Bertice Berry Biography
Built Reputation with Wit and Brains, Knew the Meaning of Hardship, Used Comic Talent to Teach
The halls of academia are not usually considered a breeding ground for comedians, but the intellectual environment of a major university inspired Bertice Berry and served as the first stage for her performing talents. Berry, who has done turns as a stand-up comedian, talk-show host, sociology lecturer, novelist, and gallery owner has devoted her talents to helping people solve common, everyday problems.
Built Reputation with Wit and Brains
Berry's sturdy academic credentials—a Ph.D. in sociology from Kent State University—and her hip, stylish appearance—dreadlocks and designer suits—have helped her to establish a rapport that runs across racial, economic, and social lines. "One of the things I've learned is that I can be zany and serious and scholarly," Berry told a reporter for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. "There's always a cultural lag between an idea or an invention and when people catch onto them in everyday life. If I'm trying to get across something people consider a new idea, I know that I really have to go in the back door."
Berry moved into national prominence in the fall of 1993, when Twentieth Television syndicated her talk-format program, The Bertice Berry Show. One of a host of new talk shows hoping to cash in on the popularity of the format, The Bertice Berry Show sold to 100 markets on the strength of its test episodes alone. The daily "gabfest," as Essence magazine dubbed it, allowed Berry to exercise her sardonic humor, while tackling both frivolous and intensely serious topics. When asked about her rather strange blend of career choices by the Akron Beacon Journal, Berry said: "After a while, all talk-show hosts become sociologists as they interact with their guests and the audience." She added: "Everybody should be a multi-career person. It makes life more interesting."
Knew the Meaning of Hardship
The sixth of seven children, Bertice Berry grew up in a single parent home in Wilmington, Delaware. "We were poor. Real poor," she recalled in a Knight Ridder wire story. "I didn't realize how poor we were at the time, and now it's tough to think about what we all went through. There were times with no electricity and no heat…. Today, when I see homeless and poor people, I literally connect with them." Although Berry has described herself in some interviews as an angry, bitter, and disillusioned child, her friends and teachers remember her as warm, caring, and cheerful. Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent Roy H. Campbell wrote in a Knight Ridder wire story: "At P.S. du Pont High School, Bertice had a rapport with everyone. On the way to class, she would talk to the janitors, cafeteria workers, teachers, and students of all ages. To me, she always seemed to be happy. She showed no sign of minding that, like many in our predominantly black high schools, we did not have all the material goods that the white students in suburban schools possessed, or that our books were often in poor condition, or even that many of us received our lunches free, courtesy of government programs."
Berry's mother furnished the family home with items that other people had left out for trash collection. The youngster grew up in hand-me-down clothing, dreaming of being a popular entertainer. No one in her family had ever attended college, but she decided to apply anyway, just to see if she might be accepted. As luck would have it, her application to Jacksonville University arrived the same day the university officials received a letter from a wealthy philanthropist who wished to sponsor a student. Not only was Berry accepted at Jacksonville, she was given a full scholarship from her anonymous benefactor.
At Jacksonville, Berry studied sociology and tested her knowledge in the field as a part-time social worker. The results were sobering. "I worked at shelters for battered women and rape victims," she told the Knight Ridder wire, "and that's important, but for me, it was like just trying to put a Band-Aid on cancer. So I decided I wanted to get into the research side of things, why things are the way they are."
Berry graduated from Jacksonville University magna cum laude and was accepted to graduate school at Kent State University. At her college commencement Berry finally met her benefactor. He was Terry Evenson, an executive who had made a fortune with Hallmark stores and real estate transactions. Evenson gladly offered to help her finance her graduate work. In more recent years, Berry has paid him back in his own hard times by employing him as her business manager.
Used Comic Talent to Teach
Berry's talents for comedy first became evident at Kent State. Many universities employ graduate students as teaching assistants either to teach courses or to provide assistance to undergraduates. While she pursued her advanced degrees in sociology, Berry worked as a teaching assistant. She began trying to inject a bit of humor into her classes, and the results were encouraging. Soon her lectures were standing room only as students responded to her enthusiasm and wit. Berry's humor did not mask her serious intentions, however. She hoped to impart meaningful information on social issues in a manner that younger students would appreciate—and remember—in the years to come. One day a stand-up comedian attended Berry's class. Afterwards, the comic suggested that Berry should try stand-up comedy herself. The scholarly Berry was skeptical. The comic insisted she was funny. So, on a whim, she entered an amateur night contest at a local pub and won the $50 prize. After that she began to moonlight as a comedian in clubs near the university; all the while, she was finishing her course work for master's and doctorate degrees. She earned her Ph.D. in 1988, with a thesis entitled Black-on-Black Discrimination: The Phenomenon of Colorism Among African Americans. This original research studied the historical reasons why African Americans tend to assign greater status to light-skinned blacks than to dark-skinned blacks.
With her Ph.D. as a credential, Berry might have drifted into academia as a sociology professor at one of the nation's universities. Instead she hit the road as an entertainer, sometimes delivering a serious lecture on social issues in the morning and a one-woman comedy show the same night. Berry most often performed on college campuses, and her busy schedule found her traveling as many as 250 nights each year. Her popularity grew year by year, and in 1992, she was named "Lecturer of the Year" by the National Association of Campus Activities.
