MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now you may think you know the play "A Raisin In The Sun" from its many stage and screen performances, but the latest revival starring Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose is bringing new life into the American classic. The production has already received five Tony Award nominations, including one for Anika Noni Rose's performance as the spirited, aspiring doctor, Beneatha Younger.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
ANIKA NONI ROSE: (As Younger) The ambulance came and they took him to the hospital. And they fixed up the broken bones, and they sewed it all up. And the next time I saw Rufus, he just had a little line down the middle of his face. I never got over that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: What?
ROSE: (As Younger) That was what one human being could do for another. Fix him up - you know, sew up the problem, make him all right again. It was the most marvelous thing in the world. And I wanted to do that.
MARTIN: And Anika Noni Rose is with us now. Welcome. Congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.
ROSE: Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
MARTIN: Is this a part that you really wanted to do, or was this something that you had to be persuaded to do?
ROSE: It wasn't something that I was thinking, wow, I would really love to do "A Raisin In The Sun." Now, in it and doing it, was my own mistake. And, fortunately, sometimes opportunity knocks twice. And sometimes when you least expect it because I'm really, really happy to be in it.
And as I started to read the play, which I hadn't read in a very, very long time, it became very clear to me how relevant this play is for now, for 2014 - while speaking very clearly to the time period that it was written for. So I knew of Beneatha as an amazing character. I just didn't know how awake and awakening she would be for now.
MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about that, but I did want to ask little bit more about how you came to do this part.
ROSE: Kenny Leon, the director, offered me the role. And we had worked together last spring on a television movie "The Watsons Go To Birmingham." So he called to ask if I wanted to do the role, and I said yes.
And, you know, it's interesting because I was thinking of it more as something that I was doing for my parents, really - for my mom. You know, sort of a tribute to her and a gift to her because I know what it meant to her growing up - this play, this piece. And now I feel that it has also been a great gift for myself and to myself.
MARTIN: You know, I have to ask the Denzel question - so the Denzel question.
ROSE: Yeah. We're having a fabulous time. I think we're really lucky with this cast. He could stand up there and wield - you know, wield his stardom all over the stage and make it difficult, you know, for everyone. But that's not what happens. He's very generous on stage.
I think we are lucky to have a cast full of generous people who are there to tell the story and enjoy each other. And because of that, we are able to trust each other on stage. And I think that's the most important thing that you should have in a stage show. You have to be able to trust each other because it's live, because anything could happen, because we are the only safety nets that the other person has.
And the interesting thing about the play is that you learn that the spotlight, the sun, shines on every person in this play at a different time. He could play it like it's Walter Lee's play, and it's all about him, but it's all about everyone. And that's the wonderful thing, I think, about this production because it allows the script to do what the script is meant to do.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the play for those who are not familiar with it. It's about an African American family who are in tight quarters and, you know, the center of the play is Walter Lee Younger, who's played, in this production, by Denzel Washington. And some insurance money is coming, and there is a discussion, like, what do they do with it?
And one of the dilemmas is should they move to the suburbs are not? And your character - you want to be a doctor. One of the tensions is should this insurance money be used to support your education? Should it be used to help Walter run a business because he's working as a chauffeur, and he's frustrated by the fact that he wants to be somebody? Or should it go to this house? Like, what should they do with this money? What is it about this part that you feel speaks to you?
ROSE: Well, I think there's - at this point in our lives, there's a great rift between the haves and the have-nots. And I think that crosses cultural barriers - that rift. And a lot of people can understand not being able to do things for lack of funding or for lack of a social connection or because of some unspoken, but very clear, prejudice against them.
People that are trying to move upward, be upwardly mobile, often feel that they have to leave the traits that they have that make them specifically themselves - put them in a box and hide them somewhere so that they can fit in to move up. And beneath it is someone who wants to move up and move forward but is not willing to release her person and the thing that gives her strength or the thing that gives her culture and leave that behind - she is going to move forward and move up. And she is going to take all of who she is with her. And I think that that is a challenge that many, many people face today.
