T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh has been in the game for a long time. We all remember her from “In Living Color,” “Cosby,” and “That’s So Raven.” But she’s also directed, produced and starred in several projects we might not have been as familiar with. But there was a time period when T’Keyah stepped away from the limelight. And it might not be for the reasons you think. In part one of our exclusive interview, Keymáh talks about everything from why “In Living Color” ended, to what she thinks about Raven Symoné’s recent comments.
What have you been up to since we’ve last seen you?
Well, when have you last seen me?
I think I last saw you on “That’s So Raven”
Well that was a while ago. I actually took some time off after that show and got rid of all of my representation and didn’t work for a while and considered myself retired. I only performed if somebody asked me. I eventually got some representation but I didn’t really pursue it like you pursue when you’re really in it. I did a few shows and I did one guest spot on television. But mostly I just stuck with family and friends, hung out, traveled. Focused on my charities and things like that, wrote and did some theater.
Just last year, I decided that I missed working and I started with small projects and I’ve done several now, some of them that are coming to the surface now. Bail, Attached at the Soul. And I did a cameo in Sharknado that’s coming out this summer. I also have a supporting role in a college, comedy film What Happened Last Night. Then I produced a film with a friend called Revival.
Can you tell us why you felt it was time for you to retire?
Honestly, when I was on “Cosby” I was really burnt out because I had been working straight for more than 15 years, both on the series while doing theater and film. There probably wasn’t one week, in that 15 years, that I wasn’t working. And I thought, ‘Oooh I need a break.’ And I said, ‘After this show I’m going to take some time off.’ But I had already committed to doing a play here in Chicago—I’m in Chicago now. And when I came to do the play, I noticed that my grandmother was a little off. Something was wrong. And so I stayed here after the play was finished. I didn’t know what was wrong at first but I just started helping her out around the house and getting her organized. And whatever I did, she seemed to need a little bit more and a little bit more. This was 16 years ago. I didn’t know anything about Alheizimer’s disease. And nobody that I knew, knew anything about it. I just had no idea what was happening.
I went from staying a little while longer to moving back in, to saying ‘Ok, this is going to take some money. Let me keep a job.’ That’s when I went back to California and shot the whole first season of “That’s So Raven” before it ever aired. I had never done that before. I had no idea what I was doing so I wasn’t sitting by the phone waiting. I thought ‘Yeah, we did something.’ I didn’t even realize it was connected to a series. When we did that first year and it didn’t air, I thought, ‘Well, this is never going to see the light of day.’
And I came back to Chicago and started working with my grandmother again. And by the time the show got picked up, I was here. And I had moved in with my sister, moved my grandmother in, remodeled her house to accommodate my grandmother and then the show got picked up. So I moved back with her to California because by that point, she needed constant care.
We went back and God stepped in, I found wonderful caregivers. They were with me the whole time I was doing the show but my grandmother was getting increasingly worse and it was a bigger and bigger effort to supervise her care and work.
When I started the show, I only agreed to do three seasons and that’s all the network was doing. So when I came to the end of the three seasons…by that point—I mean God bless them. The cast and the crew were just phenomenal and I will always be grateful to them because by that point my grandmother was so combative that I couldn’t keep a caregiver for her. So I was bringing her to work with me. And Kyle (Massey) and Orlando’s (Brown) mom would watch her in my dressing room while I was on stage. And that just couldn’t go on.
So, when I was done with the third season, I said, ‘Ok, this was all that it was supposed to be.’ And I couldn’t—there was no choice to make, really between work and her. So I chose her and focused on her care. And that became my life until she passed away. And after that, I just didn’t want to work. It was the hardest thing I hope to ever do in this life. I’m really, really glad I was able to do it. And I would do it again in a heartbeat—I wish I could— but it took everything out of me. I remember telling my manager at the time, ‘Unless someone wants to hire me to lay out on the floor and cry. There reall is no point to this. So let’s just stop here. I had a good run. I’m good. I’m done.’
So that explains a lot then. Thank you for that.
I heard that you’re reuniting with Tommy Davidson. What project is that?
The producers of Sharknado told me that he was doing this film and asked me if I wanted to come play with him for a minute. And I love Tommy. We’re friends. We’ve remained close since “In Living Color” days but I haven’t worked with him since then. And so I jumped at the chance to come and it was so wonderful. It was like no time had passed at all. We went right back into our habit, rehearsing together. It was a lot of fun and we’ve actually since talked about doing something else together.
Why do you think “In Living Color” didn’t last longer than it did? Do you think it was a racial issue?
