to lend her celebrity to obtain financing for a script written by Barbadian writer Claire Ince to make it to the big screen.
 Both Claire and Vanessa were in Barbados recently to try to meet with potential investors to get funding for this project.
“What I love about lending my celebrity and notoriety to this project is that we know how much we love to see ourselves represented in a way that really resonates with our truth,” Vanessa stated. “That’s what we were doing with our work with Soul Food and Once Upon This Aisle certainly builds on that tradition.
Vanessa who read the script for Once Upon This Aisle immediately wanted to be involved in the project.
Once Upon This Aisle is a romantic comedy about a local church organist who feels that his life has not turned out the way he planned. Then he learns he’s going to be playing at a celebrity wedding with extensive media coverage worldwide. He gets excited because here’s his shot at fame, but then he learns that the bride-to-be is his high school sweetheart so he sets out to destroy the wedding and win her back.
“This is our chance to tell a local homegrown story,” explained said Claire. “It explores the relationship of people who leave Barbados and people who stay. So I think it is an interesting dynamic and with a lot of humour.”
As it happens she (Vanessa) was interested and so was her Soul Food co-star Melinda Williams. “So it’s like a chance to rekindle the crew to do something here in Barbados.”
Vanessa who is no stranger to Barbados having been here three times, relishes the opportunity to spend five weeks here filming.
“When I was asking perspective investors about the last movie that was done here they said Island In The Sun with Harry Belafonte which was the last big movie of note,” Vanessa said. “I was like we are about 50 years overdue to showcase this fantastic island with its wonderful people and rich fantastic waters. It’s just so wonderful to have the Government support and to see the enthusiasm of Maxine McClean. We went to London and had a fundraising drive and she was there and said we need to bring this back to Barbados. I’m grateful for Maxine’s support and the Board of Tourism. I’m just grateful to be a part of [the] vision.”
Vanessa’s vision for this film and much of her work has been to be able to tell authentic stories of African Americans.
“I can’t even tell you how many babies we made”, she said happily of her work on Soul Food. “We need more television like that . . . we can’t leave the telling of our stories to other people. They just won’t get it right.”
Part of Soul Food’s popularity with Blacks was that it showed the Black family dynamic with all its hopes, problems and relational issues that many people face, in an authentic way.
“That’s what we were doing with our work with Soul Food and Once Upon This Aisle certainly builds on that tradition” Vanessa said. “As Black people we want the same things that everyone else wants. We want to have our homes, raise our kids and build a legacy.”
When it comes to her personal legacy as an actress, Vanessa wants to be seen as someone who has not only been good at her craft but true to herself.
When she first appeared for our interview, I was a little surprised to see her sporting a short cropped hairstyle instead of her trademark long locks that she had worn years earlier.
“When I cut my locks, which was humongous, it was out of necessity. My kid came home with lice because he also had long locks too. I didn’t even know black people could get lice until my kid got it,” she said. “There was a lice outbreak in school and he came home with it, so we had to cut the hair. I was forced to let it all go.”
Though Vanessa knew that she had to cut her hair, she was torn because she was concerned about how people would view her.
“I had worked so hard to put the message out there that nappy is beautiful too. So when I changed up I was concerned about being called a sell-out,” she said. “What I realized is that I’m an actress and an artist and I got to keep it moving. If the universe hadn’t presented this opportunity, I don’t know that
I would have had the courage to just chop it off. A little bug came into our lives and we had to start all over again.
“This is my costume, my mask and so I’ve been able to change it up and it’s been fun. Because I’ve had those five seasons on Soul Food to really celebrate it, I made my contribution and I don’t have to be beholding to that. I made my contribution. So now it’s nappy when I want it to be and straight when I want it to be and all the ways we get down like Black women.
“Your hair becomes just another accessory. Certain characters are not going to have nappy hair and I want to be able to play all those characters convincingly. At the end of the day it’s about getting the gig because I gotta keep my kids in private school.”
As a Black woman with a thriving career, Vanessa also knows about the difficulty of juggling motherhood and working.