Though we haven’t seen her on our screens lately, Lonette McKee, 58, has hardly taken a moment’s rest in the last few years. This past November, the Tony-nominated actress and singer wrapped up a Broadway play, put on a concert with legendary bass player Michael Henderson at New York’s Aaron Davis Hall and is now gearing up to reprise A Raisin in the Sun at the Clarence Brown Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s also playing Common’s mother in the independent film Luv. McKee, who is still best known for her role as drug-addicted singer Sister Williams in the original Sparkle, spoke to ESSENCE.com about her decades-long career, co-starring in Luv with Common, and she shared her thoughts on this past summer’s Sparkle remake.
ESSENCE.com: Many of us know you as an actress, but you’re also an accomplished singer.
Lonette McKee: That would be accurate. That’s my first love. I was a child music prodigy when I was growing up in Detroit. I started writing and playing when I was four or five years old, and by the time I was seven, I was doing professional gigs.
ESSENCE.com: We haven’t seen you around for a while. What have you been up to?
McKee: I play Common's mom in the film Luv (out January 18, 2013). By the way, he’s so fabulous in that movie. It’s a very dark, dramatic film. I think his audience is going to be very surprised by the depth of his dramatic ability. Common is a tricky guy in the film — he’s a hustler character. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say his audience will love it. I’m also writing a screenplay as we speak and will be going on location for a film in January but I can’t disclose which one. After that I’m going to Knoxville, Tennessee to star in A Raisin in the Sun. It’s been really busy. I’m grateful.
ESSENCE.com: You also recently teamed up with four-time Grammy-nominated bass guitarist Michael Henderson for a show in Harlem called “A Night to Remember.”
McKee: It was very special because Michael Henderson and I have been very close friends since we were kids in Detroit. It was definitely a night to remember because I did songs from my films in which I sang, including the original Sparkle. I’m also a composer, and I play keyboards so I did some of my original compositions, and stuff from my one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
ESSENCE.com: You’re most famous for your role in Sparkle. What did you think of the remake, starring Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks?
McKee: First of all, I felt really honored to have been involved in a project that young, gifted producers and writers felt worthy of remaking. You’ve got to be honored by that. And, of course, I love everybody in the film. I’m a die-hard Whitney fan. I love Jordin Sparks, and I’m crazy about Carmen Ejogo. I actually wrote a part for her in one of my films, way before I knew she would be reprising my role in Sparkle. Overall, I loved it, and I was flattered that they did it.
ESSENCE.com: Were you surprised when it didn’t so well at the box office?
McKee: This goes back to the idea of us, as people of color, needing to take control of what we do. What’s happening, as far as I can tell, is that non-Black folks are controlling all the distribution. I think we’re living in a very racist society, and everything is well-orchestrated. That’s why I love Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow so much because she maps it out and has statistics of the racism we’re living in. I just think until we take control of what we do and open our own theaters and distribution companies we’re going to be continuing to be dependent on white suits that control the dollars. They dictate what comes out, what movies we make, and where they play, how much money is spent promoting it. And that determines whether a movie is really successful. So [with] tiny budgets for marketing and promotions...we’re not going to have a big audience.