My mother told me when I was pretty young that you can be who you are or try hard to be something else," Whoopi Goldberg says, with a toss of those trademark funky dreadlocks. "I was always a lazy b--h, so trying hard to be something else wasn't going to happen." That's always been the Goldberg formula for success: one part Horatio Alger uplift, one part in-your-face street talk and one part in-her-own-face self-parody. When a young African-American woman who grew up in New York City public housing drops the name Caryn Johnson and reinvents herself under a name from deepest Mall America, attention must be paid--which of course was the whole point. Lately, though, we haven't seen her much, except when she's hosting the Academy Awards. "When I was hot," she says, "others had to stand back for a minute--a very short minute, I might add--and now I'm standing back." You can imagine how she likes that. And of course she's got a plan.
This week Goldberg will open on Broadway in a revival of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which she helped produce herself. That's only one of the irons she's got in the fire--and no one's got more fire. But no matter how that and her various production projects turn out, Goldberg, now 48, has carved a unique place for herself in the world of entertainment. She emerged in the early '80s as a sort of female Richard Pryor, a stand-up comic for whom nothing was off limits: neither race nor sex nor social issues nor the weirdness of life itself. Mike Nichols helped her get her one-woman "Spook Show'' on Broadway in 1984. Naturally, Hollywood wanted her, even though it didn't quite know what to do with her. "She's different," says her friend Quincy Jones. "Different from anybody out there in terms of talents and looks. And sometimes different makes people uncomfortable." In 1985, Steven Spielberg (whose coat had been pulled by Jones) cast her as the lead in the film version of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple.'' She became a Hollywood personage, and even won an Academy Award of her own, as best supporting actress for her role in the 1990 "Ghost." But such recent disappointments as losing out to Queen Latifah for a key role in "Chicago" have forced her to throw her energies into a typically ambitious plan B: not just "Ma Rainey," but theater, TV and film production.
"It was kind of a necessity,'' Goldberg says. She's sitting in her dressing room at the Royale Theatre, which she's decorated with drawings by her grandchildren--for which she paid them $10 apiece. "It was the kind of thing where either I had to go out and make the work for myself or not work at all." In the early '90s, she formed the One Ho production company with old friend and new business partner Tom Leonardis, which turned out such popular TV shows as Lifetime's "Strong Medicine" and a new version of "Hollywood Squares." (You know who starred.) Now they've produced the Tony award-winning "Thoroughly Modern Millie," currently on Broadway, as well as "Ma Rainey," and Goldberg is shopping a script around Hollywood, based on a book called "Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany." ("The guys at the studios say, 'OK, but what's the hook?' I say, 'What's the hook? Did you hear the title?' '') Right now, though, she's focused on her return to Broadway, in a production already dogged by personnel problems. Recently she and costar Charles Dutton complained in New York's Time Out magazine about such things as the order of their names in the billing. And if the show runs long enough--right now it's supposed to run through June--it's sure to take its toll on her, since she and Dutton will be performing every night. "Child, if I'd known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn't be sitting here," she says. "It's been seven years since I've been onstage. It's in my contract that I have to be carried on twice a week."
OK, that's a joke--Goldberg's default mode when something's bothering her. But get her talking about the past decade, and it's clear that the Whoopiness is only skin-deep. "Sometimes I think the lack of work is payback from the people who perceived me as being arrogant and difficult early on,'' she says. "But it's much more than that. I mean, in this industry if you are a woman who doesn't have that f--ability factor, you're not going to work a lot. I'm not sexy enough for those in power, and that limits the stuff I get considered for. I'd hoped early on to change that image of what made a woman sexy--particularly a black woman. I really thought my looks would say that it's OK to just be who you are and look the way you look, but nobody wanted to listen."
Goldberg had a particularly bad moment at last year's Academy Awards--which she was hosting for the third time--when Halle Berry gave her tearful acceptance speech as the first African-American woman to win a best-actress Oscar. Berry evoked the "nameless and faceless" women of color who'd gone before her, but didn't mention Goldberg, the last black actress to win an Oscar. "I was stunned and a little hurt, particularly since I was standing there," says Goldberg. "You figure, if she's not going to recognize me, why should anyone else?'' She found some solace from a source you'd never expect. "I read the autobiography of Sid Caesar," she says, "and saw how much he doubted himself when things were rough, and it changed my whole perspective." But it's hard to imagine anything keeping Whoopi Goldberg down for long: this is a woman who's beaten both poverty and an early heroin addiction. And that laziness of hers? She's working on it.