Philly’s Erika Alexander talks ‘Black Lightning’ and why ‘Living Single’s’ Maxine Shaw is her favorite
You know her as Maxine Shaw from 'Living Single,' but Erika Alexander has been on your TV for 30 years.
Since 1990, actress Erika Alexander has built quite a resumé, including playing The Cosby Show's endearing Cousin Pam and the fiery Maxine Shaw, attorney at law — a.k.a. Max the Maverick — on the groundbreaking sitcom Living Single, now streaming on Hulu. She's had credits on Law & Order, Queen Sugar, Get Out, and more.
She moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager, and the city taught her about her identity as a black woman.
Now, she brings her legacy to the CW's Black Lightning, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, playing Perenna, a telepathic therapist tasked with helping Jennifer — youngest of the superhero Pierce family — hone her power. "I'm there as her Yoda," Alexander said. "I'm there to help [Jennifer] figure out how to wield her power and control herself."
Black culture has historically been excluded from the sci-fi genre. What’s it like working on a show that’s pioneering a new space for black art?
I think it's wonderful. I certainly understand the significance of it. I wrote [graphic novel] Concrete Park, which is a science-fiction series, and 10 or 15 years ago when we created the idea, we went around and tried to sell it as a science-fiction series. We were told by one executive that "black people didn't like science-fiction because they don't see themselves in the future."
The weird part is that black people have always been futurist. We create things that become the next big thing and we have done that inside of cultures, inside of countercultures for years because our past was taken away with slavery. Our agency was taken away, so the only place we lived, most powerfully, was in the future.
Black Lightning has a solid Philly presence with Nafessa Williams and Jill Scott, both Philly natives, and now you’re on the show. How do you feel about the show drawing from Philly talent?
If it's come to be significant on Black Lightning, it means Salim Akil [the showrunner and an executive producer] has great taste. I'm happy to be associated with Philly. I was born in Arizona but discovered in Philly. Philadelphia has always been a hotbed for not just talent, but ideas. So I'm not surprised. I'm just glad it's all coalescing around a really cool show.
How has Philly’s culture influenced the work you do?
Well, Philadelphia was the place where I learned I was young, gifted, and black. [That] was like an earthquake for me. I had been in a place where I was truly a minority, the only black family at my school in Flagstaff, Ariz. But when I got to Philadelphia and they literally told us in the eighth grade that we were young, gifted, and black, that was a new concept for me. I didn't know that we had a national black anthem.
So suddenly I was living in a context of black subjectivity, and that changed everything for me. Also, I have to say that it was a bit disconcerting. I was put into a pool of black people where not only was I black, I was dark-skinned. I had nappy hair. I didn't know about colorism and all that, so that was a little disheartening.
But most of all, I was at least having the conversation and learning about [poet] Nikki Giovanni and [playwright] Ntozake Shange and James Baldwin. I was completely flooded with blackness and I think it changed my life forever. Frankly, you see it in my work now with [production company] Color Farm Media. That would be because of the Philly significance in my life.
What’s your favorite role you’ve acted in?
It's probably a lot of people's favorite role — it's Maxine Shaw from Living Single. I'm no fool. I understood at the time that I was in a space where, as a black woman, I could see and feel [Maxine's] strength. I was also surrounded by a lot of independent individuals who were known for being mavericks in their own right. We were all individualists, and that help us be an ensemble, weirdly enough.
I also understand that because of the strength of shows like The Cosby Show and A Different World, we had some wings. That said, [Maxine] represented a lot of the black women that I knew — and not just black women, people — that told me that I was stronger than my circumstances. They told me I was every man's equal and that I should stand up to them.
It was also a break in sexuality. Black women had been seen for their strength but not their sexuality or the promotion of sex. Max was independent in that area. She liked sex and didn't think that it dehumanized her or sent her to hell. So I understood that. I leaned into it and give it my best shot.
Do Erika Alexander and Maxine Shaw share any characteristics?
All of the above. [Laughing] But she was braver than me. She's much more direct. She was fair, though, and people saw her fairness. They didn't see that as being a threat. A lot of times in my life, intelligence and strength are seen as a threat. But in [Maxine's] life, she can laugh it off. It can be held up as a superpower. I find it difficult to be strong and intelligent. I'm a low-maintenance person. I don't come to disrupt them. I come to disrupt the system.
Do you watch old episodes of The Cosby Show or Living Single?
I do now. Then, we couldn't. I often don't know what's going to happen next because we learned the script very quickly. It was short-term memory. But now I look at it and laugh like I haven't seen it. It's really a gift. It's like a message in a bottle to see your young self and be evergreen.
What are you most proud of?
I think I'm most proud of being my mother's daughter. She worked very hard. My mother did anything and everything to create a living for us. My father did, too. He passed away at 52. My mother sacrificed her health and happiness. She's a strong, creative person and I look now and see how tired she is. I know that the energy that was pulled away from her was infused in me.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.