Some actors who win Tony Awards, become stars in films, TV and on the concert stage, don't look back from where they began.
But Anika Noni Rose returns to her Hartford area roots regularly, connecting with the community and spreading the gospel of arts empowerment.
The Bloomfield native —- who has also just received a nomination for a Tony Award for her performance as Denzel Washington's rebel sister in the Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" — will be honored Monday, May 12 at the annual fundraiser for Hartford's Charter Oak Cultural Center. The not-for-profit organization presents professional multi-cultural arts performances and exhibits to the inner-city community for free or at reduced cost.
This week's nomination is not Rose's first brush with a Tony glow. Ten years ago she won the prestigious award for her featured role as an progressive and determined daughter in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical "Caroline, Or Change." In a tearful acceptance speech, she thanked god for her talent (her middle name, she said, means "gift of god") and her grandmother.
"My grandmother [Cora Radcliffe] was a great inspiration and I miss her dearly," says Rose in a recent phone interview. "She never once doubted me. That's not to say the rest of my family were naysayers but there's a special relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent and I'm very thankful for having her as long as I did, although it wasn't nearly long enough."
Now Rose, 41, who starred in the film "Dreamgirls," TV shows such as "The Good Wife" and "Private Practice" and Broadway's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as Maggie the Cat, wants to be an inspiration for others. That's why, she says, she returns to her Hartford community to beat the drum for greater access to the arts for young people.
"It's so important to allow children to experience the arts," says the Bloomfield High School graduate (class of '90). "And I don't think it should be an elitist situation where you have to pay (lots of money] or be of a certain class or go to a special place.
"People are concerned about the rise of violence in schools," she says. "Well, I think there's a direct correlation between taking away a child's ability to express themselves and that rise in violence. When you allow arts into a child's life, they get to express themselves in a way they may not otherwise have."
Rose says she was particularly attracted to what Rabbi Donna Berman, executive director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center is doing. "I remember meeting her and feeling that she is such a vibrant, amazing woman who is doing something so important for the children of Hartford —- and she's doing it like for 50 cents, a string and a piece of gum, do you know what I mean? But she makes the kids feel like she's doing it with a million dollars. And that is so very important.
"The building itself is hallowed," she says of the center's building, which is a former temple and Connecticut's oldest synagogue.
"There's so much spirituality in that building and that ground. It is now a place for children where they can worship their inner selves and allow their creativity and their person to flourish."
Rose, the daughter of Claudia Rose and Hartford's former corporation counsel, John Rose, Jr., says the Charter Oak feeds more than the soul.
"Despite the wealth in Hartford being the insurance capital of the world, the city has a huge poverty level and many of these kids come from families that simply cannot afford three meals a day. So the only meal they may get is the one at school until they get [to Charter Oak] where they get nourished both with food and through the spirit.
"So that's why it's important for me to come back and tell [the children] 'I'm from here, I'm from Bloomfield'. There was nothing here that said I would someday be singing on the opera stage or be a princess [she was the voice of the first African-American Disney princess in the animated film "The Princess and the Frog"]. "There was nothing there except parents who supported me and determination. It's important for them to see that this is not a dead end, that when sometimes it looks like there's no way out, this is a bridge to anywhere you want to go. So that's why I'm coming home. I want to inspire them to dream. They don't have to be in the arts. I just want to be able to inspire them to dream."
Achieving Her Dreams
When asked how she has changed in the 10 years since she burst onto the scene with her Tony Award-winning performance, followed by her role of Lorrell Robinson in the film "Dreamgirls," she laughed and says "perhaps what I'm less concerned about is what the next thing is going to be."
There's good reason for her to be confident on future employment.
Among her recent credits have been TV's mini-series "Starter Wife" with Debra Messing, the feature films "One Part Sugar" with Danny DeVito and "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" directed by Tyler Perry. She was also in the ensemble cast HBO's, Botswana-based, "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency."
Last year she starred in the TV movie, "The Watsons Go To Birmingham" and she just starred in in a Lifetime movie, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short." This summer she will be starring in a major feature film, "Half of a Yellow Sun."
"It's an amazing film that takes place during the Biafran war in Nigeria," she says. "I play a fraternal twin and we are highborn Nigerian women. It's a love story among sisters, with our men, and with our country. I compare it with 'Gone With the Wind."
But her role now is in the stellar ensemble company of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," the 1959 play that had its world premiere at New Haven's Shubert Theater, directed by Lloyd Richards.
"I was a kid who read everything whether it was for me to read or not. I read it very early and I definitely knew it was a classic. I think Lorraine Hansberry [who died at age 34 in 1965] was such a genius.
"It's a feminist play. It's about women and how they move through the world and how they move around the men who are in their lives and changing these women's lives. It's about how the world tries to dictate the space the women are allowed to take up.
"The things she was talking about then are things we're still talking about now: abortion and about women being in control of their own bodies; we are still dealing with children and grownups who never realize a dream or even have the sense that they are allowed to have one. We are still chasing hope."
CHARTER OAK CULTURAL CENTER'S 13TH ANNUAL VISION AWARDS GALA, honoring Anika Noni Rose; state Sen. Beth Bye; and Michael Johnson, CEO of Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford; is Monday, May 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. Tickets are $150. Information: www.charteroakcenter.org or 860-310-2582.
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