Author Denise Nicholas, 'Freshwater Road'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Actress Denise Nicholas has entered a new phase in her entertainment career. The former star of "In the Heat of the Night" and "Room 222" is now a novelist. Literary critics are raving about her fiction debut, "Freshwater Road." Recently I sat down in her New York bureau with the gorgeous, youthful, 61-year-old Nicholas. Here she reads a passage from her civil-rights-era coming-of-age story.
Ms. DENISE NICHOLAS (Author, "Freshwater Road"): (Reading) `Gunfire cracked, high-pitched and fast, through the quiet country night, a crash of broken glass. Celeste sat upright in her bed out of a deep-dream, forgotten sleep. No dog barking. Bits of gravel rock flew from under the wheels of a moving car or truck. Silence. The skinny mutt knew when to hide. She rolled off the bed onto the floor, as Margo had taught her to do, trying to get herself under the bed, pushing her suitcase out of the way with her feet, her heart leaping in her chest like a ball being batted furiously against a concrete wall. Everything quiet. "Please, God, don't let Mrs. Owens be dead. Don't let them kill us." She reached around for a viable bargain to make with God. "Dear Lord, I promise I'll go to New Mexico to see my mother. I'll stay as long as you think I should. I'll do better, Lord. Please, Lord."'
CHIDEYA: That was author Denise Nicholas, reading from her new book, "Freshwater Road."
Let me just say that your book has been getting amazing reviews, and congratulations on that.
Ms. NICHOLAS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about Celeste. Who is she?
Ms. NICHOLAS: She's a young woman from a kind of comfortable background in Detroit, who goes south to volunteer, as did many young people, in the summer of 1964. Black and white kids alike from major universities went into Mississippi to run voter registration projects and freedom schools. And so I used myself as a jumping-off point to get going with the story, but as soon as--I mean, really, as soon as the first sentence of the book, it stops being me and begins being a person, a character, who was really not me at all.
CHIDEYA: Celeste is frightened, often. We just heard a passage where the house that she's staying in in Mississippi, a town where there has been a lynching--the house is attacked; gunshots fired through the home.
Ms. NICHOLAS: Right.
CHIDEYA: Did you ever experience anything like that?
Ms. NICHOLAS: I did not, but I heard stories of houses that were shot through. And certainly, when I was with the Free Southern Theater, which is what took me to Mississippi--I was an apprentice actress at that time--and we did stay in the homes of people in the community, although we never stayed anywhere as long as this character stays in Pineville. At one point we were in Ruleville, Mississippi, and we performed there, and Fannie Lou Hamer was in our audience. And, in fact, I stayed in her home for the one night. And she told us that the house had been shot into because she was so actively involved in the civil rights movement, and they were trying to frighten her.
CHIDEYA: What did it mean to you to meet Fannie Lou Hamer?
Ms. NICHOLAS: It was just about extraordinary, you know. And I think at the time, because I was so young and, in a way, so ignorant, I didn't really know the full value of everything that was going on then. I know it now.
CHIDEYA: So, Denise, you mentioned the Free Southern Theater. What was it, and what did you do?
Ms. NICHOLAS: Well, the Free Southern Theater was set up in 1964 kind of as an adjunct to the voting project in Mississippi. And it was started by Gil Moses and John O'Neil, and it was a touring theater that toured through all the towns where there was a voter registration project going on. And what we did that first summer was "In White America," Martin Doberman's play, and we took it to all the little towns in Mississippi, where people had not seen a play before; many of them had not seen television, only just sporadically. And a lot of people hadn't ever seen a movie. So we took the play--it was an integrated group, and we had discussions after the performances. We performed in churches and a couple of times right at the sides of cotton fields and community centers, wherever we could find a place to put up our sets and so forth. And it was an amazing experience.
CHIDEYA: One thing that really struck me as I was reading "Freshwater Road" is that what was going on was terrorism. We are now in an environment where we use the word `war' on terror; we talk about terrorism. But what was happening in the South during the civil rights movement was terrorism.
Ms. NICHOLAS: Well, and I think it started at the end of Reconstruction. And it was never referred to--maybe it is now, but it was never called what it really was. When you are held down, by threat of violence and actual violence, from voting, from going to school, from looking at a person in the eyes, from walking on the same sidewalk with a person, it's something that I think we need to face.
CHIDEYA: So what is the task now for this country? You know, we have been through the civil rights movement. Many things have improved. Some things still need a lot of work. From your vantage point, what do we need to do next?
Ms. NICHOLAS: I think education is in trouble in this country, and I think the levels of poverty are frightening. From--based on the results of the hurricanes, all of a sudden we come to see that there are 40 million people in this country living at or below the poverty line? This is amazing to me. I mean, I knew we had issues, but I did not know that particular issue was as huge as it is. And I think a lot of people didn't know or don't know. So we have a lot, a lot to work on, a lot to work on, right here at home.
CHIDEYA: Denise Nicholas is the author of "Freshwater Road."
That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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