Camden’s “Funny Chick”

Tasha Smith grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of east Camden, where the temptations of the streets seemed to outweigh those of the classroom. During her freshman year at Camden High School, she dropped out, turned to drugs, and forged friendships with people who would wind up in jail or dead.

Tasha Smith grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of east Camden, where the temptations of the streets seemed to outweigh those of the classroom. During her freshman year at Camden High School, she dropped out, turned to drugs, and forged friendships with people who would wind up in jail or dead.

At home, she saw her mother struggle with her drug addiction as she raised Tasha, twin sister Sidra, and their younger sister, Ch’e. Smith says that she coped by relying on her sense of humor and a dream that one day she’d become an actress. If I don’t move out of Camden, I’m going to die, Smith, now 36, remembers thinking.

Since moving to the West Coast at 19, in 1990, Smith has appeared in episodes of Chicago Hope, Nip/Tuck, and the HBO mini-series The Corner. She can be seen on the big screen starting October 12 in the comedy Why Did I Get Married?, the fourth feature by writer/director Tyler Perry, known for his stage plays about African-American families. Perry’s first two cinematic efforts, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), were the top box-office draws on their opening weekends.

Why Did I Get Married? focuses on eight married friends who question their relationships during an annual reunion in the Colorado mountains. It also features Perry, Janet Jackson, Malik Yoba, and Jill Scott. Smith co-stars as Angela, who is married to the character played by Michael Jai White. “Their marriage is on the rocks and it looks like it’s going to be over,” Smith says. “The journey that my character goes on becomes a testimony of faith and strength.”

For Smith, who also appeared in Perry’s last movie, Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), the chance to work with the director again was irresistible. She had met him through supermodel Tyra Banks, whom she had met during an acting class together. “He’s like a big brother,” Smith says of Perry. “We’re there for each other. What I like about him is that he roots for the underdog.”

That’s a sentiment that Smith says she can relate to, having grown up in Camden. But her outlook changed after being introduced to actress Tisha Campbell, a Newark Arts High School graduate who was filming a movie in the area. “The first day she came to my house, a mouse ran over her foot,” Smith says. “I was so embarrassed.” The two struck up a friendship. Campbell, who was in Los Angeles, offered Smith a place to stay if she decided to give Hollywood a try.

Although Smith still wanted to act, she found that the easiest way to get an audience was through stand-up comedy. “I was always the funny chick growing up,” Smith says. “I loved to make people laugh.” She worked on her timing, got booked at clubs across the country, and networked with established comedians. In 1996, she got a break as a cast member on the short-lived NBC sitcom Boston Common.

Meanwhile, Smith’s mother, Monique, watched her daughter’s career blossom from her home in Atlanta, where she had moved after recovering from her addiction. “Every time I saw her on TV, I sat there and cried,” says Monique. “She’d say, ‘Stop crying; you’re not going to be able to see anything.’”

Despite the cancellation of her first show, Smith continued acting and built experience in smaller television roles. About five years ago, she put up her own money to start an acting studio in Los Angeles, where she works often with underprivileged youth. “I can identify with their pain,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Your struggle can become your biggest strength.’”

When she’s not acting, Smith travels as a motivational speaker, focusing on youngsters in community centers and faith-based organizations. In June, she participated in “Empowering the Extreme,” a Christian youth conference in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, where she shared her early experiences with the participants, some of whom traveled from Camden. “I had so many kids coming up to me crying and believing that they have a chance,” she says. “When I say I’m from Camden, they know what I’ve been through and see that I’ve made it.

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