Erika Alexander is not only an iconic veteran actress; she’s also an entrepreneur, creator, producer, director and activist who utilizes her work to benefit the well-being of Black women and other marginalized groups. 

To that order, she’s now the voice of the new Audible Original, Finding Tamika, that examines the struggles families face when seeking proper media attention for missing and murdered Black women. Exploring the lack of mainstream media coverage, the podcast utilizes the story of 25-year-old Tamika Huston as its narrative vehicle.

Alexander sat down with Blavity to discuss the new podcast, ways everyday people can advocate for the safety of Black women and a bevy of fun musings, including her iconic role as Maxine Shaw on Living Single.

Exploring the story of Tamika Huston

Finding Tamika is the true story of how a Black woman’s murder was solved shortly after garnering necessary media attention. Part speculative drama and part true crime, the podcast also discusses how Black girls are unseen even when they’re not missing and ways to continue important conversations relevant to the well-being and safety of Black women. 

Tamika Huston was a 25-year-old Black woman from Spartanburg, S.C. She went missing in 2004. Her family struggled to land the necessary media coverage until Huston’s aunt, Rebekah Howard, was able to get the attention of Black journalist and producer Tiffany Cross, who worked for America’s Most Wanted. The story was also on Dateline NBC and in USA Today

“When she did start to get some national attention, they had huge breaks in the case,” Alexander told Blavity. 

Media coverage was essential to getting a murder confession from Huston’s ex-boyfriend, Christopher Lamont Hampton, who also revealed the location of her remains in 2005.  

“The story Finding Tamika is about the true crime story of that, but also the story of her life and the fact that we didn’t see her. So when we don’t see Black women and women of color, how are we going to see them when they disappear?” Alexander said. “John Lennon famously said that women are the n****rs of the world, well, if that’s the case, then Black women are the  n****rs of the n****rs. We are the lowest of the low. And why go looking for something that you don’t value?”

Everyday people can advocate for Black women

While Alexander stressed the importance of media outlets and celebrities stepping up to support Black women, she said that everyone can play a part in ensuring erasure doesn’t exist. 

“Please tell a friend; please listen,” Alexander said. “I think people think we in showbiz have more power than we do. We don’t have the power — our audience gives us that, because if they lift us up, we’re able to say, ‘Look, there’s an audience for it. And look, they’re powerful.’”

She also noted that outside support is invaluable, especially since she’s only recently gotten the opportunity to produce advocacy projects. 

“So I know I’ve been here nearly 40 years and I’m just getting the opportunity to be a producer in this space,” Alexander said. “I can assure you, I believe that I try to maintain a certain amount of respect and standards. And I’m hoping that people look at me and say, ‘Of course, I’ll support Erika. She’s out there doing the good work and I can see that she’s holding it down.’ I like to do that so I can help people who don’t have these platforms to bring them in [on advocacy efforts].”

The icon that is Maxine Shaw

She’s had a four-decade career with many powerful roles, but it seems none more iconic than her Living Single character, Maxine Shaw. 

According to Alexander, the character fully developed out of the chemistry she was able to have with her castmates. 

“I thought immediately that I admired every one of the cast. We got together and all of us just started laughing and having fun,” she said. “And there are all sorts of magical things that can happen when you’re that young — you just start to play. And then the chemistry starts.”

Aside from cast chemistry, Alexander said that the show’s writer and producer Yvette Lee Bowser also gave the actors the room to fully explore their roles. 

Alexander said the way Max walked was inspired by Sherman Hemsley and her clapback style came by way of Marla Gibbs

“I watched all those people and loved them,” she said. “I appreciate that somehow they gave me the courage to try things but also the attitude I needed. I always say that Maxine Shaw is the house that Fox built, not just because I was on Fox. I really wasn’t talking about them so much as Redd Foxx, Michael J. Fox – those people I admire in comedy, you can see that in their DNA.” 

The fictional lawyer-turned-alderwoman quickly became a real-life inspiration for many women, those like Stacey Abrams, who according to Alexander, said Shaw was the reason she got into politics. 

“Shout out to people like Stacey Abrams and Marilyn Mosby and Mayor de Blasio and his wife and others who have come up to me and said because of that character, they went into politics or they became a lawyer or they became CEOs or leaders. And here I am with a high school degree, although I did get into NYU, I just kept acting, ‘cause I thought it was the best way to help my family. I’m glad that it resonated. And to all the young people who now are finding it because it’s being played and come up now and give me so much hugs and love, thank you, I don’t take that for granted.” 

There’s no such thing as an authentic cheesesteak outside of Philly, and other musings

Though she may have been born in Arizona, Alexander spent the latter part of her youth in Philadelphia. Given that, she is well within her right to say that there is no such thing as an authentic cheesesteak outside of the City of Brotherly Love.

“‘Cause I’ve tried. No, No,” Alexander said of her cheesesteak tasting experiences in other cities. 

If she was stuck on an island, she would want Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life with her, but she also knows all of the lyrics to Barbra Streisand’s Yentl soundtrack, which she jokes might get her Black card snatched. 

And her one hope for her legacy is that people will know she did everything she came to do.  

“When I’m dead and gone, I hope people will have more to talk about than just what I performed,” she said. “For some of the people I admire, Cicely Tyson and Harry Belafonte, who has not passed at all yet, and Sidney Poitier — they pass you the baton and you’re supposed to run. And, not just run for things that I want in life to fatten my checkbook or to build fame, but to run for the cause, and for our people, and for America and also for the world. And I hope they will say, ‘She did. She was a long-distance runner.’ That’s what I want them to say.”