Destiny is not fate. Fate befalls us; destiny we take an active part in. Anika Noni Rose has never been one to wait for fate.
"Life is too short," she says. "I can't sit around watching things go by. I have a real problem with that. I am working at making work for myself, because when you're waiting for somebody else to bring something to you, very often it doesn't happen. You have to draw it to yourself or make it happen."
"I was brought up to speak what I felt was the truth," Rose says. "There's a time and place for everything, but I'm not a shrinking violet by any means. And if I feel justified, I'm going to have a conversation about it and hopefully somebody will hear me." While a student at ACT, looking at what the institution had to offer actors of color at that time, she felt justified to speak her mind to ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and said, "I don't know what you're preparing me for."
"The main stage just looked very devoid of things that they were going to be able to cast me in, or going to want to cast me in," Rose sighs. "When I got to ACT, Arcadia was on. It was not looking welcoming. I have to say [Perloff] really made a change in that regard and turned that around. After opening my big mouth, I worked more on that stage than I even could have imagined!" She laughs and adds, "I don't regret saying that it at all, because it made her aware of something I don't think she was absolutely unaware of, but I don't know that she was aware that people in the school—I can't speak for everybody, but at least a person in the school—felt that way. That's important; when you're training people, they have to feel like they have the possibility of work when they walk out of the door, otherwise it's a waste of $155 million dollars for school!"
From that point forward, Rose saw Perloff's take on artistic repertoire in a different light. "She wanted me to do Polly Peachum in Threepenny, and I am so glad, because I don't know where I would have been able to do Polly Peachum or even that I would have thought, 'Yeah! I wanna do Polly!' I really love the relationship we've developed, which started with me talking out of turn! She thinks of me as an artist and she wants to create art around me, but she also thinks of me as a friend, and vice versa. So it's a lovely thing to know that I always have a home there and that somebody is thinking of me and trying to put me in something that wouldn't be the norm for someone to think of."
After leaving the Bay Area and a string of successful dramatic roles behind her, Rose hit New York and was working right away, in musical theatre. She jumped into Footloose on Broadway, then followed that with an Obie Award–winning performance in the off-Broadway Laura Nyro revue Eli's Comin'. Then one day she was asked to audition for The Radio. Not a radio play or show, but The Radio, as in the character in Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change.
"I was brought in to audition for The Radio…and I was like, 'I really don't know what that means,'" she says with a laugh. "I'm not quite sure how to do that. I'm one of those people who wants to come in with my character on me. I didn't know how to dress for The Radio; I came in dressed as me and sang the music. It was not a great audition because I didn't understand it. However, they saw me and they wanted me to come back, as Emmie." They gave her some sides, though the role hadn't been developed fully. Unlike The Radio, Emmie was someone Rose understood. "There is something to be said for knowing that you need to walk into the room within yourself, to step into it immediately, as opposed to walking in and allowing the room to envelope you."
Kushner knew of Rose's acting chops when he stepped in to codirect his play Hydriotaphia at Berkeley Rep. "Tony had seen me inInsurrection at ACT, which is how I got the role at Berkeley Rep. I love that man; he's a genius. He is so brilliant and wonderful and warm and yet he's somebody who never [makes you] feel like you know less than he does—and I assure you, you do! I don't care who you are. Tony Kushner is a walking encyclopedia, and he always makes you feel like you're on his level. That's a wonderful gift in life."
Kushner saw the character of Emmie in a whole new light with Rose, making Emmie more integral to the story. That led to a host of accolades: the Clarence Derwent Award, the Lucille Lortel Award and, with the transfer to Broadway, her Tony Award.
Even in a nonmusical role, it is the music of the text that Rose tunes into. "As opposed to me playing the words, I want the words to play me, to let me be the instrument that they play. I think that his words are perfect. You don't have to add something to that; all you have to do you is breathe and live through them and allow them to live through you. I didn't fight her. That woman was so clear to me, and so beautiful, and so passionate and wonderful and flawed and scared and strong and frightened, all of that at the same time and at different times."
Rose landed the role of Lorrell Robinson in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. As has been her habit, she found aspects of the character that defied easy pigeonholing. "It's so boring, isn't it?" Rose says of the audition process. "Because I'm a character actress really, but I'm a lead as well, no one has a box for me. They may not necessarily think of you first because they don't have a peg to stick you in. And hey, I'll take it, I don't want to be put in a box. But you know, I'm ready to head up a movie!"
Technically she has headed up a movie, as Disney's first African-American princess in The Princess and the Frog. Her next feature film role in For Colored Girls showed the versatility of this multifaceted artist. Combined with her appearances in several television roles, people are realizing she's not just a pretty face or a character actress but a complex, interesting and wicked-smart artist who offers much to any project she's a part of. From The Starter Wife to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agencyto her pivotal role on television's hot new series The Good Wife, Rose continues to defy being typecast.
Recently, she added another layer to all of that. On February 5 at Lincoln Center, and then again on February 20 at Bay Area Cabaret's Venetian Room series, Rose tapped a previously unexplored avenue with Vintage Rose, her cabaret show. "Cabaret is different. I'm not a cabaret girl. It's a really cool and thrilling time for me." This show is in many ways an homage to her grandmother. "My grandma loved music—she was always humming something," Rose recalls. "She loved a good story in a song. If there was retribution in a song and somebody got their comeuppance, she loved it. These are songs from her era, songs that tell stories, that used to be on the radio, from a time when you could turn on the radio and hear real music, something that has lasted now for 50 years. I defy you to find a song on the radio today that will be here 50 years from now."
In April Rose appeared among an all-star cast featuring Patti LuPone, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton performing Company with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall (Rose played Marta, singing "Another Hundred People"). And, she adds, "I am cocomposing a musical. It is pretty wonderful; it's very different for me and I'm enjoying it—we're looking for investors—it's called Morgan Street. I'm finishing The Good Wife, and I've got my eye out. Something's coming, I don't quite know what it is yet—it's on the wind, it's coming. I just feel that I'm in a very good, calm, healthy place and I love what I do. What a blessing! How many people don't even know what their passion is, and I've been allowed to explore so many things within what I do. So I'm looking for something different next."