In 1987, the popular sitcom A Different World brought stories of life at historically black colleges into living rooms across the country. For six seasons, the NBC TV show chronicled the goings on at the fictional Hillman College.
Since then, no other show on the small screen has been dedicated solely to the culture of historically black colleges — until now. Thirty years after A Different World‘s debut, BET has premiered The Quad.
The new series focuses on successes and scandals at the fictional Georgia A&M University. Anika Noni Rose plays Eva Fletcher, the school’s newly-elected, Ivy League-educated president, who has no previous experience at an HBCU.
Rose has appeared in the films The Princess and The Frog and Dreamgirls and on Broadway in Raisin in the Sun, Caroline and Change, for which she won a Tony.
Rose joins NPR’s Michel Martin to talk about her new show, and about how her “blackness” has been questioned both in The Quad and in real life.
Here are interview highlights
On why she was attracted to The Quad
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 in television and we definitely don’t see anything about HBCs. … I was attracted to this character. … 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. And so, there are cracks not far beneath the surface which I find very interesting to explore.
On telling an HBCU story
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 — 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, Althea Gibson. 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.
On whether aspects of her experience made it into the script
You know, it’s funny. I did attend an HBCU and I am from Connecticut, so I am in a New Englander … that is not a stretch. And my grandmother was from the South so I was very familiar with the South and some Southern ways.
But there were still things that I learned that were unfamiliar to me when I went for the first time to Tallahassee for an extended period of time. … People communicate differently; whether it’s the spoken or an unspoken communication.
On whether her blackness was questioned when she moved from Connecticut to Florida
Oh my god. People questioned my blackness in Connecticut. I didn’t have to leave the state for that. … 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.
Oh, I remember the first time somebody said something to me like that I was really hurt by it. I was like, “Well, 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. And it’s something that we have to find our way out of.
On her next project, a film about Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972. She was the first black woman to do so. So I’m really excited about her. I want to move my hand into producing without giving up acting. I hope to direct next season on the quiet. I’ve been shadowing directors. I find that a really interesting challenge and I think I’m up for it.