Whoopi Goldberg isn’t Jesus Christ, but she might be the closest thing we have to Jesus currently touring the country. She definitely has the power to (emotionally) heal people. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve felt it myself. I’m not being sarcastic. I’m being as sincere as I’ve ever been.
Outside the Motorcity Casino, in the parking lot after the show, my husband and I sat, staring straight ahead out the windshield, still mesmerized:
Me: let’s just pause a minute
Me: that was so emotional, like a revival
Him: i know. it was so life affirming.
Me: it gave me hope. It felt like everyone in that auditorium wanted to connect with everyone else, like we were all bonded because of Whoopi.
Him: Yeah, I love Whoopi!
I’ve loved Whoopi since I was seventeen and saw her first HBO special with the valley girl getting the abortion. In retrospect, maybe that bit she did in 1986, helped me feel okay about getting an abortion two years later. Actually, I loved Whoopi a year before that when she starred as Celie in The Color Purple, which was a book my mother had assigned me to read the summer between ninth and tenth grades. I’d fallen in love with the book and with Celie and later, when the movie came out the following year, I fell in love with Whoopi, too. She was young and honest and seemed free and unaffected in a way I almost never witnessed a young woman being. Most young women were apologetic and insecure, even when outgoing and popular.
More recently, I’ve loved watching Whoopi on The View whenever I found myself in a hotel room at eleven in the morning on a weekday. I loved Whoopi because she seemed unafraid to be herself and to say what she was thinking. And because she still liked smoking cigarettes and talked about smoking cigarettes even after cigarettes became the focus of the nation’s alleged concern for its health, while then growing fatter and fatter in the months and years following the banning of smoking in restaurants and bars. I loved her unabashed love of weed and her Joan Didion like take on personal responsibility. I loved her candor and her Whoopi-ness, her inability to be something she’s not or her unwillingness to change for the sake of being liked. Maybe she reminds me of my mom in that regard. I think in many regards Whoopi reminds me of my mom.
When I bought the tickets for Whoopi’s show in Detroit, I didn’t know what to expect. But that was part of the draw. My husband and I had been to three comedy shows in the past year: Artie Lange, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. The most interesting thing about the Chris Rock show was that they took everyone’s phones and locked them in bags until they exited the theater. (I’d left my old slide phone in the car but it was fun watching everyone else freak out.*) Chris was also the most interesting of those three performers, though he leaned heavily toward the cynical now that he had gone through - and still seemed mildly obsessed with - a divorce. You didn’t exactly feel uplifted leaving the theater. Not that you should feel uplifted leaving a comedy show. It’s just an observation.
I’d bought the tickets two or three months in advance. Things had momentarily seemed “not as bad” in the country. Still bad, but I could breathe. The week of the show, however, there’d been a return to feeling as I had in the immediate months after the election: fractured, isolated, distraught. There were the recent, highly-publicized suicides. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to this show. Maybe we should just stay home and work or stay home and read or stay home and board up our house and never leave.
(Ironically, hours before we went to see Whoopi, I texted two friends from my bathtub that I didn’t think I would ever write another essay. It was “too hard.” “People only want to vilify you, so they look for words to use to that end, and ignore the rest of what you’ve said.” “I’m tired of feeling like I have to have an opinion on everything, or anything.” “I’m tired.” “I only want to speak from now on through my art.” [eyeroll] But then I came home from the show and immediately went upstairs to my office and typed up 2k words of notes. I immediately felt it important to write about the experience at least for my friends and family members, a text message seemed profoundly insufficient.)
*I emailed this essay to my daughter and asked her to read it. “Let me know if I sound pretentious, self-righteous or annoying in any parts,” I said. After she read it she called me. “Okay,” she said. “The only part you were really annoying in was …” I was on the edge of my seat. What horrible thing had I said now? “When you just have to mention not having a smart phone. There’s no reason to put that in but you always have to mention it. No one cares but you, Mom!”
A black mother and daughter were shown to the seats right in front of ours. They looked about the same age as my daughter and I and immediately the mother turned to talk to us, first about scalpers and seat costs and later asking if we would mind taking their picture. We continued to chat off and on throughout the show, and I found myself anticipating and looking forward to another time when the mother would turn around in her seat to tell us something …
[Originally I attempted to talk about race in this essay and this mother and daughter were part of that conversation. But halfway through writing the essay, as was the case halfway through the actual show, “race,” the concept, became less … it wasn’t totally…but we began to feel, or I began to feel, less separated by things like race and economic status and the other factors used to separate people in America…. And I thought talking about race at all detracted from the essay’s real heart, which was the coming together, the uniting, if only for two hours, if only those of us inside the theater, if only while Whoopi was standing before us, encouraging this sense of unity.]
