When “Roots” debuted on ABC in 1977, it shattered ratings records and went on to win nine Emmy Awards. Now History is remaking the classic for modern audiences. The story of Kunta Kinte, which is based on Alex Haley’s novel, follows his capture in Africa through his enslavement in colonial America, as well as the lives of his descendants. Stage star Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline, or Change”) steps into the role of Kizzy (played by Leslie Uggams in the original), Kunta’s daughter, who carries on her father’s legacy.
“I’m very proud of being able to be a part of this and bring it back for a new generation of audiences,” Rose tells Variety. “Because it is ours. It is the story of America. I’m proud to be able to bring it back and make it relevant again.”
How did you land the role of Kizzy?
I was being considered for another part and then I went in and met with the producer and the director and they were like, “What would you think about Kizzy?” I went back and reread the script, and I just found her to be a real woman in the script, not somebody in extended little-girldom, and I found that very interesting. She has a journey where she is trying to care for her son, raise a man in a time where black men were not allowed to be men, and raise him with a sense of dignity and responsibility and knowledge of self. All really intense challenges, and something very interesting to play. She also gets to love someone and it ends up the way it ends up, but she’s allowed to love and express that and have moments where she is smiling out of joy and not irony, which I found also quite attractive.
Why do you think it’s important to tell the story of “Roots” again?
I think it’s important to tell the story again because I think that it is the foundation of this country. Because if we don’t tell this story, of the enslaved human in the United States from Africa, how do we remember that it happened? How do we not start to change the narrative? We have take away the stigma of guilt, of shame, because ultimately, although it’s a horrific story, it is also a story of intense survival and perseverance.
I think this country is going through a major upheaval. I think that it’s really important for people to recognize where we’ve come as a country, how far we’ve come, and yet how far we have to go. In this time where this is the craziest election I think I’ve seen, you could maybe feel like you don’t want to vote this year, because you’re scared. You don’t know who the right person is to vote for, or you feel like maybe your vote doesn’t count.
But when you look at this story, you see what people went through just simply for the right to vote, to be treated as human beings. When you look at what’s happening in the streets with specifically black youth and the police, this story is so relevant and so important. And it’s not just important from the lens of “Roots.” It’s important from so many different sides. There’s so many stories to tell about these people who weren’t just enslaved people, they were people who were free, they were people who broke free, they were people who did amazing things under the yoke of slavery. I think that now is an amazing time to talk about these things, because young people, I don’t think that they know.
How did you prepare for the role?
I went down to a plantation called the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, about an hour outside of New Orleans, the only slave museum in the United States that’s dedicated to being told from the side of the slave, the enslaved peoples, and I found it extraordinarily insightful and such a strong, intense educational experience but also just a really spiritual experience to be there on that soil, on that land, something so absolutely stunningly beautiful built on blood.
I read a lot of slave narratives, and I listened to a lot of slave narratives, and several tapes of ex-slaves telling their stories from the 1930s, when the Work Progress Project was happening. I listened to people from the area where Kizzy was born, so that I could hear their tone, their movement in their experiences. I did all of that, and I reread “Roots,” which is a serious tome.
Did you watch the original “Roots” before filming?
No. I’ve seen it, I saw it in school, but I did not want to watch it again before doing it. I feel like I don’t think that’s helpful. As an actor, I think that you owe the person who did it before you the space of their own performance, and you owe it to the character that you are now portraying because this is not the same “Roots.” It’s a re-imagining. I also feel like I owe it to my character to make her my character, and to bring to her what my life experience is, and all the experience that I could draw from whatever research that I did without holding on to the ghost of characters past.
Was there something that you did to find your way into the character?
I think those narratives were really, really deep and informative and very heavy, and something definitely to carry with me. We were filming on an actual plantation. We were not filming on a set. So I burned a lot of sage. I did a lot of praying and just communing with the ancestors of that land, asking them to not only welcome us in this effort to tell this story and to tell it in the most truthful and respectful way possible, acknowledging every aspect of not just emotion, because emotion is something that we always think about. So asking them to welcome us and welcome me and also to guide us. To guide me in this journey, because I can do research all day long, but this is an era that is so underexposed from this side.
I don’t think that we, alive in 2016, how do you even put your mind in that space? Really, we don’t know, we have no sense of that kind of deranged helplessness. Constant terror. Constant torture, even. So I just put out lots of prayers for spiritual assistance on this journey, because I don’t know how else to step into that. At some point it’s beyond the words that you’re speaking, and it is really not about me so much as it is a tribute to all of those who stepped before me.
Was there one scene that was particularly challenging for you?
The whole journey was a challenge. It was a challenge in the circumstances that we were working in, just with regard to weather and costume. I think that the challenge is to step into this land, step into this life, which is, if you read these things on paper, with no reference for what you’re reading, the most melodramatic, unreal situations you could possibly think of, because they shouldn’t be real. Because they are above and beyond the pale.
So I think it’s hard for me to say what was the most difficult, or what was the most challenging. I think putting yourself in a position where you have no purchase, where your mind is not taken into account, where your body is not taken into account, where your feelings are not taken into account, where your children aren’t even allowed to be your children. I think that in itself is a challenge every single day, to strip yourself of perceived humanity is a challenge every single day. And then to hear “cut” and then somebody’s coming to give you lotion, and somebody’s coming to make sure you have a Gatorade, and it’s just a very interesting juxtaposition. But I will say that it was quite a journey.
The first night of “Roots” premieres on History on Monday, May 30, at 9 p.m.