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April 15, 2020

Sisters in Song

A fabled gospel group driven by woman power gets its due in a new Lifetime movie.

Bob Makela
  • Aujanue Ellis (left), as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, and the singer-actresses who portray her daughters: Kierra Sheard (Karen), Angela Birchett (Jacky), Raven Goodwin (Denise), Christina Ball (Twinkie) and Sheléa Frazier (Dorinda).

    Chris Gregory/A+E Networks
  • Bell at the piano with (from left) Sheard, Birchett, Frazier and Goodwin

    Amanda Matlovich

Jacky. Denise. Twinkie. Dorinda. Karen.

While those siblings might not be nearly as recognizable to music fans as, say, the original Jackson 5 — Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie — they are legendary in the gospel world.

After nearly five decades of performing and recording, the Clark Sisters are the biggest-selling female gospel group in music history. Now their compelling story is the subject of the Lifetime movie The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.

Propelled by their late mother, the iconic Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, the sisters not only inspired generations of church choirs with their faith-based harmonies, they also left their mark on the secular world with songs like "You Brought the Sunshine," a 1981 hit that was a staple in discos and black communities.

Two Clark Sisters songs are featured on the recent gospel chart-topping album Snoop Dogg Presents Bible of Love.

The sisters have inspired countless other secular performers, including Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott, who are all executive producers on this movie (also executive-producing are Shakim Compere, Holly Carter and Loretha Jones).

The movie, directed by Christine Swanson from a script by Sylvia L. Jones and Camille Tucker, aired April 11 on Lifetime and will be available on demand as well as for purchase on download-to-own platforms.

Here, the actresses cast as Dr. Mattie and her daughters reflect on the bliss and the burdens of bringing the story behind "the Clark Sound" to the screen.

When AUNJANUE ELLIS was offered the role of Dr. Mattie Moss Clark without auditioning for the part, she wasn't even aware that a Clark Sisters movie was in the works — though she's known about the group since she was a schoolgirl in McComb, Mississippi, and would later become "a little bit obsessed" with the singers.

Ellis is glad she didn't know about the project. "I probably would have been obsessing and pining to be a part of it," she says. "But I was spared that grief."

While most of the actresses cast as the Clark Sisters had little to no screen acting experience, Ellis is a seasoned pro. The NYU grad has a long list of credits in film (Ray, The Help) and TV (Quantico, The Mentalist).

In 2019 she was Emmy-nominated for her performance in Netflix's When They See Us, and she has a coexecutive producer credit on this project.

Still, Ellis didn't feel compelled to press acting wisdom on her less experienced costars. "What I didn't want to do is be Dr. Mattie in real life," she says with a laugh. "Because she was so hard on people. She was impatient with mediocrity.

"But these actresses, they're their own forces. They didn't need me. If they asked for my opinion, I would offer it. But if they didn't, I tried to let them do their thing."

But Ellis doesn't hold back on the value of the film for its recognition of female genius. "That was more important than anything to me," she says. "Dr. Mattie Moss was a genius. The sound that these women created, the composer that Twinkie Clark was and is — this is American genius."

Ellis relished playing the taskmaster matriarch, who ruffled feathers at Detroit's Church of God in Christ. "It was so fun to just go for it, balls to the wall — or ovaries to the wall," she says, cracking up. "All those stories that I was told about her, what makes her legendary, I just collapsed into that."

She confesses to another ulterior motive for joining the film: she was eager to hear the onscreen Clark Sisters sing. "That's what my joy was in coming to work — hearing these young women sing every day," Ellis recalls. "I'll never forget that."

ANGELA BIRCHETT ADMITS IT: she was going to do "whatever it took" to be considered for a role in the Clark Sisters movie. Having worked mostly in theater, she had all of two TV guest appearances under her belt (Kevin Can Wait and Blindspot).

But like the Clark Sisters, she was from Detroit, where she often saw them perform when she was growing up. And like Jacky Cullum Chisholm, whom Birchett portrays in the film, she was the oldest sibling in a gospel singing group with her sisters. (Jacky had a different father than the other sisters.)

"My whole life I've kind of modeled my style after them," Birchett says. "So when I found out the project was even a thing , I just had this feeling — I've gotta be a part of this."

