Accomplished actress and singer Anika Noni Rose never settles for playing characters that could potentially make her audiences or herself comfortable. The trouper’s portrayal as Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s and Belle’s daughter, in the Roots remake is a role for which the Tony Award-winning starlet originally didn’t want to audition. Prior to production, the assertive performer sat in a meeting with film personnel to get more clarity on the direction of the re-imagination of the groundbreaking miniseries.
“I just needed to understand the background, their mindset, why this was going to be happening and what was the plan for it,” states a transparent Rose via teleconference. “Was it about respect, wanting to make something as good or as strong or were we just jumping on the bandwagon?”
A native of Bloomfield, CT, Rose, 43, didn’t watch Roots’ original telecast 39 years ago. The versatile, actress stage and screen entertainer in Broadway productions like Caroline, or Change, Footloose, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Raisin in the Sun initially watched the made-for-TV period saga in her junior high school history class and again with her parents. The Dreamgirls and For Colored Girls co-star thinks Roots is “mind blowing,” calling the miniseries a watershed moment for America’s identity development and reconciliation with its ugly past.
“When you talk about enslaved people, you’re not talking about people who submitted with no fight, no struggle and no attempt to not be in that situation,” says the Disney legend who voiced the entertainment company’s first African-American princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog. “Stories that are being told right now are stories about people who were not satisfied and fighting to be out of that circumstance.”
Further emphasizing how she doesn’t endorse romanticizing history relating to black and brown communities, Rose continues, “I’m sure enslaved people had moments where they found joy and happiness because people have to be able to find moments to survive, but to show one side of that and not show the other is a very dangerous picture. Folks are happy to see a more rounded picture. Folks are happy to see depictions being controlled by the people about whom the story is being told.”
Rose mentions her empathy for those critics that share her initial reactions to the Roots remake. Roots getting an upgrade, the Obie award recipient says, is out of necessity for current generations of viewers who may or may not know that history.
“We need to tell that story for new eyes, which is taken very differently,” comments a congenial Rose. “Movies and television move in a faster way that has a different language that will reach young and new ears differently. It’s a really beautiful thing to see somebody walk in, be skeptical, walk out and be thankful that something is being done.”
“We must continue to tell this truth,” adds Rose. “When we don’t, we allow the narrative to be changed. There are many, many different facets to be explored. I hope that we continue to move forward, explore other time periods and get ready to see us.”
Partially filmed on an actual plantation on the outskirts of New Orleans, Rose vividly remembers being on-set in scorching heat wearing ill-fitting costumes. The Grammy-nominated thespian who polished her craft at Florida A&M University and American Conservatory Theatre shares a few details about what influenced her approach to her performance. “It couldn’t have been more hot or less comfortable,” recalls Rose.
“I was wearing corsets that were from the time, not having been made to fit my body. I was wearing vintage boots, no comfort or softness in there. It was probably the least comfortable I could’ve been in clothing.”
Rose confesses that she misses comedies and wants to perform in more physical roles. She’s playing a police officer in the third season of the Starz drama Power. Another character Rose is excited to step into is as a college president at a fictional HBCU in BET’s scripted feature pilot, The Yard. “I purposely try to seek out roles that are different from the last thing that I did,” proclaims Rose. “I’m not comfortable staying in the same lane all of the time. That bores me.”
“I’m not really interested in the easy,” continues Rose. “I want to be challenged somewhere inside of me. I want my mind to be challenged. I love to tell the story that maybe isn’t told often enough.”
Taking on a challenge like recreating Roots is an opportunity that Rose values. She enjoyed working alongside the other cast members and a few close friends. The public’s reactions to the update are what she anticipates most.
Always seeking to connect with her actual origins, Rose insists that her faith doesn’t compare to the character she revisited. “I don’t have faith as strong as the woman I portrayed,” she confirms. “I don’t know. I hope that I would, but I hope that I never find out.” On the other hand, stepping into the role of Kizzy reaffirms Rose’s passions for acting and getting inside of characters.
Rose’s flexibility and balance as an actress, she says, comes from always being off-balance. “It is very important for me not to be standing in the same pair of shoes from role to role,” she says.
“I would become very stagnant, cranky and don’t think I’d be a lot of fun to work with. I need the shakeup. It’s something that refreshes me. It allows me to grow and become better. That’s why I’m always looking for something other than what I’ve done.”
Anika Noni Rose appears in episode three of Roots, simulcasting Wed., Jun. 1 at 9 p.m. ET on HISTORY, A&E and Lifetime. Check local listings for channel numbers.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.