Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found…
I resist the urge to call her “Ms. Jo” or “Auntie” and give her a status update on how my “mama annem” are doing. But I’m guessing if I did answer our Zoom call with “Hey Auntie Jo!” I’d get the same bright and warm smile that surrounds Jo Marie Payton no matter the situation. Some call it aura or a vibe, but Payton simply calls it love.
Born in Miami, Payton later moved to Hollywood and began acting starting with the usual unnamed bit parts, but it wasn’t until 1987 with a main cast role on Perfect Strangers that things began to turn around for her. Payton was 37, married with a child, and ready to give up the industry entirely. It reads like a lucky Hollywood story — an actor is ready to quit and lo and behold the perfect role falls from the sky. But for Payton it was much more than just luck.
Based on the popularity of her role in Perfect Strangers, Payton was offered a new sitcom based around her character, Harriette Winslow. Family Matters became part of ABC’s popular TGIF lineup and ran for nearly 10 years.
If you were someone who grew up or came of age in the 1990s, then you probably knew that line-up by heart along with every theme song. If you were a Black or Brown kid, you knew that Family Matters was required viewing. A lot of it was about Urkel (Jaleel White), everyone’s favorite next door neighbor that they’re glad they don’t have, but it was also about the loving couple of Harriette and Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) and the rest of the Winslow family. Black shows were in short supply, so having one that was family centric and popular to the point of mainstream only helped future projects find their legs. Future projects Payton would also guest star in like The Hughleys, The Parkers, and of course, The Proud Family.
While Payton was becoming a TV star, The Proud Family had their own special story of new beginnings. Developed by Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar, the show originally failed to find its footing at Nickelodeon. After Nickelodeon passed, the pair took the show to Disney Channel where it became a bona fide hit. The popular series spawned not only a movie but a reboot, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder. The same type of transition took place for Payton.
“I fell on a hill and tore the cartilage on my knee,” Payton explains wistfully. “I stopped going to auditions because it hurt so badly. I tried a brace and I had these beautiful pants suits that I couldn’t wear because people could see that my walking gait had changed so badly.” It’s then that she got a call to audition for a series regular role on Will & Grace as Mrs. Freeman, the secretary to Gregory Hines’ character. Despite the pain she had to go.
Thankfully a security guard was there to help. She tells me, “He let me park closer so I wouldn’t have to walk so much, but when I came out of the audition, I had to use the restroom. When I got there, I cried like a baby. And I was sitting in that stall by myself crying, and I said, ‘Oh God, oh God, I’m never going to work again!’” Payton thought they would see her as a liability, but her inner voice reached out to encourage her.
Using her signature voice, she told me what the voice said. “It said, ‘Use that other gift,’ and I cried, ‘What other gift? What other gift?’ and it said, ‘That voice!’ And I began to think about that and dwell on it seriously. The very next day my agent called me about the Suga Mama part.”
From thinking she’d never work again to voicing a character that has lived in the hearts of audiences for over 20 years, Payton had no idea the trajectory that life would put her on. Through it all, she has been along for the ride as the irascible, kind, and loving Charlette “Suga Mama” Towne Proud. She loves Suga Mama fiercely, saying, “I enjoy the fact that she’s just telling the truth! There was an episode we did 20 years ago where we had the Gross Sisters. [Suga Mama] told Penny straight out, she don’t like them! She didn’t mind saying she didn’t like Penny’s friends.”
The Gross Sisters, Nubia, Gina, and Olei (Raquel Lee), were neighborhood bullies that were always shown in blue, hinting to the fact that they were always ashy — yet another way the show was and still is unapologetically Black. Her instant dislike was a sign to show that Suga Mama’s protective instincts were always intact. That kind of bluntness when mixed with compassion is something that’s earned and comes with age and experience.
I asked Payton why she thought cross-generational relationships forge a very specific and special connection. She says, “It comes out of love. Because when you genuinely love somebody, your granddaughter, your daughter, your family, you got to tell them the truth. You can find somewhere deep inside of you to put a nice little crust on it, but you have to tell them. That’s why even when they get mad at you, they might come back later and hug you and say, ‘Thank you, Grandma!’”
Payton went on to agree with the sentiment of honesty plus love and related it to her own experiences. “When it’s kind of meshed with love and concern, there’s something about honesty. I would never tell [a loved one] wrong. I don’t know everything, and I’m always open to learn and earn the things that come out of love and respect.”
Finally, I wanted to know what to expect from Suga Mama going into Season 2 of Louder and Prouder. The Season 1 finale featured the episode, “Old Towne Road,” which explored Suga Mama’s estranged family and distant father. Season 2 opens with the conclusion of that episode, and Payton explains why she’s so excited for audiences to watch.
“There’s no denying that we are an African American animated series,” she says. “We don’t acknowledge it, and we don’t apologize for it. We owe it to ourselves and to our community to be as truthful as we can about who we are. What I love is The Proud Family is not afraid to make you see you. And to allow you to be you. All we do is bring [the culture] to you on a level you can handle it without preaching it to you. But insteading teaching you, and at the same time, have you live, love, and laugh!”
Suga Mama is always full of teaching moments, and she has them especially for Penny in the new season. Payton tells us some of the things we have to look forward to. “Penny has to go to Suga Mama’s house because she was misbehaving. And we see Suga Mama teaching her a hardcore lesson about being respectful and obedient. But even that is a lesson in love. These new episodes focus on acceptance, and we’re really shouting loud and proud about that!”
It will be a season you won’t want to miss! The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder will hit Disney+ on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com