Once she'd booked the job, Birchett was one of the few cast members who got to spend significant time with her Clark Sisters counterpart. "I found out I got the part right around the time I was going home to Detroit to see my family for Christmas," she recalls.

"So I had my management reach out to see if I could get a sit-down with Jacky." What she assumed would be a 30-minute chat turned into almost four hours of conversation in Jacky's office.

"She was very warm, very transparent," Birchett says. "She really wanted me to understand things that I may not have known, being on the outside looking in."

Jacky helped her "develop the character, to pick up on her mannerisms and her humor." In the process, she discovered they had lots in common.

In addition to the Detroit connection and being the eldest in all-girl families, she realized they both had been singing in groups while also "wanting to find our ways as individuals." All the similarities struck a powerful chord with Birchett. "It was like we've known each other our whole lives."

She's convinced divine inspiration was at work in her landing the role. "It was definitely a God thing," she says. "That doesn't happen very often. Especially working in entertainment and getting told 'no' so many times for projects you feel like you're right for.

"To get to do something that I know so much about because of my upbringing, and to tell a woman's story that I can relate to so well and so easily — I couldn't explain it any other way. It came straight from heaven."

RAVEN GOODWIN DIDN'T GROW UP AROUND GOSPEL MUSIC — she was raised in a secular home full of R&B and Motown in Washington, D.C. The Clark Sisters "just weren't in my household," she says.

And unlike her screen sisters, Goodwin had appeared extensively in films (The Station Agent, Snatched) and on TV (Glee, SMILF). She also turned out to be the only onscreen Clark Sister who didn't get to meet her real-life counterpart.

Denise Clark Bradford, the second oldest of the quintet, left the group in the mid-'80s.

"I asked a few times," Goodwin says. "But when I saw that it wasn't going to happen, I just prayed about it. I mean, I'm an actress. The best I can do is pull it together for her and do it with empathy and love."

Goodwin had one of the more challenging roles, thanks to Clark family tensions and Denise's estrangement from the group. But that's not how she saw it.

"I feel like everybody supported each other," she says. "So if it was challenging, it was a moment. And the girls, we pulled each other up when those moments came.

"When you're trying to tell a story, but trying to honor someone at the same time, trying to be respectful and mindful — there is a little bit of pressure. But it was such a loving environment that it didn't feel that way."

The experience made a lasting impression. When the project came along, Goodwin relates, she was in need of "a spiritual refreshing."

Spending a month around women who were spiritual — and to appear in a movie about spiritual women and spirituality in general — was just what she needed. "It changed my life, for sure," she says.

Her last day on set was especially affecting. "I've closed out shows that I was on for four or five years and didn't get as emotional," Goodwin says.

"I was really emotional because I needed it spiritually. I really needed to do that movie. And the way everything happened and just fell into place, it was God — it was God . He was very present, and that was pretty cool."

CHRISTINA BELL'S ANXIETY WAS UNDERSTANDABLE. After all, it was her first onscreen acting gig and she was playing one of her idols, Twinkie Clark-Terrell, the group's main songwriter and composer.

No wonder she found the opening moments of production "nerve-wracking." Luckily, she says, her costars helped her relax. "The first day, I was super-duper nervous," Bell recalls. "I'm not used to cameras just staring at you like that, in your face. I didn't know what to expect. And they calmed me down. Every last one of them."

The Shreveport native, who moved to Dallas two years ago, was around 13 when she discovered the Clark Sisters.

She later spent nearly two decades in Zie'l, an all-female R&B/gospel group that patterned itself after the legendary group, borrowed liberally from their catalogue and even opened for them a time or two. So landing the role of Twinkie "felt like a full-circle moment."

Bell says she felt a strong connection to Twinkie, though they'd only met a few times before production began. "She's had some trauma in her personal life — marriage not quite working out," says Bell, who, like Clark-Terrell, is a single parent with a daughter.

The film's musical moments were second nature for her. After all, she's been singing professionally for nearly 20 years. She's toured with gospel legends like Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin and gives voice lessons in Dallas.

But acting? She'd been in plays, but this was different. To prepare, she pored over every Clark Sisters video she could find on YouTube. "I wanted to make sure I had everything down pat," Bell recalls. "From the way that she sits, to the way that she sings, the way that she sounds, the way that she laughs even."

She had to pull all that off without any preproduction feedback from Twinkie, but apparently, she succeeded.

