Averyfest celebrates Suffolk-born actor’s career, life

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

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Fans of TV icon James Avery celebrated his life Saturday at the inaugural Averyfest event at Bennett’s Creek Park.

Avery, a Pughsville-born actor, is famed for his role as Philip “Uncle Phil” Banks in the 1990 sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

With an afternoon of beautiful weather in the city, Avery fans enjoyed food and vendors selling their ware — all Black-owned businesses — while enjoying the jazz sounds of vocalist and songwriter Rahsaan Cruse Jr.

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The Saturday, Sept. 2 festival was sponsored by non-profit organizations Unapologetically Black and the National AIDs foundation of Hampton Roads. 

Karen Roberts, who sold Averyfest T-shirts featuring the late actor’s smile on the front, talked about what brought her to the event.

“I have been a fan of the [Fresh] Prince of Bel Air, but I am a Pughsville resident and we have a park near our neighborhood that’s actually re-named after him,” Roberts said. “So it was befitting just to come here and be a part of this because we do live in Pughsville.”

During an on-stage interview, Pughsville native and author Delzorra Presha, daughter of the late Rachel Presha who was known as the “Purple Lady,” discussed her mother’s early connection with Avery’s family.

“James Avery was the son of my mother’s best friend Florence Avery and they grew up together in Belleville,” Presha said. “She used to ride the horses like Annie Oakely, both of them, they used to ride together and over time they got separated.”

When asked about her reaction to seeing James Avery as Philip Banks with his TV family, she responded: “I think it’s wonderful.”

“‘Fresh Prince’ was one of my favorite TV shows when I was coming up in New York, I lived in New York then, and we used to watch him all the time and he was very funny. And we loved Phil, we loved everybody on there!” Presha said. “It was a hot show, and we know we all love Will Smith.”

Both Avery’s wife Barbara and actress Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played Vivian Banks from season four on the show, came onstage to share their memories of the actor. 

Barbara reflected on meeting him during their time as students at the University of California-San Diego.

“He was the big man on campus, and I wasn’t. I was active on campus, but he was very, very popular,” she said. “He lived in a party house in downtown San Diego so I went to a couple of the parties, but I didn’t know him because he was dating someone else at the time actually. I remember walking across campus and asked him, ‘Excuse me, do you have change for a dollar?’ and he says, ‘I can’t change my mind.’”

Barbara said they both met again some years later at a play in San Diego, while he was living in Los Angeles. They both remembered each other.

“We talked and exchanged numbers, and that was it,” she happily said of her husband.

For Reid, the actress reflected on the first time she was asked to audition for “Bel Air,” described to her as a ‘half-hour sitcom with a rap artist,’ to which she declined. Three years later while Reid was in Virginia, she once again got a call to audition for the show.

“I said ‘What role?’ and they said ‘Aunt Vivian.’ I said, ‘You have an Aunt Vivian.’ and they said ‘Come audition for a role’ and I said ‘I’ll be on the next plane,’” Reid recalled.

The actress said it took her two weeks to get the part of Vivian Banks, which had Reid in various auditions. The third audition led her to meeting Avery himself.

“Third audition, I got to audition with James Avery. And I looked at him and he looked at me and somehow, the chemistry just worked. I had so much fun auditioning with him, but I had to do it three times. That’s how long it takes to get a role,” Reid said with a laugh.

Down to three people, the last audition saw Reid going before network representatives.

“I walked into the room full of network people and James, and I knew I was at home. I just had a great audition because I had a great time with James,” Reid said. “They called me the next day at 10 o’clock in the morning and said ‘You got the role’ and I cried. I was so happy.”

Reid recounted the days working with Avery alongside their television family portrayed by Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Tatyana Ali, Karyn Parsons and Joseph Marcell. Reid said she got a warm welcome from the entire cast, as they respected her 15 years of acting prior to “Fresh Prince.”

“They embraced me, it was wonderful and then Avery started dancing with me in the halls everytime we walked by his room, he was either reading, listening to jazz or sleeping, listening to jazz,” Reid said. “He’d wake up and he’d come out in the hall and we’d start dancing.”

She said it was a favorite time for her. Reid recalls that they just had so much fun, adding that every time they got ready to do a show they would dance down the hall and that Avery would “cut a rug.” 

“He was a really good dancer and I just adored him because he was this warm, wonderful, loving, brilliant,” she said. “He would sit down on the couch with us during rehearsals and we would have discussions on philosophy and history, and he was always educating the young cast about things that had happened to Black Americans throughout the ages. He was a brilliant teacher and a wonderful, wonderful imparter of all sorts of information. So, I would very nicely listen to him as well because I learned a lot from him.”

Alongside being an actor, Avery was a Vietnam veteran, a huge jazz fan, a poet, an avid reader and Shakespere lover. He and Barbara also owned five Bouvier dogs during their time together. 

During the interview, Barbara reflected on the human being her husband was off-screen. 

“He loved to swim,” she said. “He loved, loved, loved, loved, jazz. He loved music. He loved driving, he loved being with family. His family and our dogs were really his center,” Avery said. “He was very easy-going, he was fun, he always made people feel comfortable and he loved being around family. My parents just absolutely loved him. Did I say he liked water? It’s been a nice, long, wonderful, easy, funny marriage.” 

On how Avery would react to seeing the residents of Suffolk come out to celebrate his life, Barbara said he would have been humbled and grateful.

“He would have been wandering around, talking to people, laying down, eating a lot of food, but also when the music was playing he was in his zone, because he absolutely loved music. He would’ve been amongst all of you and he was really easy about it,” she said. “He took pictures with anyone, he gave autographs, but he would’ve enjoyed this.”

Reid emphasized that Avery was a down-to-earth man who everyone loved.

“He didn’t meet a person that wasn’t a friend,” she said. “He just was a terrific guy and I thank Barbara for sharing him with me.”