Diary of a Happy Black Woman
Actress Tasha Smith, our favorite Hollywood homegirl, reveals how faith, love, and Tyler Perry propelled her life forward.
ESSENCE | DECEMBER 2011
By Michelle Burford
Harlem. Monday. Dusk. Tasha Smith, the actress who plays Angela, that spitfire hairdresser in Tyler Perry's hit film series Why Did I Get Married?, sashays into Melba's soul food restaurant, her 5-foot, 9-inch frame perfectly balanced on four-inch ankle booties. "I'm so excited!" she squeals even before she eyes the menu, her face radiant beneath the soft glow of candlelit tables. "Mac and cheese, candied yams, corn bread, love it. I can't eat soul food every day"—she pauses to pat her skinny pants—"but I live for Melba's cooking when I'm in town. And during the holidays? Forget it. It's on." Once the feast of southern comfort is spread before her, Tasha makes one request of the waiter: yam juice. "Don't you love the way that sweet juice mixes with the cheesy mac?" she says as she lifts a forkful of the concoction. "I'm in heaven right now."
If cheesy mac and yams represent Tasha's paradise, getting there has meant surviving a kind of earthly purgatory that began in her childhood home of Camden, New Jersey. It was there that Tasha eked out a hardscrabble existence she calls "the urban struggle." She and her identical twin sister, Sidra, and her younger sister, Ch'e, were forced into a premature independence as their single mom, overcome by addiction, freebased cocaine. At a time when many girls are still wearing braces, Tasha had already adopted the first commandment of street life: Survive by any means necessary. By 14 she was working as a bartender in a strip club. "It's what I felt I needed to do to take care of myself financially," she says. "I didn't know it would damage my soul."
Yet Tasha Smith's journey didn't end there; it began. For anyone who doubts the miraculous, Tasha's tale is the consummate reference point: from homelessness to Hollywood star, from physically battered to spiritually resilient. And the last decade has become that story's big moment of redemption: Once an atheist, Tasha has found a faith that she says literally saved her life. Having endured a violent relationship during her twenties, the actress has now settled into a loving home life with businessman Keith Douglas; and after a serendipitous meeting with film mogul Tyler Perry, she later landed that breakout role as the loudmouthed, neck-rolling Angela. The character has been so well received that Perry created a spin-off: Tasha will reprise her role as Angela in the new TBS series For Better or Worse.
Over catfish and country-fried chicken, with bluesy melodies mixing with the smell of red velvet cake wafting through Melba's dining room, Tasha, now 40, reminisces about the path her life has taken. "It's a blessing that I'm sitting here," she says. "All those years ago, I was a girl with this dream, but with no education, no confidence, no self-esteem, nothing. And now God has brought me to this place of destiny, and He's not even done with me yet." .
A ROCKY START
As a 7-year-old in Camden, Tasha learned to cook. Not because she comes from three generations of women who can throw down in the kitchen. And not because she loves to eat almost as much as she loves to prepare food. She learned mostly because her mother relied on her and her twin, Sidra, to prepare their own meals while she was away at work. "Mom could send us to the store with $10 and we knew how to come home with a full meal," she recalls. "Rice, chicken, onion, seasonings. We cooked all the time, and we grew up fast."
They also moved. A lot. "It was rough having to move from house to house because we couldn't afford where we were living," she says. Tasha's mother, 56-year-old Monique Smith, who had Tasha and Sidra when she was just 15, says that her drug addiction contributed to an unstable home life. "We were from pillar to post because I chose to use my money to get high rather than to pay my bills," she says. "Tasha was angry, disappointed and embarrassed about her mother being on drugs. I thought I was hiding the drugs, but my children could look in my eyes and see through me. Sometimes I didn't even want to come home because of the guilt and shame I felt; I was afraid of how they would look at me." As Monique's marijuana and alcohol use eventually led to cocaine addiction, Tasha connected with pimps, drug dealers and nightclub workers in her neighborhood. "Getting high, hanging out, partying, being promiscuous—back then I thought it was fun," says Tasha. "It was also a survival mechanism."
In between experimenting with marijuana herself and bartending shifts at a strip club, Tasha daydreamed of acting. She was struck by Diana Ross's portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. "I thought, If Diana can transform herself from a songstress diva into someone wrapped in a straitjacket, getting weaned off heroin, I'm going to do that." She also took Holiday's story as a cautionary tale: "I did drugs, but I would never do heroin. I was like, 'Have you seen Lady Sings the Blues?' I knew heroin would jack you up."
Around her hometown, Tasha told everyone about her aspiration, and she even scored a few parts in local commercials. But eventually her lifestyle became detrimental to her dream. "I was destroying myself a little at a time," she says. "I just kept feeling I gotta get out of Camden."
Tasha's first break came when she met My Wife and Kids star Tisha Campbell-Martin in 1987. Tisha was 20, living in Los Angeles and dating actor Allen Payne, who grew up near Tasha in Camden. Payne introduced the women during a trip home to New Jersey. Over dinner Tisha and Tasha became immediate friends. "I could see that Tasha would get further caught up in her lifestyle if she didn't get out of her environment," says Tisha. "Even back then she had a light. I could tell that this wasn't the end for her. Before I left, I said to her, 'You're not supposed to be here.' "
Two years later when she was 18, Tasha took her friend's advice and fled Camden. Says Tasha: "Tisha was the angel that God sent to guide me to the place I was supposed to be in." In 1989 that place was Los Angeles, the stage set for act two of Tasha Smith's dream.