MARTIN: What do you think the people coming to this play fresh will get from it? That, you know, a lot of people grew up with this play. It was kind of part of their, you know, cultural learning. But some people are coming to it new - especially - even people who didn't grow up in the United States - right? - and I'm wondering - what do you think they'll get from it now?
ROSE: First of all, it is a great American classic. It is part of the American canon - and rightfully so. Lorraine Hansberry, at 28-years-old, penned this play that has people of completely different backgrounds sitting in the audience every night. And, you know, you hear mm, and uh and oh - from people all from different places and different histories.
MARTIN: And don't forget mm, mm, mm.
ROSE: ...And mm, mm, mm, and oh, no. At one point, I have something that I say to my mom that was not the nicest thing to say, and this woman in the audience says shame on you. And the lights came up and it was this older white woman who was just disgusted with me and my character in that moment. And I love that she was in this play because people would have you to believe - because of the faces that the play is written on - that that is the only demographic for this play. And the truth of the matter is that Lorraine Hansberry has written an extraordinarily American play.
Yes, it is specifically about the black experience in that time period. But she is such a genius that she wrote a play that has specificity, but also has universality because it is also a play about family and about the American dream and about reaching for that and how out of reach it can seem. You know, so there are so many themes that move through this.
I had a friend who is Puerto Rican by birth and grew up in - primarily in Jersey. And he came, and he said that the moment he saw Travis, who is played by Bryce Clyde Jenkins - he's my nephew in the play - sleeping on the couch made up like a bed, he started to cry. He said because that was how he grew up in New Jersey in the projects. That was his growing up experience, and he felt like it was a kick in the gut to see himself in that boy on that stage. You know, so I think that people are taking away a lot from it. It depends on where you are in your life what that message is that you take with you.
MARTIN: You've had an amazing ride. You were nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role. This is your second Tony nomination. You've also got the film "Half Of A Yellow Sun," and the movie based on the novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It takes place in Nigeria during the Biafran War. You play a successful businesswoman and a socialite who's life contrasts with her twin sister. Let me just play a clip just to whet people's appetite. You can tell me what that experience was like.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALF OF A YELLOW SUN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: You realize, don't you, that you've just cost daddy the contract?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: It's not as if you'll get nothing. Daddy will still give him 10 percent, after all.
WOMAN 1: Well, the 10 percent is standard so extras always help. The other bidders probably don't have a beautiful daughter.
MARTIN: What was that experience like?
ROSE: It was amazing. It's an intense film. It was an intense shooting experience. We spent two months in Calabar, Nigeria. And it was really a learning set. So we had a lot of crew from South Africa where they make movies all the time, regularly. And then we had a lot of local crew who - some people had been never made films before, and they were very new to it - and learning as they went along but very quickly picked up.
So it was a really interesting experience. And, you know, there were times - there was a time where we did make up by the light of a cell phone because the electricity had gone out. And the generator wasn't working. And that's what we did. But everybody on that set - from the locals to people who were brought in - believed in the film so much and believed in the story so much that we all found ways to make it work when nature would conspire against us. It was a really wonderful experience. And it was good to be there amongst people of Nigeria and taking that culture in while telling this story.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Anika Noni Rose. She is nominated for her second Tony Award for her role as Beneatha in the Broadway revival of "A Raisin In The Sun."
You were the first African-American princess to be featured in a Disney film. To my daughter, you will always be Princess Tiana from "Princess And The Frog." Will you forgive me if I play a clip just because - for my 10-year-olds in the audience?
(SOUNBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS AND THE FROG")
ROSE: (As Princess Tiana) (Singing) I don't have time for dancing. That's just going to have to wait a while.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: How long we talking about here?
ROSE: (As Princess Tiana) (Singing) Ain't got time for messing around. And it's not my style.
WOMAN 3: I want some grandkids.
