Actress. Stand-up comedian. Advocate. Lesbian. Author.
SAN DIEGO -- This weekend brings the final run of Diversionary Cabaret's "The Facts Of Life: The Lost Episode," a campy romp through a wide-eyed and racy, but laugh-out-loud funny, "lost episode" version of the beloved 1980s sitcom of the same name.
The stage play kicks the insanity of the show up about a hundred notches, with the premise being the girls open a brothel to save their beloved dorm house.
Aside from the main characters fans grew to know and love in the television show: Mrs. Garrett, Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Jo, this stage play, written with sharp wit and perfect comedic timing by Jamie Morris (who also plays Mrs. G) adds Melvin, the headmaster of the school as the arch-villan, and theater-goers are also treated to a cameo by Blair's infamous cousin, Geri.
The comedic stage play first debuted in 2004 in Provincetown (P-town), Mass., and it has been seen all over the country and featured on Atlantis cruises, ever since.
The longtime cast members are Morris, Brooks Braselman (Natalie, Melvin, Geri), and Charile Logan (Jo), with two San Diegans joining the cast for this run, Tony Houck (Blair) and Kevane Coleman (Tootie).
It is important to note that both Houck and Coleman had just two weeks to learn their parts and you'd never know they haven't been part of the cast since day one. This Friday (tonight), Saturday and Sunday (matinee) will be the final weekend of its short run as part of Diversionary's Cabaret series.
The real cousin Geri is Geri Jewell, the actress and stand-up comic who, in 1984, was the first actor with a disability (Jewell has cerebral palsy) to ever have a recurring role on prime time network television.
Jewell still lives in Los Angeles and just two years ago, came out as a lesbian. She is friends with both Morris and his "Lost Episode" director boyfriend, Christopher Kinney, and a big supporter of the stage play.
She recently released her autobiography; "I'm Walking As Straight As I Can," a play on words regarding her disability and her sexuality at the same time, while telling a gripping but poignant story of a life filled with stardom, struggle and personal triumph.
This week Jewell spoke to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about the "Lost Episode" show at Diversionary Theater, her struggles with her sexuality, her new book and her new TV show, "Alcatraz."
The Facts of Geri's Life
Geri Jewell was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Southern California with her family as a young child. She grew up in Long Beach and later Fullerton. In 1978, she got her first gig on stage at the Comedy Store in Hollywood and her career as a stand-up comedian began.
"I still do stand-up, I will always do stand-up," she told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.
Two years after that Comedy Store debut, Norman Lear caught her act and created a role just for her on the popular sitcom that focused on the struggles of teenaged girls, "The Facts Of Life." The show had a nine year run (1979-1988) and Jewell was a recurring cast member for four of them (1980-1984).
Being cast as the first disabled person to have a recurring role in prime time and the very first person with cerebral palsy (CP) to be on network TV, was groundbreaking, and paved the way for many other actors who followed.
"I'm proud of that," she said. "It was quite an honor to have that as part of my personal journey."
Since leaving "Facts Of Life" in 1984, Jewell has made dozens of other TV appearances, her most recent being a regular role on HBO's "Deadwood."
She has also spent the better part of her life as a fierce advocate for the disabled. A heavily sought-after motivational speaker and instructor, she has trained commercial corporations and agencies of the U.S. government on sensitivity training and employment issues on behalf of the community.
"The government now hires people with disabilities, but they didn't always consider it," Jewell said. "I tried to get a job with the U.S. Army back in 1977, but there were no civilian options available to someone like me then."
Things have changed drastically, thanks, in part, to Jewell's 25 years of advocacy and her innate ability to change people's hearts and minds, often with humor. She is thrilled to now have the opportunity to advocate for the LGBT community, as well.
"I first thought that when I came out I would no longer be embraced by the disabled community," she said, fighting through tears. "I was so afraid of rejection, they had been my lifelong support system.
"What I discovered was the opposite. When I came out, I got thousands and thousands of hits on my website and hundreds of emails from LGBT people with disabilities, thanking me for being their role model."
After a lifelong struggle with her sexuality, which included eight years of marriage, Jewell officially came out on stage in March 2010, at the Renberg Theater at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. Her routine was part of a comedy show fundraiser, "Laugh Out Loud" for LifeWorks, a youth empowering project of the Center. It is now available on DVD.
It was the first time Jewell had incorporated any "gay material" into her stand-up routine and it wasn't easy.
"It was scary to do, it was new territory to cover for me," she said. "I had been struggling with my sexuality since college, then here I was, known to millions but I couldn't come out because I hadn't decided -- I wasn't sure what I was."