I don’t know. I couldn’t really answer that intelligently because I wasn’t on the production end of that. I know that the Wayans Family was gone our last year. And it was a good show, that last season, but it wasn’t the same without them. It was Keenan’s vision—and so I can’t say that I’m sorry that it didn’t go on after that. I don’t know what happened between Keenan and Fox. I’m not privy to that. I wish it could have worked out. But you know, it doesn’t always work out. And things don’t last forever. Soap Operas seem to. But most shows don’t go on past five seasons. We had five great seasons and I would rather end the show with people loving us and wanting more, than going on and people saying, ‘That show’s still on?!’
Raven is on “The View” right now and she says some things that are a little…interesting…
I love my baby. Don’t mess with my baby. Don’t say anything. You know how some people are, if you look like you’re saying something against Barack Obama…don’t you mess with my baby.
Let me say this, when I did the show “Cosby,” one of the most fun things about that show, speaking as someone raised by grandparents, whose parents were gone when I was two-years-old, for four years and thereafter I had parents. Best thing in the world. Hardest job because I didn’t understand this woman whenever she was unhappy. ‘Why is she unhappy, she has parents?’ But just as that show gave me parents, “That’s So Raven” gave me children. And Kyle Massey and Raven Symone are my heart. I love them. Raven was still quite young when we did that show and I had watched her growing up. And I’d almost played her mom before on “Hanging With Mr. Cooper” but it just didn’t work out. I fell in love with her when she was on “The Cosby Show” and I remember early on, it might have been the second episode that we did, that the character Raven Baxter had done something and she was in trouble and it was the Olivia face and I thought, ‘Awwwww’ and then Tonya Baxter said, ‘You will not play that baby face with me, young lady.’ But it was almost like, in that second, I created a memory for To
nya Baxter where Raven Baxter made that face when she was a child and won me over. And now we’d come through. And in that moment she became my daughter.
Cut to present day, I couldn’t be more proud of her that she’s on the show. I love the ‘What color is her hair going to be today.’ And I love that she speaks her mind. I love that. Because the truth is, you can sit in a corner and say only things that the majority of people won’t mind. And you’ll have a non-controversial life. But she says what’s on her mind and when you speak from your heart and you don’t pull any punches, a lot of people are going to disagree with you. When you get backlash, you can change your mind or you can say, ‘This is what I really think and I’m going to say it. And you might like it, you might not. But this is who I am, at least in this moment.’ And I love that about her. And that’s my baby, don’t even try it. Laughs.
What is different now, being back in the industry after experiencing all that you have?
It’s very, very different. I love to work. I started working when I was a little child. Even growing up, I would watch something—and the first time I thought I want to do that, I was little. It was Lola Falana, who I thought was the most beautiful woman ever. I saw her on “The Bill Cosby Show” and thought, ‘I want to be on that show with them.’
From that day to this, when I’m watching television or seeing theater or watching a movie, ‘I’ll see something and say, ‘Oooo I wish I’d gotten that role.’ And I didn’t do that a lot when I was out of it or it would have brought me back in sooner. For a good while it was because I just wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t care what anybody was doing. But the industry has changed a great deal. Without the internet, people shot up, shot up, shot up. So, can you imagine what would have happened had social media been around in those days. So social media is a big part of the entertainment industry. So I’ve gotten on the Facebook and the Twitter. I just started an Instagram page. I don’t know what I’m doing with these things. But I get that that’s necessary. I get that you have to share more of your life than, personally, I’m comfortable sharing in order for fans and media to feel comfortable with you. And thank goodness, I started out, in this industry, in my grandparents’ living room, writing, and directing and producing in my own shows. So I’ve never been one to wait for an opportunity to come to me. When I want to perform, I perform. I write something. I direct it. I produce it and I put it on the stage. The difference now is that a lot more people are doing that and that has a lot more respect now.
This business of technology has gone way too far and it does the industry a disservice. To me, if I want a job and you want to offer it to me, I want to stand in front of you and audition for it. I don’t want to produce my own audition. I’m going to be distracted by producing something and not acting in it. So when you say, send in a tape, you’re saying ‘I don’t really want to see actors, I want to happen upon what I want in an actor.’ And I don’t have a lot of respect for that. Frankly, I want you to spend the money, hire a casting director to sit in a room with me and you and figure out if I’m the best person for this job.
The other difference—and it’s not really a difference—we’re in a period where some Black are working and that makes some Black people happy that some Black people are working. I will be happy when we have ownership over our work. And I won’t be happy until then. Because you can give me crumbs all day long. I think Matt Damon, from “Project Greenlight,” I think he capsized the point of White Hollywood. ‘We are happy when you are regulated in front of the camera, here and there, when we choose.’ But the power is behind the camera. That’s who decides whose stories are told and how and who will tell them. So, I’m always happy to see people working but I’m not always happy at the stories being told and how. And I hope more performers of color and women recognize that and get behind the camera as much as they can.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with T’Keyah Crystal Kemáh where she talks about natural hair. In the meantime, you can visit T’Keyah at the following places.