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Home > Past Buzz > Fame Inspires Tony Award Winner

Her mom, as much as ACT, prepared Anika Noni Rose
Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

She heard her first name and nothing else. That's how Anika Noni Rose remembers the moment, at last June's Tony awards ceremony in New York, when she won Broadway's top honor as featured actress in a musical for her performance in "Caroline, or Change." Rose, a 1998 master of fine arts graduate of the American Conservatory Theater's actor training program, reprises her role as a spunky 16-year-old in the production opening tonight at the Curran Theatre.

Winning is great and a little unreal, the lithe and youthful Rose said in her dressing room the other day. "I'm just glad I didn't trip over the stairs on my way up to the stage." She attended the Tonys with her brother, who lives in Oakland. She wore a teal gown she had bought in Philadelphia, not dreaming she'd have such an occasion to show it off, and spoke graciously in her acceptance speech.

The real buzz of playing Emmie Thibodeaux, the rambunctious, yearning daughter of a black maid in 1960s Louisiana, Rose said, is the character Tony Kushner fashioned in his libretto and lyrics. "The first time I read the part I knew her," said Rose of Emmie, who is locked in a power struggle with her mother, the show's formidable title character (played by Tonya Pinkins). "It took me back to those times when it was just me and my mother and I was so angry and I should have known better. Tony wrote it. I remembered it."

For Bay Area theatergoers who followed her work here, Rose's achievements come as no surprise. In one substantial role after another, the Connecticut native demonstrated her dramatic, comic and musical vitality to local audiences. She appeared in "Insurrection: Holding History," "Tartuffe" and "The Threepenny Opera" at ACT and "Valley Song" and Kushner's "Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne" in Berkeley Repertory Theatre productions.

As a child Rose thought she might want to be a veterinarian "until I figured out I couldn't take suffering animals." Performing in a high school production of "Fame" changed her life. "I'd never felt anything like I felt on that stage," she said. "I felt high. I felt like I was floating. I wanted to feel that again and again."

Rose majored in theater at Florida A&M University before enrolling at ACT. Carey Perloff, ACT's artistic director, was an ardent supporter. "She's my San Francisco mom," Rose said. As with other mothers, both real and fictional, there was some productive friction.

At one point in the late '90s, noting that few actors of color were appearing on the Geary Theatre stage at that time, Rose told Perloff, "I don't know what you're training me for." She paused and smiled. "The laugh was on me. I ended up doing more work on that stage than most other ACT grads." And, as Rose noted, Perloff's commitment to a diverse acting company has paid off handsomely since then.

Rose's fortunes have oscillated since her move to New York. She won an Obie Award for the off-Broadway "Eli's Coming," joined the Broadway "Footloose" company for four months and co-starred with "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson in the widely panned 2003 film "Justin and Kelly." Rose, who was down to $25 in her checking account when she nabbed the "Justin and Kelly" part, takes the long view. "You can learn from anything. Sometimes I feel blessed beyond belief."

When she first went to audition for "Caroline," it was for one of the back-up singers who portray a radio in Kushner's script. Then she was cast as Emmie and had Kushner asking her if he might write a little more for her to do in the show.

"Could Tony Kushner write something more for me?" she recalled, with a little spark of wonder in her voice. "Yes, I said that would be just fine."

E-mail Steven Winn at .

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