MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, there is a new television series on BET called "The Quad" that seeks to give viewers a fresh, in some cases raw look at life on the campus of a proud, but struggling historically black university. And the star of the new show is someone who lives in the hearts of all who love Disney princesses.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS AND THE FROG")
ANIKA NONI ROSE: (As Princess Tiana, singing) Trials and tribulations. I've had my share, but there ain't nothing going to stop me now because I'm almost there.
MARTIN: That is none other than Anika Noni Rose, the voice behind Princess Tiana, Disney's first black princess in "The Princess And The Frog." And now seven years later, Anika Noni Rose is ruling the world around her again, this time as the newly elected president of the fictional Georgia A&M University.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUAD")
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) I'm Dr. Eva Fletcher, president of Georgia A&M University. As you consider your options for your continuing education, put GAMU at the top of your list.
MARTIN: We caught up with the Anika Noni Rose right before "The Quad" premiered on BET last week, and I asked her what drew her to the role.
ROSE: I was really attracted to it because I think that it is a story that is not being told right now. We don't see a lot of college life right now on television, and we definitely don't see anything about HBCUs, which for those who don't know, are historically black colleges and universities. I was attracted to this character.
She is someone who is - she's a New Englander. She is Ivy-League educated. She comes from money and privilege and, she has a scandal in her life that causes her to have to take a job in the South at an HBCU which is something she knows nothing about. She's somebody who looks very, very well put together, and yet she's made some really bad choices. And so there are cracks not far beneath the surface which I find very interesting to explore.
MARTIN: Is there anything painful about it - I mean, given that you attended an HBCU Florida A&M - FAMU...
ROSE: Yes. Yes, I did.
MARTIN: ...And there have been some cracks in the HBCU story as well. I mean, these are, as we know, institutions that have educated, you know. Generations of people who have gone on to important and prominent roles, and yet many of these institutions are struggling. So is there anything painful about it as well?
ROSE: Well, I think that there are things that have been imposed upon HBCUs which are painful, the fact that we are - and I say we like I went to one. I didn't go to all of them, but (laughter), you know, that we were often struggling for money because we're often state-funded. And the state is not as concerned about HBCUs as it is for other schools, so often we will lose money first.
So those types of things happen, and I always find that disappointing and unfortunate because these are amazing institutions that gave opportunities to Martin Luther King, amongst other people, George Washington Carver. You know, so there's been some myth that an HBCU is a choice that is lesser than somewhere else. And that is exactly what it is. It's a myth. It's a falsity.
MARTIN: The series does not pull any punches about some of the administrative and cultural issues that have been very much discussed and have made it in the news...
MARTIN: ...About HBCUs. For example, I want to play a clip from where your character Dr. Madam President Eva Fletcher's talking with the university's famed band director Cecil Diamond played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson who questions her HBCU bona fides. I want to give this a little bit more context. This scene comes after a student was hurt in a hazing incident by the band and is hospitalized. Those who follow such matters will remember that a student at FAMU back in 2011, a drum major, was killed in a hazing incident...
MARTIN: ...That became kind of national news. And anyway let me just play this clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUAD")
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) She's in critical condition.
RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: (As Cecil Diamond) Getting the best medical care money can buy.
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) I looked into some of your mishaps over the past five months.
SANTIAGO-HUDSON: (As Cecil Diamond) And what'd you find? That 4 mil a year I bring in?
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) File an incident report by the end of the day.
SANTIAGO-HUDSON: (As Cecil Diamond) And don't you hold your breath, black Ivy.
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) Oh. I get it. So you think because I grew up in a wealthy family, attended Ivy League schools and married well that I'm not down, not black. My ability to survive and my intellect are both very black, Mr. Diamond.
SANTIAGO-HUDSON: (As Cecil Diamond) My point is simple. I don't answer to you, and I never will.
ROSE: (As Eva Fletcher) My point is simple as well. You do as I asked you.
MARTIN: There are some raw things in the series, for example, you know, the water gets turned off at one point because the universities can't pay its bills. Talk to me about that, why you think it's important to have these kinds of storylines on "The Quad."
ROSE: I think it's really important when we talk about showcasing a particular piece of culture that we don't dip it in sugar. I think if we're only showing one side of it, if we're only showing the elevated sections of it, then we aren't telling a truth. We aren't telling the story.
MARTIN: Are there aspects of your experience that have found their way into the script?
ROSE: You know, it's funny. I did attend an HBCU, and I am from Connecticut, so I am in a New Englander. You know, that is not a stretch. And my grandmother's from the South, so I was very familiar with the South and some Southern ways. But there were still things that I learned and were unfamiliar to me when I went for the first time to Tallahassee for an extended period of time. And sometimes it's just about people communicate differently, whether it's the spoken or unspoken communication. So...
MARTIN: Did anybody question your blackness when you arrived coming from Connecticut as you did?
ROSE: Oh, my God. People questioned my blackness in Connecticut. I didn't have to leave the state for that. You know, it's something...
ROSE: ...It's something culturally that is very interesting. I grew up in the suburbs. You know, I come from professional parents. I spoke a particular type of English, and so consequently that meant I thought I was cute (laughter). So, you know, I was a nerd. I read a lot. I still read a lot. And somewhere along history, it became not cool to read. I don't know what that's about.
But, you know, I know who I am. I was taught very clearly who I am. And I remember, you know, the first time somebody said something to me like that, I was really hurt by it. I was like wait. What do you mean? I'm looking at myself. I'm looking at you. We are, you know - we are of a clan. But I don't know what that is. I just think it's so silly, and it's something that we have to find our way out of.
MARTIN: That was Anika Noni Rose. She's starring in "The Quad" on BET. She was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Anika Noni Rose, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROSE: Thank you so much for having me.
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