Jewell admitted that a period of sexual and mental abuse she experienced in her late teens and early 20s impeded her growth and caused her years of pain and mental anguish. Despite the demise of an eight-year marriage some years later, she is very grateful for her ex-husband and that period of her life. The relationship provided Jewell a safety net, of sorts, and offered her the stability and space to find out who she was.
"I was honest with him from the beginning," she said. "I wasn't sure if it was going to work, I had been through so much trauma in my early adult years and I just shut down. I compartmentalized things to deal with my pain.
"But I have no regrets, it was a struggle and a lot of pain, but it was a two way street. I never lied, there were no secrets.
"Today at 55 I have finally become a whole person. I know who I am, and what I want. It took me almost my whole life -- but now my life is reflecting it back to me tenfold. The more true you are living your life, the more life reflects back to you."
The Facts of 1980's Television
The "Facts Of Life" tackled many sensitive issues during its nine years on television. Jewell goes into detail in her book about those years on and off the "Facts Of Life" set, and delves into her friendships with the other cast members.
She became quite close to Lisa Whelchel (Blair), who played her cousin on the show, but these days they are more distant due to their differing religious views (Whelchel is a devout Christian).
When asked what her view was on Nancy McKeon's character, Jo, thought to many to be the closeted butch girl of the show, she was quick to defend.
"I felt sorry for Nancy," she said. "She was dating Michael J. Fox at that time and everyone thought she was a lesbian because of the show.
"The producers only made Jo a tomboy to have a character with total contrast from Blair. What they didn't understand, was there were lesbians watching that needed a role model and Nancy McKeon's Jo became that role model."
No doubt many women today who were fans of the show then, agree. Jo (and Kristy McNichol's "Buddy" before her) gave young, questioning teen girls at home someone to identify with, some 15 years before Ellen came out on the "puppy" episode.
Geri's Take on "The Lost Episode" at Diversionary's Cabaret
Despite its close to X rating, fans of the TV series will immediately bond with the exaggerated characters performing on the Diversionary stage this weekend, but the play also stands alone as a hit to those who have never seen the show. The actors, the pace, the comedy and the writing will draw everyone in and provide non-stop laughter from the moment the lights go up.
Jewell herself gets a kick out of the play but admits it is a bit over-the-top, even for her.
"I truthfully think it is a little raunchy, but then I have to say, I was on 'Deadwood.' That's not raunchy? The dialogue [of the "Last Episode"] is very funny and it's fun. I did have to wince a couple times, but who am I to judge?
"I think Brooks [who also plays Natalie, Melvin as well as Geri in the stage play] does me so well. It's not anything that's malicious, it is quite a tribute and quite classy."
Jewell has been parodied often over the years, most notably by "South Park," "Family Guy," MTV and Heather McDonald on "Chelsey Lately."
"Heather has me down to a T," she laughed. "They even let me come on their show and confront her while she was impersonating me. I'm not offended [by the parodies]. The only time I am offended is when they are trying to be cruel."
Churning out the Roles
Her most recent role as a cleaning lady named Jewel on HBO's "Deadwood," an American western drama set in the 1800s, got rave reviews. The role was another character that was created just for her, when the director happened to run into her at a pharmacy. The show, which ran for three seasons, was known for its excessive use of profanity.
Jewell will soon debut her latest recurring cast role on Fox TV's new "Alcatraz," which premiered Monday, Jan. 15, with J. J. Abrams as co-executive producer. She will make her first appearance on the show Monday, Jan. 30, playing "merciless associate warden" E. B. Tiller's sister.
See "The Facts Of Life: The Lost Episode" this Weekend
"The Facts Of Life: The Lost Episode" can be seen at the Diversionary Theater, 4545 Park Blvd., Suite 101, in University Heights. Parking is available on the street.
Remaining performances are: tonight, Friday at 8 pm; Saturday, 8 pm and Sunday matinee at 3 pm. Ticket prices vary.
To get tickets, check out the Diversionary website, HERE.
Special note: Jewell has agreed to autograph copies of her book, "I'm Walking as Straight as I Can" and make them available for purchase at Saturday night's show, only.
If you don't make it to Saturday's show but still want to get her book, it is available through her website and at Amazon.
You can keep up with Geri Jewell and her performances at GeriJewell.com or follow her on Twitter at @GeriJewell.
Watch Geri below during her debut episode on The Facts of Life and a short clip of her stand-up routine when she came out in March of 2010.
Photos: Above, left, top: The cast of The Facts of Life next to the cast of Diversionary's The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode; middle: Geri Jewell at FilmOut San Diego, August 2011; bottom: Jewell and friends participating in the NOH8 Campaign, photo by Adam Bouska. All photos courtesy of Geri Jewell.