The first draft of this essay opened with: I wish everyone could go see Whoopi. I think we could change the world. Or at least America.
I wrote those lines within hours of the show, still flushed and glowing from the transformation of Whoopi’s audience, of the “us,” from fractured parts – fractured by economic class, race, gender, assumed sexuality – into an emotional and seemingly healing, seemingly come-together whole.
“I’m not gay, but you’re not sure, as it should be. As it should be.” These are the first words I specifically remember Whoopi uttering on stage. [It should also be stated that all of my quotes, be it of audience members or of Whoopi, are remembered to the best of my ability hours after they were uttered. I was not taking notes in the moment. I may slightly misrepresent what was said.]
Whoopi isn’t Jesus. Whoopi likes sex way too much to earnestly be confused with the Son of God. The second thing I remember her saying was something about not wanting to be in a relationship, just wanting to fuck, preferably in a car so she wouldn’t have to invite the person into her house, where he would invariably want things like food. Disappointingly, as far as we know, Jesus never fucked anyone, in a chariot or elsewhere, though he did hang out with a lot of women, and a lot of those women were prostitutes and adulterers. Jesus also didn’t live long enough to go through a midlife crisis, or to go through midlife, or to go through menopause. He didn’t have to contend with things like a dry vagina or potentially painful intercourse due to the body’s decrease in natural lubrication. I looked at my husband at this point, early on, in the show. Was this “too much” for a man nine years my junior? Was he learning things I was embarrassed for him to know, things with which we might soon have to contend?
Whoopi isn’t Jesus but she spent a good amount of time talking about him at the front of the show. She began by talking about politicians in the recent news invoking passages from The Bible to support their political viewpoint. “They’ve been using The Bible on us black people for years. We never thought to ask them where in The Bible it said these things. We never asked them to show us where.” Then she said The Bible said a lot of crazy things – like, man shall not lie with man – and that you couldn’t take those parts of The Bible literally. But, she said, Jesus was cool. Jesus was admirable. She was making an effort lately to be more like Jesus.
I could relate to her wanting to emulate Jesus. Within a couple months of the 2016 presidential election I had begun at night reading The Bible on my Kindle; just the New Testament and just the Gospels, the first four books, that are basically biographies of Jesus’ life. Even though I wasn’t religious, The Bible brought me comfort in those early days of the new presidency when outrage and the threat of violence and despair were the most communicated sentiments. I needed to read about a man whose life was marked by patience and openmindedness, forgiveness and empathy, healing and love.
I copied down in a notebook at night, lines I wanted to remember and mediate on the following day:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Forgive and you will be forgiven”
“And if he should sin against you seven times in the day, and seven times should return to you, saying ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
One of the first comments I remember an audience member that evening – and this is jumping ahead, but the night was framed by an hour of storytelling followed by an hour of questions/statements from audience members, who were positioned in four corners of the room, behind four different microphones that Whoopi pointed to in a very regimented fashion – was about Megan McCain, Whoopi’s conservative cohost on The View. “I know you can’t say anything, but blink twice if Megan annoys the hell out of you,” the woman standing at the microphone said, and the audience laughed. “I know she annoys me!”
Whoopi could have taken the bait. She could easily have made a wisecrack about Megan and garnered more applause, and been done with the question. But she didn’t. She took the question another way. She talked about needing different viewpoints on the show and how Megan had come from Fox and was getting used to the new format, a new way of having a discourse on a show. She said she had a lot of respect for Megan and she still missed Elisabeth (Hasselbeck) every day. She said, “These women get so much hate, every day, from both sides. You have no idea.”
And then she brought up the name of Megan’s father, John McCain. And the audience quieted. I could feel the audience waiting. I sensed they were ready to go whichever way Whoopi took them with regard to John McCain. Booing or clapping. Support or condemnation.
And then a woman two rows in front of us, a middle-aged woman with a buzzcut, shouted out, “He’s a hero!” in a voice verging between passion and anger, as though ready to defend at all costs.
And at almost the same time, Whoopi said the same thing. “The man is a hero.” Then, she added, “He and I might disagree on almost everything, politically, but I’d take a bullet for John McCain.”
