When we caught up with Kim Fields, former child star, actress and director, she was doing what she always does — working.
Fields was in a New York studio, editing a new documentary she produced and directed. “I am working on a film I just got back from shooting,” she says. The film, titled “The Royal Birthday,” will air as a three-part miniseries on BET or BETJ (formerly known as BET Jazz).”
The plot of “The Royal Birthday,” says Fields, involves a group of young women who cruise through the Caribbean to celebrate the birthday of one member of the group. “We took two cruises (to make the film), one to St. Martin and one to Aruba,” she says. “It was very nice, but it was also hard work. On a ship, moving from island to island, it was a tough shoot in terms of logistics, having to work around so many elements. We had to integrate ourselves with thousands of people on vacation.”
Fields will be appearing in Trenton on Thursday, July 13, at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey State Museum Auditorium, as part of the Newark Black Film Festival. She will be discussing “Bid ’Em In,” a short film she made in collaboration with the jazz drummer T.S. Monk. Monk, the son of jazz great Thelonious Monk, has been heavily involved with a foundation and competition to honor his father’s memory and influence, and Fields met the younger Monk when she attended a benefit for the foundation.
She once went to see Monk perform at Birdland in New York, and the drummer did a version of “Bid ’Em In.” The film, and Monk’s performance of “Bid `Em In,” is based on a performance piece by musician Oscar Brown Jr., which he recorded in 1960. Brown, known as a performer who incorporated much of the West African griot tradition in his work, recreated the ambiance of a slave auction in the South in the song.
“It was a very vivid, graphic and moving, piece, and he did it as a drum solo, portraying the auctioneer,” says Fields. “We kind of brainstormed about it, thought about doing it as a piece for Black History Month, and I wrote it up as a treatment.”
Even though Monk’s musicianship and Fields’ eye are the first thing that comes to mind upon viewing the piece, the seriousness of the subject matter soon brings a sobering reality. To someone of African descent, anyway, “Bid ’Em In” actually becomes difficult to watch.
“My personal opinion is that no matter what culture you are, 9 times out of 10 something has happened in your history that is devastating and tragic,” Fields says. “You cannot know where you are going unless you know where you’ve been. It is a crime for any culture, any people, to know just about the glories and not also the pain and tragedy. Knowing that my people have overcome and dealt with slavery in such an enormous way helps me know that I can overcome anything.”
It seems as if Kim Fields has grown up right before America’s eyes, and in many ways that is true. From her first role, that of a tiny tot on the short-lived sitcom “Baby, I’m Back” to the role of Tootie on “Facts of Life,” the New York-born, California-raised Fields has revealed her beauty and ebullient personality to her audience.
That personality was even more on display during her five-year run on “Living Single,” a Fox Television show starring Fields, Queen Latifah, Erika Alexander, and Kim Coles. The show, on which she portrayed a femme fatale named Regine, was pioneering in terms of the degree of involvement a black female-run and staffed show had with the network.
Fields, now 37, is no longer on TV on a weekly basis. But she has made in-roads into producing and directing for television and film, a path that is sensible but not often followed by former child stars.
In reality, however, Fields has spent her life preparing for her present career. Film and TV are in her DNA. Her mother, Chip Fields, is an actress who has appeared on TV, in films, and on the stage since the 1960s. She has, in more recent times, appeared with her daughter on TV and as an actress in shows that her daughter has directed.
And from the time Fields was a preteen, she was always full of questions for the directors, photographers, and technicians who worked on her TV shoots. “I found it to be a natural progression for myself,” she says. She had a sharp eye for lighting, for casting, and for set design, and she continuously updated her skills right up until the time she went to Pepperdine University in the late 1980s. Pepperdine’s cliffside views of the Pacific — and its party reputation — are both legendary but Fields was actually there to learn.
Says Fields, who majored in film and television production and also studied broadcast journalism, “these aspects all were interconnected (at Pepperdine), and I found that I was able to learn something about every aspect of my industry.” She graduated in 1990 with a bachelor of fine arts in film and TV.
With that degree, and, just as importantly, with her background, she has begun to establish herself as a person at the helm. She directed several episodes of “Living Single,” as well as several shows for Nickelodeon, including “Taina” and “Kenan and Kel.”
Fields’ concert video and DVD direction has also given her the opportunity to work in Africa. She recently spent 10 days in South Africa with saxophonist Najee. “It was very enlightening and very moving,” she says. “You feel as if you are connecting to a place that is very close to you, yet is is very far away as well. It was such an eye-opening cultural experience. It is so very different from the images you are fed media-wise, something like the National Geographic image of Africa. But it is very sophisticated, very eclectic, and very diverse.”
But the South Africa Fields saw is also a place recovering from a deep trauma. “You have to realize that apartheid just ended there recently, not hundreds of years ago. It is very eye-opening to realize that there are places where blacks and people of color are getting used to the fact that they can actually go there.”
One of Fields’ next projects is a TV pilot that incorporates fiction, documentary, and reality programming. “The lead character, Jade Hicks, is, in my mind, a cross between Michael Moore, Lara Croft, and Ken Burns,” says Fields. “She is quite fearless in the documentaries that she makes.”
Jade Hicks, who would probably be played by Kim Fields, is a single mom who decides to split with her husband and work on her films while her former husband raises their child. “She is a different kind of single mom. Few women decide to give their son to the husband and decline to fight for custody. But at the same time she knows that her child’s being with her father is just as good as her being with the mother.”
As a daughter of divorce and a divorcee herself, is there anything autobiographical in this character? “Not really. My mom didn’t have to make that kind of choice (Fields was raised by her mother but she continues to be close to her father). She had the best of both worlds — she could have a career and continue to be a very involved parent. I just wanted to show something that we never see in television or movies — a type of female choice that, knowing it exists, does not make her a bad person or a bad mother.”
“Bid ‘Em In”, Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m., Newark Black Film Festival, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Screening of a film by Kim Fields and T.S. Monk, based on a performance piece by Oscar Brown Jr., about a slave auction. Free. Appearance by Kim Fields. 609-292-6464.