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Actress Tina Lifford returns to Chicago for play, ‘The Circle’

TinLifford actress hit show Parenthood was here bring her play EvanstIllinois. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Tina Lifford, actress on the hit show Parenthood, was here to bring her play to Evanston, Illinois. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:51AM

Actress Tina Lifford, who plays crotchety mother-in-law Renee Trussell on NBC’s hit series Parenthood, has returned to her roots during Black History Month: Evanston.

It’s where the 58-year-old actress was born and raised — hers the first black family to move onto their block at Greenleaf and Fowler streets.

“Grandmommy and daddy and even mommy would go work for white people, cooking, as caterers, or whatever. But my father made it clear to us that we could do or be anything we wanted,” said Lifford, of Studio City, Calif., who was in Chicago last week to promote her play, “The Circle.”

“In terms of racism, I don’t remember it being a real part of my life but I’m an old soul. I can be 100 percent present but absolutely not of whatever is going on,” she said.

Lifford will host a performance of her play — about life affirmation —Tuesday at Evanston’s Music Institute. She recently reflected on her childhood here.

Her father was a bus driver; her mother, a typesetter; her father’s parents established enough to own a home with a coach house at Hartrey and Church streets. It’s where the family hung out on summer evenings — the adults chatting, the children chasing fireflies.

During Evanston Township High School football games, they’d watch from the porch.

“We never locked our doors, ever. Even at night,” she said.

Today, Lifford also is an author/playwright, life coach and CEO of her personal development firm.

Her TV break came as a regular on the 80’s night soap, Knot’s Landing; her big screen break, as Danny Glover’s sister in the 1991 Grand Canyon.

She played a rare black female lead in a 1994 TV series — long after Diahann Carroll’s 60’s ground breaker Julia, and before Kerry Washington’s current Scandal — as single mother Joan Moseley in Fox’s short-lived South Central.

She’s also played significant African-American historical characters: Winnie Mandela opposite Hollywood icons Sydney Poitier and Michael Caine in Showtime’s biopic, Mandela and de Klerk; and Mama Haze, Otis Williams’ mother, in TV’s high-grossing The Temptations Story.

“From childhood, acting was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” she said.

Lifford caught the acting bug from a drama teacher at Evanston’s Foster School. (She also attended Washington and Chute schools. Her mother attended New Trier but because she was black, she couldn’t go to prom or walk the stage at graduation).

At age 12, her family moved to Los Angeles, and would again integrate a community.

“I think it was part of our DNA to be the first blacks to move into all-white neighborhoods,” she laughs. “My family often talks about the culture of the Liffords. White people loved us. We were their proof that they weren’t racist, and then of course, they never considered us black because we ‘spoke well.’”

For Lifford, who has appeared in more than 80 TV shows and films, a second passion is helping people release what she calls the baggage of the past, having seen in her own family results of not doing so.

Her brother died of a drug overdose; her parents’ marriage dissolved after 40 years; and among her mother’s childhood scars are issues of race.

“Both of [her mother’s] parents died of tuberculosis. [Her mother] went to live with her grandparents. But my grandfather was very mean to my mom because of her dark skin,” Lifford said. “She carried that baggage around, without knowing it. We all have unresolved emotional dramas, traumas, upsets and disappointments. We have to resolve these, to heal.”

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