And instantly the room quieted, and then there was a smattering of applause. And my eyes teared up for the first time that night, not because I have any particular feeling about John McCain – I know almost nothing about him – but because of the seemingly at odds dichotomy of being on opposite political spectrums from a particular person, but still having so much respect for them as to be willing to give up your life for him.
It wasn’t a sentiment you heard often, if ever, in 2018. We were being coached to see someone of a different political bent than us as The Enemy. No remorse. No compassion. No reason to have a conversation. Linger too long and come under suspicion yourself of being “one of them.” [Later someone asked Whoopi what her dream presidential ticket would look like for 2020, and she said, without hesitation, “Biden/McCain,” which she followed up with, “I know. White guys. But there’s a lot of them. And I really believe now that both these men truly have the best interest of the country in their hearts.”]
But Whoopi doesn’t care about suspicions or how things look. In a different conversation regarding social media, Whoopi talked about a young actress who was attacked on Twitter even though she is only fourteen. “They don’t care. They went after her. If you’re fourteen they treat you like you’re ninety.” She followed up this conversation in which she discussed getting off all social media platforms with, “Do you care what people think of you? Do you? I don’t care. I really don’t.”
And it is this not caring about what people think of her that allows Whoopi to remain rational and thoughtful and open and empathetic. She is trying to be more like Jesus, and she is succeeding, and she is radical.
I can’t remember now if it was Whoopi or someone else (me?) who recently, asked, “Do you think Jesus cared what people thought of him?” Jesus was radical, too.
In a 1984 New York Times review of Whoopi’s one-woman show on Broadway, the critic Frank Rich said, “Don’t be surprised if you leave the [theater] feeling more enthusiastic about Whoopi Goldberg, the personality, than ‘Whoopi Goldberg,’ the show.” Thirty years may have passed, but this still seems an accurate assessment of what you get when you purchase tickets to see Whoopi. There were few, if any, outright ‘jokes’ in Whoopi’s act. But I suppose that’s because there wasn’t really an ‘act’ at all. There was more a conversation, or a series of conversations.
The first half of the show Whoopi told stories, most of which were humorous. There was a story about eating her daughter’s edibles and getting way too high. There was a story about being cooped up on a train with an unsupervised child with a very nasty cold. There was a story about teaching her grandson the phrase, “fuck it.” And there were lots of stories about aging and sex, particularly, sex with men in their twenties - “They don’t know what they’re doing. You have to tell them. You give them oral and they think you’re done. They don’t know how to reciprocate. You have to show them everything. So I do.” (heavily paraphrased!)
And then came the hour already described, the hour in which whoever waited in line, got to ask Whoopi a question or tell Whoopi his or her own story. And, surprisingly, no one was an asshole. No one took advantage of the spotlight. People were cool and chill. Which isn’t always what happens when you have a Q&A. Usually there’s at least one asshole.
One of the first questions I remember came from a younger woman. She talked about how Trump had run on his Make America Great Again slogan and how since then the country had been torn apart and how we all needed to come together, everyone in the room. She asked Whoopi when we were going to “Make America United Again,” and Whoopi said, “Get that on a shirt.” [I amend my earlier statement to say this may have been the first time my eyes misted over, not from Whoopi’s answer, but because of the young woman’s question and because of her desire for coming together/unity; yes, yes, we wanted that too.]
Then a middle-aged woman told Whoopi she was an actress and asked if she should leave Detroit and move to California to follow her dream. And Whoopi didn’t hesitate but said, “No,” and you could see the surprise on the woman’s face (which was televised on a screen next to Whoopi); you could feel the surprise in the room. A famous person not telling someone to leave everything and follow her dreams? Unheard of. “No, but I’ll tell you what you should do. You should stay here and expand the theater community. But you have to do it. No one’s going to do it for you. You have to grow it and make it something cool and something exciting, something others want to be involved with.”
Then there was a young woman, very young, maybe nineteen or twenty, who asked Whoopi, “How do you leave a relationship you’ve been in five years?” And Whoopi said, “You don’t want to leave the relationship?” and the young woman shook her head. and Whoopi said, “Did you get broken up with?” and the young woman again shook her head. “You were the one who broke it off?” The young woman nodded. “But he wants to get back together?” nodding. “And you’re having second thoughts?” More nodding. “Did you leave for good reasons?” “Yes.” “Don’t go back; Keep moving forward.” And she was on to another question.
At some point someone, asked a question about police brutality of black men, and Whoopi responded, “There’s always been some bad cops. And now it’s not just blacks. It’s everyone. White women are affected. Black women. Everyone. And we have to do something. But we have to do it. No one else will.”
