DATE: Sunday, September 28, 1997 TAG: 9709260109 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E15 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, ENTERTAINMENT WRITER LENGTH: 99 lines
IRMA P. HALL is perfectly cast in the new film ``Soul Food'' - she's Mama Joe, the matriarch who holds together a diverse family of often-embattled siblings.
In her own life, she has held things together for decades, becoming an actress only after teaching school for 27 years in Dallas.
``I collect children, the same way I collect roles,'' the always-jolly woman said as she explained her unusual, late-blooming career. ``Yes, yes, my paycheck is a good deal more now than it was as a school teacher, but I don't regret those years. In this life, you go where you're needed. If you know something, you teach those who don't know. It's that simple.
``My grandmother,'' she added, ``never went to school a day in her life. She was born right at the end of slavery. But she taught me to count to a hundred by sitting on her porch and counting the stars.''
Born in Texas, Hall grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She returned to Texas to teach foreign languages and English for 27 years in Dallas public schools.
``In the 1970s, a teacher's paycheck there was about $7,000 a year. Some of the students' families on welfare were making more than that. You had to love teaching to stick with it. There are a lot of teachers like that today.''
Hall was 36 and a divorced mother of two when she got a small role in ``Book of Numbers'' 25 years ago. ``It was all about the numbers racket in Chicago. To tell you the truth, I knew about it first-hand,'' she said. ``Everyone played the numbers when I was a child. We didn't know it was illegal. We called it `playing policy.' ''
Hall's current notoriety came with the breakthrough role as the lovable Aunt T in ``A Family Thing'' last year, opposite Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. She won several critics' awards as ``best supporting actress'' of the year, and was high in the running for an Oscar nomination.
This year, she had roles in ``Buddy'' and ``Nothing To Lose.'' Her paycheck has changed considerably.
Her interest in show business began early. Beginning at age 7, she accompanied her father, a jazz musician, on his rounds to clubs, church socials and weddings.
``When we moved to Chicago, he played at a club called the Rum Boogie, owned by Joe Louis. He played the flute, saxophone and clarinet at Polish and Lithuanian festivals, weddings, everything. Early on, I learned more about the similarities than the differences.''
Echoing a feeling in many black communities, such as Church Street in Norfolk, she added, woefully, ``Of course, we had more choices back then, because we were segregated.''
Asked what she meant by that, she was eager to explain. ``In those days, everyone, of all economic levels, lived together. I mean I grew up with more examples than children in most neighborhoods today. If I wanted to be a lady of the evening or a lawyer, I had an example of each living on my block. I used to see Nat King Cole regularly. He was in the neighborhood. There were people who were broke and there were people who had money living on my block. Of course, they were all black, but they were of varied economic backgrounds. There were junkies and doctors.''
``Today,'' she sighs, ``people with any money move out, no matter what their color. There's segregation of a different type. Now, if kids see someone with a car and nice clothes, the chances are that person is a drug dealer. Dealers are the only persons in these neighborhoods who have money. And kids think they have to be in gangs. It's a very different type of segregation, but I think the old way was better.''
She sighed again and sank back in the chair to consider the problem. ``Of course, in those days, you had to be there, in that neighborhood. You didn't have the choice of living where you wanted. It would be grand if we had a general mix - everywhere.''
Hall got into acting when she volunteered to raise money for the Dallas Minority Repertory Theater over three decades ago. ``It was called the `minority' theater because we didn't want it to be just black. We had roles for Hispanics too, everyone. I was on the board, but eventually they talked me into playing some parts.''
She was spotted by a Hollywood producer when she was reciting a poem at a Dallas gathering of artists and writers.
For ``Soul Food,'' she heads a cast that includes Vanessa L. Williams (former Miss America), Vivica A. Fox (``Independence Day'') and Nia Long (``love jones,'' ``Boyz N the Hood'') as her daughters. Mama Joe keeps the struggling family together with her Sunday dinners of fried chicken, sweet cornbread, smoke-cooked ham and deep-dish peach cobbler.
It was a role Irma P. Hall felt she was born to play.
``It became eerie,'' she said. ``The more I learned about Mama Joe, the more I had in common with her. My mother's name was Josephine and people called her Jo. My grandmother had a leg amputated, and had three daughters. It became increasingly clear that this part was to be mine.''
She believes, too, in Mama Joe's prime philosophy: ``One finger pointing blame can't make no impact. But five fingers balled up can deliver a mighty blow. This family has got to be that fist.''
``The family is what civilization is all about,'' Hall said. ``There are few films made about the family today. People say it's old-fashioned. Some of them say this movie, `Soul Food,' will have a tough time at the box office. They may be right, but it's sad if it's true. Families are a lot of fun. Neighborhoods are too. They're worth keeping. Believe me. You heard it from Big Mama.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo
Irma P. Hall plays the family matriarch and Brandon Hammond is her
grandson in the new movie ``Soul Food.'' KEYWORDS: PROFILE BIOGRAPHY MOVIES
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