One in a weekly series about the Black AIDS Institute's Greater Than AIDS ambassadors, who are using their VIP status in Black America to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and HIV testing and treatment.
Yvette Nicole Brown is a devout Christian -- and as recent divorcée Shirley Bennett on the NBC comedy Community, she happily gets to play one on TV, too. "She's a little more self-righteous than I am -- which is actually fun to play because she's such a hot mess," Brown says. "But I love that she loves her friends and that she's kind and she's caring and she loves the Lord, and I think that's an important image to have on television."
It's because of her celebrity, and her faith, that Brown has chosen to be a frontline activist for the HIV/AIDS movement. "It's affecting Black women at ridiculously high rates, so any recognition I have, I thought it would be important to use it to talk about what matters. Anything that is killing our people, you need to speak about it," she says. "And I think Jesus would approve."
And although celibate, Brown agreed to get tested in 2004 when she was invited to attend a star-packed Hollywood event sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute and the Screen Actors Guild.
"They had this AIDS mobile testing unit and wanted all these actors to come and publicly get tested -- which I thought was really scary, but I did it anyway to let people know it's okay. You can do this," Brown says, her upbeat attitude sounding a bit like her on-screen alter ego, Shirley, whom Brown describes as the "mother hen" of the band of misfit community college coeds. And like her character, Brown is a voracious vocalist, having started her career as a recording artist while still in her teens.
After an impromptu audition for New Edition's Michael Bivins, the East Cleveland, Ohio-born Brown was signed to Motown Records and featured on the album The East Coast Family Vol. 1, which included the top 20 R&B single "1-4-All-4-1." She later appeared on MTV, VH1, BET and Showtime at the Apollo while juggling studies at the University of Akron.
After graduation, she headed to Los Angeles, where she quickly emerged as one of the most active character actresses on television, with appearances on such popular series as House, Entourage, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Two and a Half Men, Malcolm in the Middle, 7th Heaven, Fat Actress, Til Death, That's So Raven, Rules of Engagement, Privileged and That '70s Show. She also has a regular voice-over gig on the Cartoon Network series Pound Puppies.
Although Community is currently on hiatus, Hulu.com has rated it the best comedy series of 2011. When the series comes back this spring, fans can look out for the return of Shirley's estranged husband, Andre (played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner). "They just had their third baby last season. So this episode is going to show where they are right now with this relationship," she told InsideTV.
Brown is looking forward to some downtime this summer. "I'd like to sleep. A lot." Still, she wouldn't turn down a movie gig if the opportunity presented itself. "I had a movie career that was starting up when Community happened, and we've been working so much, there's been no time," she says. "So I would really love to do a really cool movie over the summer if that came along." And we'll pray that one comes her way -- at least, that's what Shirley would do.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.