Berry told the Knight Ridder news service that the years spent on the campus circuit began taking their toll. "I liked being out there, touring, and talking to, and reaching people," she said. "People treat you as if you're a goddess, but it's really taxing on your body…. Being home, I cry a lot less." Fortunately, Berry's success as a stand-up comedian had brought her several offers that looked promising. One was a television situation comedy. Another was her own talk show, on which she could also serve as co-producer. The talk show won because Berry felt she would face less competition in that format than she would in the situation comedy format.
Tuned in to Television
With former Hour Magazine producer Steve Clemens, Berry made the rounds of television syndication companies, looking for a deal. In all, eight companies were interested, but Twentieth Television offered the best contract. The show began airing in the autumn of 1993. True to her academic background, Berry wanted to make sure her program offered serious topics and common sense solutions to everyday problems. She was not interested in the sensational—and often silly—themes that other talk shows pursued. "I want to bridge some gaps," Berry commented in a Knight Ridder wire story. "[Phil Donohue and Oprah Winfrey] brought to the forefront problems that people thought they were having individually. I want them to know that, not only are they not alone, but they can make connections to others and find some solutions."
As her first season progressed and ratings lagged, Berry did introduce some sensational topics—such as "Women Who Love Bad Boys" and "Michael Jackson: Guilty or Innocent?" Berry clearly preferred issues-oriented shows, however, and her program tackled such pressing problems as teenage misbehavior, self esteem, and race relations. Reflecting on her stint as a talk show host, Berry told Roy Campbell: "It's combining everything that I have been doing for the last 10 years. What I find fascinating is the power of the media, the reach of the show."
From the beginning Berry injected her own dynamic personality into The Bertice Berry Show. When the studio executives suggested that she trim her dreadlocks, she threatened to shave her head. The dreadlocks stayed. She also steadfastly maintained her commitment to serious subject matter, even as the show's ratings slipped early in 1994. Twentieth Television ceased production of The Bertice Berry Show that summer.
Became a Bestselling Author
Bertice Berry did not fade quietly from the scene, however. She plunged into new opportunities with her typical energy. Her ambition drove her forward; she often put in 17-hour days that began at five o'clock in the morning with a brisk workout. For a time she hosted a variety of interview programs on the USA Network and was featured on several talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show. But in the mid-1990s Berry began churning out a string of bestselling books. Although she had never dreamed of being a writer, Berry noted in Essence that she "discovered that writing is the best way to connect with my feelings." Her first book was an autobiography, followed by some wildly funny accounts of life in the ghetto.
Berry switched to writing novels starting with the publication of Redemption Song in 2000. Redemption Song tells the love story of two slave Iona and Joe and became a Blackboard bestseller. She filled her following novels with her characteristic wit as well as a serious message about family, love, relationships, and the joy of ordinary life. In a review of Berry's novel Jim and Louella's Homemade Heart-Fix Remedy, Jennifer Bihm of the Los Angeles, California, Sentinel described Berry's writing style as "folksy," but noted that "it doesn't take away from the intelligent message she is trying to send."
The idea for Berry's fourth novel, When Love Calls, You Better Answer, came to her while she was writing a different story. She started writing about a character she called Aunt Babe. "What's really spooky is that my mother was reading it and she said, 'I can't believe you remember your Aunt Babe, you were two when she died,'" Berry told the Michigan Chronicle. "I said, 'I never had an Aunt Babe.' My mother says, 'Yes, you did, and she is exactly like the woman you described.'" Berry's story uses the ghost of Aunt Babe to help her living niece navigate the intricacies of finding love. Reviewing the book in Black Issues Book Review, Nicole Sealey assured that the book would "make readers laugh uncontrollably and reevaluate honesty."
In addition to her continued lecturing and writing, Berry co-founded Iona's Gallery and Great Finds in Savannah, Georgia. The storefront offers a medley of African and African-American art and crafts, as well as a venue for lectures, seminars, and storytimes for the community. Berry noted on her Web site that it's just a front for being able to connect with and to funnel money into the community. In addition to this community work, Berry also donates the proceeds from her writing to charity.
Berry expresses few regrets about her unorthodox career and her business decisions. In fact, she told Essence, she welcomes an uncertain future. "My life has turned out beyond my wildest dreams," she said. "I never could have predicted what has happened to me. I haven't a clue as to what will happen next, but I'm sure it will be interesting."
Bertice: The World According to Me, 1996.
I'm On My Way, But Your Foot Is On My Head, Scribner, 1996.
(With Joan Coker) Sckraight From the Ghetto, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
You STILL Ghetto, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Redemption Song, Doubleday, 2000.
The Haunting of Hip Hop, 2001.
Jim & Louella's Homemade Heart-Fix Remedy, Harlem Moon, 2002.
When Love Calls, You Better Answer, Random House, 2005.
Akron Beacon Journal, September 30, 1993, p. D-1; June 9, 1994, p. B-9.
Black Issues Book Review, July-August 2005, p. 44.
Dollars & Sense, March 1994, pp. 15-22.
Ebony, April 1992, pp. 70-71.
Essence, April 1994, p. 51; August 2003, p. 114.
Knight Ridder wire stories, October 5, 1993; October 19, 1993; November 18, 1993; March 9, 1994.
Michigan Chronicle, August 3-9, 2005, p. C2.
Parade, February 6, 1994, p. 2.
Sentinel, September 19, 2002, p. B4.
USA Today, January 25, 1993, p. D-3.
Bertice Berry, www.berticeberry.com (January 4, 2006).