Gimme A Break—Not!
Diva Nell Carter Talks to A&U's Dann Dulin
"I want to say this to every young woman out there. If a guy that you're seeing says he loves you so much, make him prove it. Make him get a condom. If he won't, then you need to get rid of him," proclaims a calm yet stern Nell Carter. "And you guys, remember when you are out there without a condom, think about your sister, think about your mother. Would you want someone to take a chance for them to die? It's not worth it. What I am trying to say to young people is that they either really love you or they think you're a piece of shit."
Nell doesn't mince words. The girl from Birmingham, Alabama, who began her career singing in coffehouses, would eventually be kicking up her heels in the hit Broadway musical Aint' Misbehavin'. In the early '80s she moved on to television, starring in the sitcom Gimme a Break. She is forceful, steadfast, and heartfelt this afternoon. We are meeting at the offices of one of her favorite organizations, Project Angel Food, located in Hollywood, California. Founded in 1989 by spiritualist author Marianne Williamson, it delivers daily meals with love at no cost to people living with HIV/AIDS all around megalopolis Los Angeles. And every meal that is delivered has "love" handwritten on the box.
Carter's pal, actress Valerie Harper, introduced her to Project Angel Food many years ago. "It was a small kitchen back then. I wanted to be a part of it but I figured, 'Well, it's only going to reach certain people.' So I thought I could serve them best by giving them some of my recipes," says the avid cook, who on this occasion is dressed in a fire engine read blouse. "Sometimes the person who delivers the food is the only person the recipient sees all day. Over 400,000 meals not only were delivered but had to be delivered last year, and to think that so many people still don't know about this disease." She shakes her head in amazement and takes a sip of water. "I haven't said this to them yet, but if Project Angel Food could get a facility, I would love to put on a concert for them, do a recording, and see if it sells." Seated near us is John Giles, Director of Project Angel Food. His ears perk up, and he takes note. Nell sings a few bars (it's a treat to hear that diva voice): "'Someday he'll come along. The man I love.' Then I would go into, 'Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. I gotta love one man till I die.'" Her face contorts, she grimaces and sings the last line through gritted teeth: "Can't help lovin' that man of mine." We all laugh.
Laughter gives way to solemnity as Carter tells how she lost her brother, Bernard, to AIDS. "We talked every night. I knew everything in his life; he knew everything in my life. We were so close. In September 1988, he came to New York and brought a friend who he introduced as a Reverand. I didn't think anything of it even though Bernard said he was just coming up 'for the day' from Chicago. I went upstairs and started making the bed. He came beside me and helped. He then said, 'I have cancer.' He pointed to the moles on his neck. I just looked at him. I said, 'You'll be all right.'" Nell's voice turns sullen and low. "He went home and he deteriorated quite quickly. And I found out that no matter how many millions you have to spend, or how many doctors you have, or how much you believe in a higher power, you can't stop AIDS."
Shortly after Bernard's visit, Nell received a call from his doctor, advising her to visit him. She asked, 'Is he all right?'" The doctor replied, "He's giving up." Carter arranged for her entire family to visit Bernard, even flying her two other brothers in from overseas. She spoke to Bernard over the phone, assuring him she'd be there. That night she took a red eye which left at 11:45 p.m. "I got in my seat and then I remembered I hadn't taken my favorite seat 1A. I was in 2B," she says. "I was nervous, so I pulled out my diary and started writing, 'Dear Bernard, I love you so much.' Then I passed out. I woke up all of a sudden and the plane was taxiing. I looked at my watch and it was a quarter of twelve. I knew then that he was gone. I just felt like everyone on the plane knew."
Arriving in Chicago the next mornign, Nell's younger sister confirmed what she already knew. Indeed, her brother had died at a quarter of twelve! Bernard was forty-two.
Nell's eyes fill with tears. "He was the best brother. He was the best friend. He started me singing. He made me learn the Hallelujah chorus when I was five years old. He made me learn all the parts!" she says with quivering lips and a playful, begrudging glance. "And I loved it! We were two children unwanted by our birth mother. See, my grandmother raised us. Bernard was a teacher, the dean of a college, a lawyer, and a musician." She looks down, momentarily fingers a nondescript object on the table, and continues: "He just couldn't stop learning, and then AIDS took him. After Bernard died I became a very bitter person."
