Kenya Jefferson, supervisor of the pain management clinic at Jackson Medical Mall and actor on the side, takes a brief timeout last week before talking about her side hustle.
Kenya Jefferson, supervisor of the pain management clinic at Jackson Medical Mall and actor on the side, takes a brief timeout last week before talking about her side hustle.
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Front and Center: Kenya Jefferson

Published on Monday, April 1, 2024

By: Danny Barrett Jr., dlbarrett@umc.edu

Photos By: Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications

Kenya Jefferson turned 50 in January, but she’s still a theater kid who wants to make people laugh.

“I’m a comic at heart,” Jefferson said. “I’ve been in stage plays either in church or somewhere in the community since I was four years old. I’ve always loved being in front of a crowd.”

Since 2019, she has supervised the pain management clinic at Jackson Medical Mall – perhaps not the first line of work that comes to mind for a vibrant, sunny personality such as Jefferson’s.

A Hattiesburg native, Jefferson has acted in community theater in the greater Jackson area and in commercials since joining UMMC in 2015. Her biggest role to date is on the Peacock sitcom “Killing It,” which stars Craig Robinson, known mostly from his role on NBC’s “The Office” and several madcap comedy films. Filmed in New Orleans but with a story set in Miami, the show chronicles the often absurd adventures of Robinson’s character, a private security guard who’s always trying to make more money on the side.

Jefferson had auditioned for the role of a maid, but her improv work making funny faces and gestures in the background of certain scenes caught the attention of the director.

“He said, ‘Let’s keep her the entire episode.’  So, they kept writing me into things to do, and I ended up staying down there for an entire week.”

A theme of the show’s first two seasons involves Robinson’s character entering a python-hunting challenge for big bucks. “We use a rubber snake, and CGI makes it move and all that stuff,” she said. “Craig actually threw the snake on me. I could’ve killed him!”

Showrunners with the hit show have told Jefferson they’ll bring her back for more if the show returns for a third season. “But as an actor, you don’t wait on that. You might have a hundred auditions in a year, but you might actually book four of them. That’s about par for the course in the business. I’ve had three auditions for a role for something on Starz, and I just keep moving with whatever auditions come my way,” she said.

After high school, Jefferson had earned a certified nursing assistant. Still, the little actor inside wanted to find an audience. “I moved back home to Hattiesburg and thought I wanted to be a journalist. Nope, because I was once sent to report on Black Friday when people stand outside all night long waiting for the holiday sales to start. It was about 12 degrees, and I about froze to death!”

In 2011, a health care administration degree online from Tulane University led to a day job in health care. She sought to scratch the acting itch by night, though, and she did so after taking six-weeks of acting classes in New Orleans from 1970s TV soap opera veteran Veleka Gray.

“She taught me the business of acting,” she said. “There’s more than just what goes on in front of the camera. Everything from how to audition, to how to take a headshot and the basics of lighting and all the equipment on the set.”

Her first big commercial was for Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning. “I got it because my husband, Eric, told me to bring my Tony’s shaker from the cabinet to the audition.”

But by 2013, her own health provided a storyline that changed the direction of both careers.

“I was losing weight, didn’t have an appetite, coughing all the time, no one could find what was going on,” she said. “I was eventually diagnosed with sarcoidosis and it was getting worse. My lab results and blood pressure were off the chart. The surgery ended up being here at UMMC. I spent a week in the coronary care unit with complete renal failure.

“I had a whole team of people explaining everything to me around the clock, and the doctors were so knowledgeable. It’s a teaching hospital here, so it was my first time meeting attending physicians, fellows, etc. They took the time to figure out what was wrong with me. They kept my husband updated. I told the doctor that I was treated so well I’ll have to get a job here.”

Almost as if by turning a page in a screenwriter’s script, she made good on that by landing jobs at UMMC first at the Pavilion, then JMM, taking time off in the middle when her condition flared up. She was promoted to her current position in 2019, overseeing the largest number of board-certified pain physicians in Mississippi. 

“We see chronic pain patients,” she said. “There’s a plethora of patients who come in for back aches, back injuries, knee injuries, any kind of chronic pain. We treat them for pain with interventional measures and medicine when necessary. It’s ever-evolving in this clinic with what our specialists can do, with injection therapy and surgical techniques.”

Coworkers call her a “jack-of-all-trades” when it comes to working with her staff and the public in general.

Anand Prem

“Kenya brings a can-do attitude to work, along with a smile on her face and, quite often, a box of donuts in hand, much to the delight of our staff,” said Dr. Anand Prem, medical director for the pain clinic. “It’s all so refreshing to see, particularly in a work environment where you often encounter pain and suffering.” 

Jefferson said the qualities she brings to her roles on stage and screen can be a lesson to anyone who works in customer service.

“Because I’m naturally bubbly and happy, I wanted to change the atmosphere of this clinic to reflect that,” she said. “I know what it feels like to have chronic pain, so now we greet the customer with kindness and with a smile.”

The thought of a full-time role in TV is tantalizing and remains a goal, she said. She’s hired an agent and takes any role for which she can make time.

“Acting is my passion and people are my passion,” she said. “Being at UMMC has been so accommodating, professionally, for me because all of my doctors are in one place. And I’m able to balance my day job with my passion. I’m able to take days off available to me if there’s acting role out of town. What UMMC has contributed to my life is just indescribable. If not for the people of UMMC, I would not be here.”