A woman asked for an autograph. Begged. Pleaded. Whoopi said, “I have to say no. I can’t do it for you because then I have to do it for everyone.”
A young woman stood awkwardly at the microphone and said something seemingly accusatory to Whoopi like, “What have you done for mental illness?” And the overall feeling in the crowd was nervousness. It seemed like this young woman was accusing Whoopi of not doing something or of not doing enough. “I’ve done benefits and given talks to raise awareness for mental illness.”
“I know,” the young woman said. “I know you have and I wanted to thank you. I suffer from mental illness.” And the crowd’s nervousness turned to compassion.
And Whoopi said, “You’re not alone. Other people here suffer from mental illness or know someone who does. You are not alone.”
And I was definitely trying not to sob at this point because someone I am very close to has suffered profoundly over the years due to an extreme mental illness. Two years ago he was homeless and I was trying to get him help, into a treatment center. I called his mother and sister, his only known family members, and both refused to help. His mother said of him, “he’s manipulative.” This is why mental illness, of all illnesses, is the hardest to live with. Your own family abandons you because it’s so hard to remember it’s not the person, the person’s personality, it’s truly the disease that’s making them say or do things that are often hard for friends and family to deal with.
And I know he very often feels alone and is alone. He is the most isolated person I know. And it breaks my heart. And I felt for this young woman who was brave enough to stand up to thank Whoopi and to announce her own disease. And I felt for Whoopi who was trying to help bring awareness to a disease that isn’t often the easiest to get people excited about addressing.
And then there was a woman who said she was trying to be a comedian and asked Whoopi if she could get her on The View.
“You know it’s not my show, right?” Whoopi said. “I work for ABC.”
“Well, can I do some of my act then?” the woman asked.
“Now?” Whoopi said. And my husband and I looked at each other. In our experience this wouldn’t go well. But Whoopi said, “Okay, but only one joke.”
And the woman launched into a whole bit about can you imagine what a Michael Jackson themed casino would be like? Every time you pull the slot machine, you’d hear…Heehee! ("The Way You Make Me Feel")
And she was actually pretty funny. And she didn’t go too long. And we all ended up laughing. Which we needed after fighting tears for so long.
A young woman, maybe thirty, asked Whoopi to speak to her mother. She said her mother had raised three children on her own and had always been strong but now she was facing setbacks, she was weakening, she was going through a real bad time. The young woman said Whoopi was one of her mother’s favorite people and she needed Whoopi to speak to her. The young woman alluded a little more to the challenges her mother was facing and finally Whoopi said, “Where’s your mother? Can you have her stand up?”
And a woman stood, somewhere in the middle of the crowd, and we all turned and Whoopi turned and walked to the very end of the stage and looked directly at her. “Listen, I know you’ve had a hard time, recently, but you’re strong. You can do this. You can get through this.” And she paused. “Listen to me, I know you can make it through this. I know how strong you are inside. You’ve been through tough times and you’ve made it through. You got this. I know you do.”
And again the theater was silent. And again most of us were watching with tears running down our faces. We all wanted this woman to be okay. We all wanted to believe this woman believed Whoopi. We wanted her to believe she was as strong as Whoopi said, that she had this. The alternative was unacceptable.
And a middle-aged woman stood up and told Whoopi she’d inspired her to leave an abusive relationship and thanked her for giving her that strength. And Whoopi said, “No, no. That was you. I didn’t give that to you. You always had it, inside you.”
And the woman repeated, “I just wanted to thank you.”
And Whoopi smiled, and said, “Okay.”
And in between all of these longer, emotional questions were shorter, funnier ones. A middle-aged man who was seated in front of us, on the other side of the mother and daughter pair, with his wife, stood behind a microphone and said, “Now I’m married. I’ve been married a very, very long time. And I would never cheat on my wife, and I know you said you like younger men, anyway, but I just once want to hear your sexy voice say, “[man’s name], are you single?”
And Whoopi asked the man where his wife was and he pointed and his wife stood. “Is it okay with you?” Whoopi asked and his wife laughed and nodded, and Whoopi looked back at the man, into his eyes, and said, “Honey, are you single?”
A list of other short Q’s and A’s:
Who was your mentor?
My mother. And everyone I ever met because everyone, everything, informs you, the good, the bad, everyone, all of it.
What was your favorite professional experience?
Doing Comic Relief with Robin and Billy.