Carter pauses and states that what she is about to say may not be suitable for print, so she will leave it to my discretion about using it in the story. "I know my brother had help to leave," she says. "I know he did. I don't want my family to hear that, but it was too well planned. And he was still as gorgeous as ever when the mortician pulled out the morgue tray. The mortician tried to keep me from hugging my brother. He said Bernard might spew. And I said, 'I don't care. Just get the fuck away from me! I have to touch him.' Bernard's body was limp but I got to hold him."
Since then, every time Nell performs, she dedicates a song to her brother. "I feel he's always with me ," she says.
Although Carter had converted to Judaism, she always celebrated the Christmas season with Bernard. So when the first Christmas arrived without her brother, Nell didn't know how she would manage to get through it. Thankfully, she was looking forward to adopting a child who would be born the next February, and that helped ease the loneliness. Then in early December, she received a call about another child already born and available for adoption.
"I went to my lawyer's office," she explains, "and the birth mother was in the room next door. Her advisor did not want me to adopt the child because she knew I was getting a divorce and that I would raise the child in the Jewish faith. Finally, the birth mother entered the room I was in and asked if I would like to see the baby. The advisor and the attorney lowered their heads, and in my heart I felt like I wouldn't get this child."
Everyone drove to the baby's home. "This lady was standing by the kitchen door holding the baby as if to keep him from running away. She asked, 'Would you like to hold him?' I said, 'Yes.' She put the baby in my arms and I will not lie to you, I felt instant, instant love. I opened the blanket, and it was my brother looking up at me."
Nell pulls out a photgraph from her purse. "Everything just fell into place. I was not only able to get an attorney but to get the money for the adoption, as well. That was eleven years ago," she says thoughtfully. She hands me the photo, which is a picture of her son dressed in a baseball outfit, holding a bat. He has the brightest smile. "This is my son, Joshua, and this is exactly how my brother looked. That smile, that face. This child is into music. He's so much like Bernard—although this is not to say I don't love my other son Daniel, who I adopted several months later," Mama Nell assured me.
Bernard's death impelled Carter to get involved with several AIDS organizations, including Project Inform—a national nonprofit, community-based group t hat strives to end the AIDS epidemic by providing free, up-to-date information to the public, and that lobbies for enlightened government regulatory, research, and funding policies. Nell says she has learned a vast amount about this epidemic through her activism.
Asked how she feels about the AIDS situation today, Carter replies, "I'm angry. I'm frustrated. Because this is not just a gay disease. I never thought it was just a gay disease." She takes a deep breath and continues: "AIDS is picking up speed. It makes me very angry that people are getting AIDS now. Why? Because they're young, members of minority groups. They're young women who are bringing children into the world with this disease. Having unprotected sex—it's the equivalent of standing in front of a Mack truck. Now, you see that truck coming, either you get out of the way to protect yourself or you let the fucking thing run you over. It's crazy. There's no such thing as so much love that you cannot protect yourself. I wish with all my heart that there were bags of condoms available so students could pick them up. Some people might argue that I'm saying, 'Go out and have sex.' But what I'm saying is that nature is nature. People want to comingle."
At this point, Mark McBride, Director of Special Events, comes over with one of the Project Angel Food meals. Nell takes a few bites and exclaims, "This is delicious!" It does look quite tasty. Because of her hectic schedule performing nightly in the play The Vagina Monologues, she has skipped breakfast in order to keep this date with me, and is quite hungry.
AIDS education is at the forefront of Carter's agenda. Believing her sons needed to be educated about HIV and AIDS as soon as possible, she signed them up last year for a sex education course in their fifth-grade class. But she sensed that they really didn't understand what they were being taught. "They had it all wrong," she says. "So I sat them down and I was so graphic. I said, 'Mama needs to talk to you. You have a very dangerous vehicle on you.'" Her voice is deadpan, as though she were performing standup and waiting for a reaction. She then takes on a high-pitched voice, imitating her sons: "'What, Mama?' they asked. "'Your penis,' I said. "'You've never heard of that? Want me to use another word?' I asked.
"'No. No. Don't,' they said. "So I told them: 'You can never, ever, ever put it near a girl's vagina without protection.'"
Carter explains: "The word 'vagina' doesn't shock them because I do Vagina Monologues all the time. They've read it and have even run lines with me. It's up to us as parents to teach our children about sex, AIDS, and other STDs. Education is the number one tool in the fight against AIDS."
This is one woman determined to spread the word about this disease, single-handedly if she has to. She's determined. For Nell Carter, there's no "gimme a break" when it coMes to AIDS.
Contact Project Angel Food by mail at 7574 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, California 90046, and by phone at (323) 845-1800. Web site: www.angelfood.org.