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Jennifer Hudson often gives credit to family, Chicago roots for keeping her humble

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Chicago Tribune (MCT) - Until Friday's tragic events, Jennifer Hudson's life had been both a fairy tale and a classic Chicago story.

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By Mark Caro
McClatchy Newspapers (
10/27/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

Kids dream about a rise like hers _ from South Side kid in the rough Englewood neighborhood to the widely embraced sixth runner-up on "American Idol" to the out-of-nowhere Oscar winner for her role in "Dreamgirls." As icing on this cake, she's now a best-selling recording artist.

Yet she has remained a Chicagoan throughout, visiting her family often and maintaining close ties with her church and city. Just last weekend she was back in the city to be honored at the Chicago International Film Festival.

She returned again this weekend to identify the bodies of her mother, Darnell Donerson, 57, and brother, Jason, 29, both shot to death in Donerson's Englewood home. A suspect was in custody while Hudson's 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, remained missing as of late Saturday.

Such crimes are life-shatterers to those who are connected, regardless of whether the victims or their relatives are famous. But with Hudson having lived out the fantasies of so many people inside and outside Chicago _ all without losing widespread affection and respect _ her tragedy has become a shared nightmare.

"For her to be riding so high and to be hit like this," actress/singer Felicia Fields, Hudson's close friend and mentor, said, her words trailing away. "You just wonder what's in the minds of people to create such a travesty."

Fields, who bonded with Hudson while the two shared the stage in a local 2001 production of "Big River," said she spoke to her friend after news of the slayings broke, and the 27-year-old actress was reeling.

"She said, 'Felicia, it's surreal,'" Fields said from St. Louis, where she is reprising her Tony-nominated role in "The Color Purple." "She was in shock. You can only imagine _ not just your mother but also your brother."

Fields said Hudson also was very close with Julian, the son of her older sister, Julia. "That's her heart _ she really loved her nephew. We're praying for her and Julia and praying that her nephew is found."

In interviews with the Chicago Tribune, Hudson has portrayed her family and faith as the rock-solid foundation to her success. Jennifer was the baby in the household to Julia and Jason, her full siblings, plus three half-siblings.

Her late father picked up garbage, then drove a Greyhound bus, and her mother worked at a bank and as a secretary before becoming a full-time homemaker, Hudson told the Tribune. She described her home as a happy place where she was encouraged to exercise her booming pipes, whether in the bathroom or as part of her church choir.

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Calling herself "a homebody and a mama's baby," Hudson said she used to borrow her mom's or sister's cars to drive out to the suburb of Lincolnshire when she was a 19-year-old making her stage debut. An eight-month gig on a Disney cruise line followed, prompting Hudson to say, "From the moment I stepped on that ship, I was like, 'I will never be at home for good ever again.'"

Four days after she left the ship, she auditioned in Atlanta for Season 3 of "American Idol." She proved to be the show's most popular seventh-place finisher ever.

"It wasn't a big deal for her because one of her dreams had already come true," Julia Hudson told the Tribune of her sister's surprise ouster. "All she wanted was for the world to hear her singing."

Any feelings Hudson had about being snubbed in the "Idol" competition served her well as she landed the role of Effie White, the overlooked, underestimated girl-group singer in "Dreamgirls." She beat out hundreds of others who auditioned, including "Idol" Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, and stole the movie from such veteran performers as Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx.

Hudson's family joined her in December 2006 when "Dreamgirls" made its debut simultaneously in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Those screenings triggered Oscar buzz for Hudson that never let up.

Yet six days before she would collect her Academy Award at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, Hudson wasn't attending fancy parties in her name. She chose to celebrate at her home church, the South Side's Progressive Baptist Church, by singing at a three-hour gospel concert billed as "An Evening of Praise with Jennifer Hudson."

"She's the same Jennifer," Julia said then as she watched her baby sister being swarmed by fans and reporters in the church's basement. "She wants to stop and talk to every fan she can and come home (to Chicago) every time she can."


When Hudson was in Chicago, she invariably was in Englewood. "The whole family is a close family," Fields said, noting that Jason was still living with his mother. "When she comes home, that's where she wants to be."

Friends have said Hudson came by her down-to-earth qualities naturally. At these public events, her family members beamed with pride without ever seeking the spotlight for themselves.

Fields, who had come to know Donerson through Hudson and considered her "a quiet and very wonderful person," recalled running into Hudson's mom recently at a mall and shouting across the floor, "Look who that is!" Donerson gestured for her to hush, saying, "Don't you dare."

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"She didn't want to be known," Fields said. "She didn't have that kind of interest in the limelight. She just wanted to be the same person she had always been."

Many feel the same way about Hudson, which is no small part of her appeal.

"She worked her way from the bottom to the top, and yet she didn't change," Jenice Sanders, 33, said while working at the Burger King on East 87th Street where Hudson used to work. "She's just herself _ that's what I like about her."


Since "Dreamgirls," Hudson has taken supporting roles in the movies "Sex and the City," "Winged Creature" and the recently released "The Secret Life of Bees." Fellow South Sider Barack Obama tapped her to sing the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention at Denver's Invesco Field on the August night he accepted his party's presidential nomination.

Her long-awaited, self-titled debut album was released late last month, drawing mixed reviews (Tribune critic Greg Kot said the songwriting and multiple producers didn't do justice to her voice) and commercial success. The album is No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart after debuting at No. 2, and her song "Spotlight" tops the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and is No. 29 on the Hot 100.


On Oct. 18, Hudson accepted an Artistic Achievement Award from the Chicago International Film Festival on an evening in which Sidney Poitier also was being feted. Hudson again enthusiastically took on a supporting role, honoring the festival's request that she sing "To Sir With Love" to Poitier, who starred in the movie of that name.

"She was happy to be serenading another Oscar winner, an icon, Sidney Poitier," said Randy Crumpton, co-chairman of the festival's Black Perspectives committee.

Now her fans are mourning with Hudson for the loss of her mother, brother and the Chicago home life she had always known. Sabrina Hall, 15, paid her respects Saturday by making a pilgrimage to Donerson's Englewood home.

"I just wanted to keep this memory," she said. "She's like an idol to me."

Trinette Montgomery, 32, who lives down the street, arrived carrying a purple balloon bearing the words "Thinking of You."

"We have to show love for our Chicago people," said Montgomery, who has lived in the area for seven years. "Everybody is feeling sad. We can't believe it happened."


Chicago Tribune reporters Jason George, Chris Jones, Greg Kot, Mary Owen and Gerry Smith contributed to this report.

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