What do you think of when you think of The Color Purple?
I remember being cast in a Steven Spielberg movie! Looking like this!
I also remembering him getting some flak for it, people saying it shouldn’t have been him, he shouldn’t have been the one who made it. But no one else was stepping up. That’s the thing. If you’re not going to do it, you can’t complain when someone else does.
What do you want to be known for?
Still being here.
And for staying myself the entire time.
What are you most proud of?
Being a halfway decent human being.
Halfway through I had noticed the mother sitting in front of us get up and go get in one of the lines behind a mike. Finally it was her turn to speak.
“A few years ago my daughter and I were touring colleges. She wanted to go to an arts school, become an animator. We were torn between two. So we went home to think about it and then I read that you did the commencement speech that year at SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] and that was it, we were decided. And my daughter graduated from there in 2016. I gave your guy her card, maybe you can help her.”
“She’s an animator? That’s so great,” Whoopi said. “We need more female animators. Where is she?”
And all of us near her began pointing and the man next to her urged her to stand up, and everyone clapped and cheered.
And then there was only one person left behind a microphone. A middle-aged man.
“I have a few questions,” he said.
“You’ve been waiting a long time,” Whoopi said. “Let’s hear them.”
“Well, my wife hasn’t been doing too well. It’s her birthday next month but I saw you were coming now so I got her tickets and I was hoping we could all sing her “Happy Birthday.” But, also, she just found out her daughter has cancer, and she’s starting chemo next week, and I was hoping you could say something to her, to uplift her.”
And again Whoopi asked where she was, and the woman stood, and the man continued to tell us about his wife and her daughter, how down she was, and maybe because it was the last question of the night or maybe because Whoopi had had a similar experience, Whoopi walked to the side of the stage and began climbing over the barricade. And as we watched, some of us in the crowd tried to get a round of “Happy Birthday” going. But then the woman was brought over and Whoopi was helped over the final barricade and the two of them were hugging. They were hugging what felt like a long time and then Whoopi took her shoes off her feet and was, I thought, autographing them for the woman.
“I wrote a message in there for you,” Whoopi said, handing the woman her shoes. “Now I know y’all tried to get a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ going before but let’s all sing together now, on the count of three.” And Whoopi counted us down and we sang both versions of “Happy Birthday”, and again we were crying, wishing this woman we didn’t know but whose story we partially knew, well. Wishing her daughter who we also didn’t know, well. Praying she’d be okay, that she’d make it through the chemo, that she’d beat the cancer.
And then Whoopi said, “Thank you, Detroit. I feel better after tonight with you.”
And the feeling was definitely mutual. And the sentiment was, for us, an understatement. We felt, in that moment, healed and united.
I have been trying to retain that feeling.
I knew as soon as we left the theater it would already be partially gone.
You could feel it drifting as we began our slow walk out.
And before we left the theater I tapped the daughter who had been sitting in front of us on the shoulder. “Congratulations,” I said, smiling.
“Thank you,” she said and smiled.
I had wanted to say more, to tell her mother that my daughter had just graduated college, too, with a degree in science. I had wanted to share the stories of our daughters, to congratulate each other on raising such fine, strong women.
But it was enough just to know that we had, and to hear her daughter’s story told aloud.
On the drive home my husband said, “All those people waited in line to tell Whoopi they loved her or that she changed their life or that she inspired them, and it didn’t seem…”
“It seemed genuine, all of them,” I said.
“Yes, it didn’t seem just like, oh, I want to talk to a celebrity or I want to have a famous person look at me.”
“Right. We all really love her.”
It wasn’t until after we got home, until I was typing up the notes, that I remembered Whoopi saying early on in the night that she was trying to be more like Jesus.
It wasn’t until I read the 1984 review of Whoopi’s one-woman show a second time that I saw the line, “Whoopi Goldberg’s liberating spirit fills up the theater …”
Which was exactly what it did.
And I wish we had more liberating spirits to lift us up right now, more people trying to emulate Jesus. I read once that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think a modern day cynic might be someone who knows the worst thing everyone has done but fails to recognize the good in anyone. We have to fight in these modern times against cynicism. Whoopi reminded us that night of the good in all of us, in the desire for human connection, in the wanting of our fellow man and woman to do well, to succeed, to not weaken or perish, regardless of class or political affiliation or race or sexuality.
What do you want to be known for?
Still being here.
And for staying myself the entire time.
What are you most proud of?
Being a halfway decent human being.