On stage at the Fillmore at the TLA, Jill Scott beams beneath an Afro that billows like a halo around her head.
For the singer, spoken-word poet, and actress, this year has been a creative whirlwind.
She recorded her deeply personal and impressively soulful third album, “The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3,” in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami. She toured behind the album in the United States and Europe. And the newly divorced North Philadelphia native traveled to Atlanta and Africa for extended film shoots.
Now, for a few days at least, Jilly from Philly is back home.
“I don’t think people understand the level of variety Philadelphia artists have,” Scott tells the audience at the club, as her horn-happy band dives into “Let It Be,” “The Real Thing’s” gospel-jazz-funk-R&B intro. “There’s something in the water. I don’t know what it is. But I’m glad I drank it.”
Scott entertains the revelers at the event with the theatrical flair that she’s always brought to the stage, dating back to her days playing local open-mike nights.
That knack for the dramatic is translating into a film career. This year, Scott broke out big—literally—in Tyler Perry’s ensemble soap, “Why Did I Get Married?,” for which she had to gain 30 pounds and wear a fat suit.
The movie has earned Scott standout reviews as the psychologically battered Sheila—Variety cited her “rare sweetness.”
The Sheila role is small potatoes compared with her next one. Scott spent her summer in Botswana working with Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of “The English Patient.” She’ll star as Precious Ramotswe in “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” based on Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling books. Playing Precious is “as big a role as an actress is likely ever to get,” Minghella says.
The film will premiere on BBC television in the spring, and Minghella expects it to air on American TV soon after. “We’ve already got a commitment from British TV to make it a series. The ambition is for it to become a franchise for Jill,” says the British director, who cast Scott after widening his search for “a very particular kind of person” beyond experienced film actresses.
“It has to be a black person. It has to be someone with a huge heart and intelligence, with beauty and wit, who’s `of traditional size’ (in McCall Smith’s description),” Minghella says. “She has to be someone who can carry a whole rosary of emotions, from joy and comedy to despair and tragedy, who’s in every scene of this film. We couldn’t have done any better to find her. And I think she’s going to be such a big star.”
“No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” wrapped shooting in September, but there’s post-production work to do.
So it is that on a November night, three nights after the Fillmore show, she’s in a Philadelphia recording studio with Minghella, getting down to less glamorous show business.
The Afro and oversize hoop earrings are gone, and the 35-year-old Scott is dressed in an orange-and-yellow Adidas track suit with matching kicks. “Bright colors, so you don’t look as tired as you feel,” she says.
The shaven-head director is at the control board and Scott is at the mike, slipping back into character—and a mellifluous Botswana accent—to re-record bits of dialogue from the movie.
“Let her run! Let the hyenas eat her,” she calls out in one scene, in which Ramotswe exposes a sinister witch doctor, who then flees across the desert.
In another scene, Precious gently fends off the proposal of a humble suitor: “I will do anything you ask,” she says, with a broad grin. “Anything but that.”
For Scott, the latter scene is another example of “life imitating art and art imitating life in my life right now. It’s crazy,” she says.
She’s talking about the breakup of her marriage to Lyzell Williams. She and Williams were married for five years, together as a couple for 13, and Williams worked in her management company. “I think we made a mistake in that we tried to work together in this business,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about business 24 hours a day.”
Since the split, she’s had “plenty of applicants,” she says. On stage, when she sings “He Loves Me (Lyzell in E Flat)” with operatic flourishes picked up from Marian Anderson and Kathleen Battle records, she dedicates it to her audience, not her ex.
“The Real Thing” gets to the core of a relationship that’s no longer working in songs such as “Whenever You’re Around,” in which the singer realizes that that’s when she’s most lonely.
But the album, of which Scott is justifiably proud, is never vindictive. “I’m living it right now,” she says. “It is the real thing.”
It’s also the sexiest album Scott has made, with smooth and silky songs like “Crown Royal” and “Epiphany” bearing the influence of two of her “master teachers”: Prince and Minnie Ripperton, the under-appreciated soul singer who died in 1979.
“There’s a lot of sexuality on (the album), and it’s really because I just have so much to offer, that I have to be really careful who I spend my intimate time with, until I find somebody who’s really worth it,” says Scott.
“I would love to get married again, but I’m going to wait until I find someone who really deserves me,” she says.
The irony was not lost on Scott when, just as she was beginning to record an album about the dissolution of her marriage, she got a call to audition for “Why Did I Get Married?” Still, she jumped at the chance to work with the writer-director she met when she was working at a Philadelphia clothing store in the mid-1990s and he was producing a play in town. She was dismayed, however, that Perry wanted her to gain weight.
“I’m not afraid of a slice of cake,” she says with a laugh. “And I’m not ashamed of enjoying it.” But the call to pack on the pounds came after she had slimmed down by taking long bike rides around Philadelphia.
And Scott, who carries herself with a proud demeanor on stage, found it a challenge to empathize with Sheila, who is relentlessly ridiculed by her philandering husband.
In the middle of the “Married” shoot in April, Minghella came calling. After a flurry of auditions, she found herself in Botswana in the African winter, where temperatures still often topped 100 degrees.
“I’ve danced with Prince till 5 o’clock in the morning,” Scott says. “And I share a godchild with Stevie Wonder. But Anthony Minghella literally gave me the best experience of my lifetime.”
“It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, with the most beautiful, positive, intelligent people I’ve ever met,” she says. “I’ve never felt that much, and I’ve never wanted to give that much. It’s humbling and it’s motivational.”
She didn’t magically feel “African” once she arrived. “There’s this myth that that when you get to Africa, there’s going to be some vibration, some spirit that overtakes you,” she says. “But Africa doesn’t grab you and jump inside you. Africa seeps. ... And you will be changed.”
Scott has a checklist of things to do: Have children, play a character who isn’t nice, work with Meryl Streep.
But for now, she says, “I just want to do what I’m moved to do. ... Then I’ll put my whole self into it. I couldn’t choose singing or acting over the other. It wouldn’t be fair to my heart.
“My goal is to be a renaissance woman.”
// Notes from the Road
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