"That's pronounced Miz Boo-TAY," said Tyra Ferrell, in Philadelphia recently. The play on words alludes to the sexiness of the flamboyant hair salon owner played by the Texas-born actress as well as to the name of her business, Jessie's Salon de Beaute.
At first glance, the scene may seem to be little more than one more male director's objectification of a black female. But Tyra Ferrell, a State
College, Pa., resident (State College!) and veteran actress whose perspectives are strident and strongly articulated, sees it differently.
Jessie - owner of the South Central Los Angeles beauty salon in which Justice, the sensitive female poet played by Janet Jackson, works - has power. Mental and physical power, Ferrell said.
"I've never seen an African American actress on the screen who was a sex symbol who didn't look white, an ethnic sister who was sexy," she said as her husband videotaped her every gesture and word. "I think it's kind of nice.
"I know women like this. . . . When I did my research for this role, I
went to different hair salons, and females who own these salons are very flamboyant," Ferrell said. "They're in control, they're running a business. And they're very proud of it. It takes a lot of muscle power in the brain to run a business. . . . And Jessie is very proud of her body. I mean, you know African American women with jammin', slammin' bodies. But how often do you see it in a film where they're not being portrayed as hookers and prostitutes?"
Tyra Ferrell, who will appear next in Alan Rudolph's Equinox, which opens tomorrow, is not a black actress who looks white. With her dark skin, thick lips, broad nose, thick hair braided in elaborate cords on top of her head, multihued mocha-colored dress and copper-colored earrings, she projects the image of a classic Nubian beauty.
And she's proud of that look.
But it wasn't always that way. As a child, Ferrell thought she was unattractive. Society told her that was so. It was a message telegraphed to her by friends and family unintentionally and by others intentionally.
Ferrell is tired of that message. "In my solitude as a little girl, when people would call me ugly names like Black Blueberry, Licorice Stick or Midnight, I would go inside my closet, close the door, look in the mirror and watch myself cry. And through my pain I saw something really nice. That's when I found my mission was to act.
"We have to uplift the dark-skinned sisters. I want little dark-skinned girls to look up on the screen and see themselves in me, and say, 'I'm beautiful,' and want to take that black Barbie doll home and not the white one. And I wish our brothers would stop being hypnotized by the Sharon Stones. . . . Stop buying into what this white society has been generating - self- hatred. . . . Why must we change our noses to look white to be accepted in this society?"
The 30-ish Ferrell, who worked with Singleton on Boyz N The Hood and also appeared in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and Ron Shelton's White Men Can't Jump, as well as several television movies, believes she can play any role, including those written for white actresses. She also has strong opinions on many other subjects.
She's quite honest about exactly why she is an actress: "I'm in it for the mission and the work and the money, and to uplift this race we have."
Ferrell and her husband, political activist Don Jackson, have very specific ideas as to how to accomplish that last goal.
"We haven't even been allowed to vote for 30 years yet, but guess what? We've come so far, and we've got so much further to go," she said. "But we need confrontational politics, we need confrontational entertainment, and we need confrontational sports figures. We need to stop tiptoeing around the plantation.
"I'll tell ya, I have a great example. You know Marge Schott, right?" she said, referring to the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who is serving a one-year suspension for making racial slurs. "If all the brothers on the basketball court, on the football field, on the baseball field, and any field of sports were willing to take the fine money, pull out, come together, and say, 'Brothers, we are not working till they get rid of that woman,' instead of being slapped on the wrist, Marge Schott would have been thrown out of there. That is what I mean about confronting issues."
Jackson is a former Hawthorne, Calif., police sergeant who sought to shed light on police brutality by videotaping officers as they beat suspects, usually African American, during or after traffic stops or arrests.
After an incident in which he was thrown into a plate-glass window by two officers in neighboring Long Beach - assault charges were dropped when a jury could not reach a verdict - Jackson devoted his life to the stopping of police violence.
After the couple married last year, Ferrell moved to State College with Jackson, who is studying for his doctorate in criminology at Pennsylvania State University.
It's a different environment for the Californians, but they have brought east some of the same confrontational politics they used in L.A.
"We're about the issues," Jackson said, "whether it's State College or whether it's L.A., the issues are all the same. Because it's America. This is where the problem is - we are trying to blend in, trying to be part of something, trying to join something that has totally rejected us for 400 years. So Tyra and I walk in defiance no matter where we are. We confront on every level. We demand equity. We demand justice."
Although Jackson said State College in many ways was "in denial" about campus racial issues, the couple have been able to find some peace and tranquillity.
"It's quiet, and it's green there, and we hang out, we go for walks, and we spend spiritual times in our home," Ferrell said. "And when we go back to L.A., we fight for the struggle."
They are closely involved in raising money for the defendants accused of assaulting Reginald Denny, the truck driver attacked during the L.A. riots. The case will be tried in a few weeks.
For Ferrell, however, life is still based in Central Pennsylvania. She is
sent scripts daily, but most of them are quickly disposed of.
"I'm enjoying married life. I love work, I will continue to work, but it's not everything to me. I'm waiting for the right role, like I've waited for everything else in my life, including my husband."