Through all of her many successes, from her first-grade starring role in “Little Red Riding Hood” to her leading role as Harriette Winslow on “Family Matters,” actress JoMarie Payton remembers the encouragement, support, and even the “kicks” that helped launch her career.
“It was like everybody wanted to give me something – do something for me – and I sincerely appreciate it,” said Payton, who returned to her hometown of Opa-locka recently to serve as grand marshal for a parade honoring President Barack Obama.
“I’m like the Opa-locka super girl,” said Payton, 58. “I never forgot all those people helping me; the ones that kicked me out the door. It helped me live my dream and have a chance at my heart’s desire.’’
Payton’s dreams of stardom came as early as 6 years old when she was given her first starring role in Rainbow Park Elementary’s first-grade class production of “Little Red Riding Hood,” a role she earned not only for her intelligence but also her dedication.
“She was one of my best students,” said Payton’s first-grade teacher, Clara Wilcox. “I knew to give her the leading role because of how smart she was.”
Wilcox said Payton might have missed her career debut had she not intervened. On the night of the play, Payton was at home recovering from the chicken pox, and was still believed to be contagious.
“I had to ask her mom to please let her perform, and that evening I picked her up,” Wilcox said. “She performed and I had to take her right back home because she was still ill.”
The tenacious young actress excelled in the arts growing up in Opa-locka. Although she is not a native, she could almost claim the city as her hometown since she moved here with her mother, a maid; and her father, a construction worker, from Albany, Ga., when she was just 3 months old. Later, her parents separated when she was 11.
In 1968, as a senior at Miami Carol City Senior High, Payton starred in the school’s production of A Raisin in the Sun and won a theater award that allowed her to take acting lessons at the University of Miami and Miami Dade College.
When a chance to join a professional traveling cast came up in 1971, Payton was reluctant to audition. The tour was for the traveling cast of Purlie, a musical comedy that starred actor Robert Guillaume at the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse.
The second oldest of nine children, Payton thought first about her mother, who was raising the other children alone. She did not want to leave home. But Payton’s support group – from her mother and siblings to her teachers – urged her to take the next step in her career.
“I remember all of my teachers came to the playhouse to see that production,” Payton said. “They were all in the audience.”
When the tour ended in Los Angeles, Payton stayed on. Her first big TV break came when she played an elevator operator for two years on “Perfect Strangers.”
“Family Matters” was a spin-off from Payton’s role as Harriette Winslow, a role she played for nine years.
She also was the voice of Suga Mama on Disney Channel’s “The Proud Family,” a role that made her a hit with her nieces and nephews.
“The kids can’t remember “Family Matters,” but they call me Suga Mama,” said Payton, who has an adult daughter, Chantale.
Payton has traveled to South Florida on other occasions. But last month marked the first time she had been asked to be a grand marshal in a hometown parade. Even more significant was the reason behind the parade, she said: The renaming of Perviz Avenue as President Barack Obama Avenue.
“To see Opa-Locka, this little itty bitty place, rename a street after our president, who I feel will do a tremendous job, will raise the esteem of my people,” Payton said. “It’s going to put something in their hearts and spirits that will raise them to a level of pride where they’ll want to do better for themselves and their children.”
Gar Lester, Payton’s agent in Los Angeles for the past 11 years, said Payton’s pride stems from her desire to help people.
“I think she’s very proud to be part of this occasion because she loves to give back to her community. She’s been blessed with a wonderful career and she loves to give back to people – that’s what gives her great joy,” Lester said.
Yet nothing rivals the happiness of being home. Having spent the majority of her life enduring bicoastal living between Florida and California,
Payton says she’s never away from her hometown for more than 18 months.
“I still love it so much, I always come back.”
Her mother, Frankie Bell Payton, died in December 2007, but Payton has two brothers and nieces and nephews still living in Opa-locka.
As for her career, the hardworking entertainer continues to look for opportunities – acting or otherwise.
“I asked my husband the other day, ‘Is it too late for me to go into the medical field?’ I’m just a people person. I don’t care if it’s on stage, which is my first passion, or as an airline attendant, I love working with people. I’m not retiring soon, there’s a lot I still want to do. I plan to live until I’m 109 years old.”
Virginia Gil is a graduate student of journalism at the University of Miami.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. JoMarie Payton