ALONG THE CLIFF EDGE
When Tasha showed up in Hollywood without a job or major acting experience, Tisha and her mother invested in the would-be star. They helped her find an apartment and even bought her a car. Tisha also introduced her friend to the Comedy Act Theater, where Tasha landed her first stand-up gig. "I was so grateful to be working, but I was broke," says Tasha. At one point her financial situation became so -desperate she camped out in her car and washed up on the Santa Monica beach. To support her budding comedy career, she resorted to dancing in a strip club. "It was a job," she says, "a way to make ends meet."
The transition from a hand-to-mouth existence in stand-up comedy to TV star came in 1993 when Tasha was hired by comedian Robert Townsend for a role on his variety show, Townsend Television. She played in a segment called "Mama Tasha and Me," a sketch Townsend penned just for her. That work led to roles in shows like Boston Common and Chicago Hope and helped her to garner small parts in several films.
With her career finally on the rise, she felt the desire to give back. At the encouragement of her acting mentor and coach, Ivana Chubbuck, she launched the Los Angeles–based Tasha Smith Actors Workshop, a training program for burgeoning actors. But even as Tasha offered encouragement to so many, she says that privately she longed for the love she seldom felt as a child. She had become what she called a social addict, until one night in 1995 when she took a hit of cocaine. "I thought I was going to die," she says. "My heart was palpitating. I was hallucinating. I felt like I was losing my mind." As the high wore off, Tasha says she made a decision. "I was like, That's enough. I'm done." Sixteen years later she is still drug-free.
Her sobriety set the foundation for spiritual change. "When you're confronted with death, you start to wonder about the purpose of your life," she reflects. So when a friend invited her to church, she accepted the offer. "Afterward I wept and wept," she remembers. "I had felt so alone for so long that I needed to believe there was a God who could help me. I was so hurt about my life. I felt ashamed, worthless, afraid. I was at my rock bottom with nothing more to lose. So I stepped out on faith. I said to God, 'I'm finally going to give you a shot.' "
WHEN TASHA MET TYLER
As Tasha's faith took root, her career blossomed, due in part to a fortuitous off-screen partnership. Tyra Banks introduced Tasha to media titan Tyler Perry at the 2005 premiere of his film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Later Perry dropped in at Tasha's acting workshop and uttered a sentence that changed everything: "I think I have a role for you." The part was in the 2007 romantic drama Daddy's Little Girls. "It was Tyra who read Daddy's Little Girls and said to me, 'I have the perfect person for you,' " Perry recalls. "The first time I saw Tasha act was on set. I immediately loved her personality. She was fun, funny and crazy. And from that moment on, I've been fascinated by how talented she is."
Perry was so impressed with the young star's performance that he also cast her in Why Did I Get Married?, the role that made her instantly recognizable among moviegoers. "There's a little Angela inside all of us because she's honest enough to say what everyone is thinking," says Tasha of the character that resonated with so many Black women. "When people walk up to me on the street, they usually think I'm Angela: tough, loud and reactive. I'm not exactly her. I'm more sensitive. I'm vulnerable. I'm like a little girl sometimes. And underneath it all, Angela has those same vulnerabilities. She wants exactly what we all do: to be loved.".
Ask Michael Jai White, the actor who plays Tasha's embattled husband Marcus in both the movie and the new series, to describe his costar, and he uses just one adjective: honest. "Tasha has had to fight a lot of adversity to get where she is," says White. "The way you do that is by being totally truthful. You've gotta look at yourself in the mirror and do the work. Tasha has done that work." Perry concurs and says he is inspired by Tasha's courage and determination. "Anyone who has ever been to Camden knows that if someone makes it out of there to become a success, you have to stand in awe of them."
LOVE AT LAST
Literary legend Zora Neale Hurston once said, "Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place." For Tasha, that slow unearthing began the evening in 2009 when a friend introduced her to Keith Douglas, an entrepreneur and author. "We met for dinner at 6:00 p.m. and talked until midnight," says Tasha, her eyes dancing at the mere mention of her husband. "He is intelligent. He is spiritual. He is transparent. With him I can take off the mask." The feeling is definitely mutual. "Our connection was unexplainable," Douglas recalls. "Tasha is so real, so innocent and honest. She is everything I wanted in a woman. Our first date was a magical night."
Last year the couple exchanged vows in a private ceremony. "When I think about that man, I could just cry with joy," says Tasha now. "He lights me up inside." The two are hoping to have children soon. "I'm praying that happens any day now," Tasha says. "Maybe it'll be twins."
As Keith and Tasha nest, the rocky home life Tasha experienced as a girl in Camden seems a lifetime away. And yet she has made peace with that part of her past. "It was all part of the journey I needed to take in order to get where I am now," she reflects. Tasha even has a renewed relationship with her mom, who has been drug-free for 24 years. "Somebody suggested that I ask my children to forgive me," says Monique. "So I said to Tasha, 'Baby girl, I'm so sorry for what I did to you and to us. I'm working on forgiving me. Can you please start working on forgiving me, too?' And she has." That was six years ago, and the result has been a slow and steady healing. "I'm very proud of my mother," says Tasha. "We are not defined by our mistakes. We are defined by wat we're able to overcome."
At the restaurant in Harlem, songstress Alyson Williams's sultry voice fills the air with "Miss Celie's Blues" from The Color Purple. With only traces of her molasses-soaked yams still on her plate, Tasha shoots to her feet to enjoy the final refrain. "Sister, remember your name," she croons along with Williams. "No twister, gonna steal your stuff away. My sister, we sho' ain't got a whole lot of time!" As the room erupts in applause, Tasha places her palm over her heart. With tears brimming, she whispers, "This place is just amazing." By that, she mean's Melba's. And Harlem. And this profoundly peaceful spot her path has finally led her to.
Need a great story on a tight deadline?