Like Viola Davis, another great actress from the stage, Anika Noni Rose is finally being recognized for her great talent outside of theater. The latest example of this is her anchoring role as Kizzy in the History Channel’s ambitious Roots reboot. The Root caught up with Rose to talk about her initial reservations regarding the new Roots, her impressions of the original miniseries and what Kizzy meant to her.
The Root: How did Roots come about for you?
Anika Noni Rose: I got a call to come in. They wanted me to audition and I said I’d rather actually talk to them and have a meeting and figure out the “why” of this. Why are we doing Roots again? Are we doing it from a place of bandwagon or are we doing it from a place of respect and honor and, you know, truth? So I had a meeting instead of an audition the first time, and I had a really good conversation with the producer and the director, and then, as I was in the meeting, they were like, “You know, we’re looking at you. So we’re thinking we need someone who can play very young and grow up, so what do you think about Kizzy?” and that was the beginning of that.
TR: So what had you thought about Kizzy?
ANR: I mean, I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, so whenever I thought of Kizzy, I thought of Leslie Uggams and that history. I’ve never not been aware of Roots. I think it was the time of our parents when this had never been told before. This phenomenon of American history had never been told before and certainly not told in this way. So, for them, it was like a watershed moment. So I don’t ever remember not knowing about it. Then I remember them showing it to me in school, in elementary school, junior high, to be exact. …
Mostly I remember that the Kunta Kinte/Toby scene was the thing that stuck out in my head and I never ever forgot that. I just remember how transcendent Leslie Uggams was as Kizzy. But this is a different script. It’s a different story. It’s more of a retelling than a rethinking. It’s bit of a reimagining, so I didn’t watch it again. I just immersed myself in what this is or will be. So I read the book again. I hadn’t read that in years and just did a whole lot of research on enslaved women of that time.
TR: Please elaborate on why you label this Roots a retelling or reimagining.
ANR: We just have access to so much more information. What they didn’t know about Juffure [the Gambia, near Senegal]—when Alex Haley went in the late ’60s, early ’70s, it was a tiny village that was no longer what it had been, but because of DNA and because of carbon dating and all of the archaeology that has gone on between then and now, we now know that it was a bustling city when these people were there. I think hundreds and thousands of people, and they were horsemen and warriors who fought on horseback.
I was told by LeVar [Burton, who played the original Kunta Kinte/Toby and is co-executive producer of the rebooted Roots] that actually, the English would go there to study horsemanship with them. They had libraries. They were amazing people. This was something that Alex Haley didn’t know, not because he didn’t do all the research that he could have done, because he did all he could have done. But there was no Internet, there was no DNA, carbon dating was very different then, so we just have so much more specific and pinpointed information to layer within what we’re doing that it really gives us an advantage.
And also, I think that the way that young people take [information] in and learn is very different than in the ’70s. Things are much faster now … so we had an opportunity to film in a way where action is really action and we could put much more into what’s happening than you could when you were just on film or with certain types of cameras. Life has happened, growth has happened, in the [nearly] 40 years since [the original Roots] happened, so we, as a culture, have a lot more that we can put into it.
TR: The women seem even stronger in this version. As a result, we see so many layers to Kizzy. Was that already on the page or did you infuse her with more strength?
ANR: Some of it was on the page because they were interested in making the women much rounder characters, characters that you know much more about. They didn’t want to have women as paper dolls. To me, I think every actor takes whatever is on the page and then enriches it with what they have or what their history brings. I feel like this is a woman who survived something I don’t think I can imagine. I don’t know if I have the strength to not kill somebody or not kill myself under those circumstances. So her strength, to me, is almost superhero-worthy.
I think it is important also to show somebody who loves and can be loved, who is not only scared but also ferocious because she’s a survivor. There is a level of perseverance, a level of intelligence that you must have in that circumstance to survive. You can’t be a dummy and survive. I think people have a stereotypical image that they put forth of slaves that’s laughable. You can’t get through that and be a dummy. You have to be wise. You have to be able to play chess every day or you’re not going to make it. If you can’t anticipate what the mood of this sociopath who is holding you in their power might be, you’re not going to make it. So I consider her a woman of extraordinary mental prowess, and she was raised by a father who raised her no differently than he would have raised his warrior son.
TR: What have you taken away from this role that you feel will stay with you?
ANR: I don’t know. I think probably that things are never as bad as we may feel. On our worst day, it is not comparable to what these people went through and then still learn to read, still learn to be master craftsmen, still left enslavement and built their own towns and their own banks and their own governments and stepped into the world as amazing, fearless people, strong people. On our worst day, we haven’t experienced anything like that.
Roots airs over four nights beginning Monday at 9 p.m. ET on the History Channel, Lifetime and A&E. Anika Noni Rose stars in episode 3, airing Wednesday.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.