Bell ran into the middle Clark sister at a Karen Clark Sheard appreciation in Detroit after production wrapped. Clark-Terrell told Bell that she loved the movie, adding, "But my favorite character was Twinkie." Bell laughs at the memory. "I was like, 'So I take it I did you justice?' And Twinkie was like, 'You did a really, really good job.'"

LIKE HER SCREEN SISTERS, SHELÉA FRAZIER, who plays Dorinda Clark-Cole — "the feisty one," according to Frazier — felt a strong bond with her real-life counterpart.

"There were so many parallels," she says. "It's four sisters in my family, five sisters in their family. Plus, Dorinda was very close to her mother, and I'm very close to my mom. I felt very connected to the character, so I felt like all my instincts were going to be the right ones."

Frazier is grateful that the production was committed to finding actresses who could sing — or singers who could act. The Bakersfield, California, native grew up singing and playing piano in church.

She performed twice at the Obama White House and has toured and recorded with the likes of David Foster, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, whom she considers a mentor.

"The acting was very unexpected," Frazier says. "It wasn't something that I ever was thinking would be my path. But when this role came around, and it combined the musical element, it just seemed like, man, this could be something really, really special."

While the longtime singer credits her acting coach, Jossie Harris, with helping her feel "safe, centered and prepared," she also cites her onscreen mother, Aunjunue Ellis — whom she'd never previously met but had admired from afar — with being extremely helpful.

Being on set with Ellis every day, she recalls, was "like being in a master class."

And though she didn't get a face-to-face with Dorinda before production began, they did share an invaluable two-hour phone call.

"I wanted to know what her role in the group was," says Frazier, who discovered that Dorinda was the peacemaker and spiritual presence for her sisters. "She gave me insights into what was going on. That was really helpful with some of the choices I made."

Frazier also learned that the fourth Clark Sister — who was "a lot smaller than her sisters" — was a fashionista.

"She wanted to wear things like Diana Ross would wear," Frazier says. "But she wasn't able to because of their size. Dorinda just wanted the group to be successful, and she was willing to make those kinds of sacrifices."

PERHAPS NO ONE FELT MORE STRESS THAN KIERRA SHEARD — but not because of her résumé. Like most of the lead cast, she had limited acting experience. (She'd appeared in a trio of little-seen movies a decade ago.)

But she's been singing as long as she can remember, which makes sense: she's the daughter of the youngest sibling, Karen Clark-Sheard, whom she portrays in the movie.

"Oh, I definitely felt the pressure," she recalls. "People are going to expect me to embody her flawlessly because she is my mother. But I feel like it was a healthy pressure to really break out something that has been lying dormant in me."

Sheard's biggest challenge was to "maintain an actor's mindset." While singing is in her blood, "I literally had to act like I was an actress," she confesses. She was hard on herself at first, and says, "It was almost taking away the experience from me." But about a quarter of the way into production, she experienced a shift.

"It really took my mom to tell me, 'Stop overthinking everything — just relax and lay back,'" she recalls. "Because the process was impeccable. We had a phenomenal cast. Everyone enjoyed working with each other — and I almost missed it by overthinking every single step."

Sheard also reveled in the chance to find out more about her family. "I learned a lot about my grandmother, her marriage and different things that she did within the church," says Sheard, who was 11 when Dr. Mattie passed away.

"We were all very close to our grandmother. She had an incredible impact on all our lives, and our work ethic really stems from her and how disciplined she was with my aunts and my mom."

When asked, Sheard offered Clark-related feedback to her costars — "but not in a way where I overshadowed what the producers were doing," she says. "I was sure to stay in my actor's role, to make sure that just because I know the back end of the story, that doesn't mean I'm going to take over in any sense."

Sheard knew she was on the right path when her mother and aunts came to the set.

That day in Toronto was her fondest memory of the entire journey. "I don't know if the other girls were nervous," she says. "But I was nervous to have them come to the set and see what we'd been doing. I didn't know how they would react."

Those fears were soon put to rest. "Their reaction was so affirming and positive, just filled with love and light," she recalls. "I'll never forget the feeling of seeing them smiling. Hearing them say, 'You guys are doing a great job. Your singing is great. You sound like us. We can't wait to see the film!'

"That put a permanent smile in my heart," Sheard says. "It was almost like the band became the fans."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2020

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