ROSE: (As Princess Tiana) (Singing) This old town can slow you down. People taking the easy way, but I know exactly where I'm going. I'm getting get closer and closer every day. And I'm all of that. I'm almost there. People around here think I'm crazy, but I don't care.
MARTIN: (Laughing) That was a very big deal to a lot of people. Did it feel like a big deal at the time?
ROSE: It felt like a big deal on many levels. I don't think I understood how huge it would be for other people. It was so big for me. I always wanted to be a Disney voice. And I wasn't really a princess kid. So I enjoyed the Princess movies, but I also loved, like, "The Lady And The Tramp" and "The Fox And The Hound" and those types of things. So I had my mind on, like, an animal or an inanimate object to be perfectly honest.
So when the Princess came around, like, that was beyond even the dream that I had. I just - I cried when I got the news. And I called my mother, and I just was so blown away. And it really wasn't until we were really in it - and they were really good about surprising me with things too. Like they unveiled - at a toy fair they were, like, oh, Nika, we want you to just look at this little clip and make sure it's alright and you like it 'cause that's what we're going to show. And then they showed me myself in color for the first time. And I cried and I cried when I saw the doll for the first time.
And I - you know, but it wasn't really until I started meeting children and parents - and there was a man - older black man - who came up to me to meet me. He recognized me, and he came up to me. And he shook my hand. And he started to cry because he said it was the first time that he was able to buy his child a doll that looked like her. And I think - not that there weren't other brown dolls on the market, but this time it was a princess. And she wanted to be a princess. She felt that she was a princess. And her parents told her she was a princess. But now, this doll is also telling her that she was a princess.
I think that the beautiful thing, aside from the fact just that it was - that it's done and it's there and it's there for perpetuity - is that it has taught little brown girls to look at themselves as regal creatures of bearing and that they are deserving of being the princess. It validates that dream. And it also teaches their classmates, who may not look like them, that you can look at this little girl and see her as the princess as well.
And this is not something that I think that they are thinking. That's what's the lovely thing about it. It's just something that happens because children change the world very differently than adults do. They're not out pushing and shoving. Their mind is just opened up because they saw someone who they related to - not because of their skin color, necessarily, for the children who aren't brown - but because they loved her. And they related to her, and they wanted to be her. And for the children that are brown, you know, they have all of those things too, but they also see someone that reminds them of them and of their mommy and of their sisters and their cousins.
MARTIN: Do you feel a little bit more of a princess yourself now?
ROSE: You know, I do. It's a very, very special thing to be a part of the Disney canon and to be a part of Americana that way because Disney is Americana. You know? And I can go almost anywhere in the world and people know Princess Tiana. The fact that she is worldwide is beautiful.
And it also, you know, it sort of - it knocks down the lie that we don't sell overseas - that people don't want to see stories that have our faces on them because we're told that very often. But I can tell you standing in Dublin, Ireland surrounded by a sea of enamored, little Irish children with their eyes huge who had just seen the piece - that it's simply not true.
MARTIN: We'll see - what's next? So now you've got, you know, American film, blockbuster, Dream Girls, you know, Broadway, Tony award. You're a Disney Princess. You work with Denzel Washington, you know? What else is there?
ROSE: An action movie.
MARTIN: An action movie?
MARTIN: Oh yea? Is that right? Are you going to be against the green screen? Is that is the offering?
ROSE: I don't know how it's going to work out, but it's in my plans. Yeah. I want to fly through the air, like, kick somebody in the neck and take them down. And how much fun would that be? I want to control the elements. I want to read somebody's mind. I want to do all of that stuff. I just think that that - that is so much fun.
MARTIN: Well, you've put it out there. I'm sure it is going to happen. Anika Noni Rose is a Tony Award-winning actress. She is nominated for another Tony for her performance in the revival of "A Raisin In The Sun" which is on Broadway now. And she was kind enough to join us in our bureau in New York. Anika Noni Rose, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROSE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.