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Five Tough-Acting Sisters

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This year television networks have delivered a whole new slate of series featuring African-American women. Not just as the lead Black guy's dutiful wife or the lead White girl's best friend, but as in-your-face protagonists. We're talking a conservative district attorney, a hard-nosed surgeon and a tough-as-nails narcotics detective among other challenging roles.
 
These talented feature actresses give new meaning to the term drama queen. They've been around. You know their names, recognize their faces and probably now their credits. With prominent character parts in the upcoming fall lineup, here are the stars we'll be watching as they rise.
 
Khandi Alexander

Before signing on to play Alexx Woods, the quirky psychic coroner on CBS' forensics spin-off CSI: Miami {premiering Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. ET}], Alexander rejected countless roles over the past year to develop her still-untitled HBO political dramedy. "Nobody told me producing takes a looong ]time. A year later I was like, 'You need another rewrite?' laughs Alexander, 44. "I won't let {the project} die. But I needed a break."

Certainly saying yes to a role in CSI's wildly anticipated spin-off was a no-brainer for the TV veteran of NewsRadio, ER and The Corner. "We'll have to work very hard because we are the sister-show -- we're resting on their back right now," says the native New Yorker about the show's early media buzz. "For me what's exciting is learning all the medical terminology and getting it right. You mispronounce a word and your credibility goes out the window." Never one to rest on her laurels, the ex-Broadway dancer and former concert choreographer for Whitney Houston has several projects on her plate. She'll star in the film,  Dark Blue with Ving Rhames and she plans a return to the stage. During the show's hiatus, she'll star in a dramatic homage to actress Diana Sands, who originated the leads in productions of A Raisin in the Sun and Blues for Mr. Charlie. "She's inspired everything I do," Alexander says.
 
Aunjanue Ellis
I'm interested in taking risks; I'm bored with being safe," says Ellis, wishing aloud that her portrayal of Dr. Quinn Joyner on ABC's MDs, {premiering Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. ET}] doesn't whittle down into a one-dimensional TV role. "It's a challenge to find some nuances, something idiosyncratic about her," says Ellis, 33, adding that there may be a hot interracial romance brewing between her Dr. Joyner and Dr. Bruce Kellerman (played by William Fichtner). "A Black person having any kind of a sexual or romantic relationship in a mainstream television show is a novelty," she says, "I'm more interested in that than the interracial angle."
 
A graduate of Brown University, where she received a B.A. in African-American studies, the small-town Mississippi dancer was drawn to the stage. She ultimately attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts - an apropos destiny for a small-town girl named Aunjanue, from the French word "ingénue," which means actress. "The legend goes that my mother came up with this name from some French magazine," she says.
 
Having racked up credits in such films as Undercover Brother, Men of Honor, Lovely & Amazing, Ellis is looking to get some attention in her role as enigmatic author-playwright Zora Neal Hurston in the indie film Brother to Brother, an African-American gay-themed film that wraps this fall. "Gay sexuality is not something that's talked about openly and honestly in the Black community," says Ellis. "Rodney Evans {writer-director} is trying to break down barriers. This is the kind of work that gets me up in the morning."

Debbi Morgan
For those of us addicted to the sudsy drama of TV's mid-afternoon stories, we remember Emmy winner Morgan as Jesse's girl, Angie, on All My Children. That was in the early '80s before she did a spin on several other ABC soaps, including Loving, General Hospital and Port Charles. After nearly two decades in daytime, the on-screen powerhouse with the dimpled cheeks is now making a name for herself among prime-time audiences. She plays stalwart district attorney Lora Gibson on Lifetime's For The People (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET). "Lora's a staunch conservative Republican who views afrocentricity as superficial," says Morgan, 45. "It's a character that is so foreign to me, it's a challenge to play."[PARA]
 
Morgan's biggest challenge over the past several years has been just getting work. Despite a strong theatrical turn in Kasi Lemmon's critically acclaimed indie film, Eve's Bayou, for which Morgan received an Independent Spirit Award, producers weren't looking to hire the soap star. "I always said that I would never leave the soap unless somebody offered me a great gig," the native North Carolinian says. "But somewhere in my gut, that inner voice was telling me it was time."
 
Eventually, Hollywood came calling, with roles opposite Denzel Washington in The Hurricane, with Dennis Haysbert in Love & Basketball}], on television in Charmed and most memorably as Lem's wayward mom Lynette on Soul Food. "I'm as passionate about that character as I am about playing Lora Gibson," she says. "I'd love to have a scene where Lynette would have to go up against Lora, that would be really interesting, and so much fun to play."
 

Sonja Sohn
"I come from a background where you hate cops. That's the biggest obstacle I face playing one," Sohn confesses about her role as the fiercely dedicated Baltimore narcotics Detective Shakima "Kima" Greggs on HBO's gritty urban drama The Wire {Sundays, 10 p.m. ET}], which had a breakout first season. "I wanted to be the female drug kingpin. Why couldn't I be kingpin Avon Barksdale?" she laughs. "But I took the job. I needed it."
 
Paycheck aside, Sohn was riveted by the complexity of the series, shot on location in Baltimore's depressed housing tenements. Growing up in the projects of Virginia, Sohn can relate. This series, she says, presents the characters as they really exist in some of America's depressed ghettos. "Hopefully people who ordinarily can't get into those neighborhoods and see those people as total human beings will soften their hearts enough to want to contribute to some kind of change." Sohn galvanized the attention of filmgoers in 1998 as the inner-city poet in Slam, the cinema darling of the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
 
Her indie success translated into a few supporting roles working alongside noted directors Martin Scorsese { Bringing Out The Dead}]), Michael Rymer { Perfume} and John Singleton {Shaft}. "I don't like to say that there's some plot against Black actors," she says of her scant career, "but the bottom line is that there's just not a lot of work out there for us." Even though The Wire is considered an "ensemble" rather than a "Black drama," the majority of the show's cast members are African-Americans who portray characters with three-dimensional lives and loves. And Sohn is enjoying the response she gets from her on-screen lesbian affair. "I've got girls writing me saying, 'Oh Grace is fine. Can I get her address?' I think it's kind of cute."
 
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
In 1996 Secrets and Lies, an obscure little film from across the Atlantic was suddenly all the rave in Hollywood. And its novice London star Marianne Jean-Baptiste was its Academy Award winning darling. It was a wild dream. "I didn't even understand what was happening. I chose the dress I was going to wear {to the Oscars}] the night before," the Oscar-nominated actress says.
 
In CBS' crime thriller Without A Trace, which premiers Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET, we will see her morph into Vivian Johnson, a Brooklyn-born, Yankees-loving, all-American FBI agent. Not only will Jean-Baptiste lose her British accent (FBI agents have to be American citizens) but she gets to poke a little fun at the folks back home. "I actually say something about the British and how they should stop eating their fish and chips," she laughs. "I loved it; it's the best line in the whole thing." Another added bonus for Jean-Baptiste is getting to carry a gun and arrest perps like her TV idols Cagney and Lacy. "I'm often cast as a very serious, very sort of dignified character, and all I ever really wanted to do was run around with a gun and roll about on the floor," says the 35-year-old actress. For the past six years She has worked steadily in the United States in such films as The 24 Hour Woman, 28 Days, The Cell and Spy Game. "I guess I'll go back to London someday and do some work, but I like it here," says Jean-Baptiste who works in Los Angeles, but lives in London with her husband, sports therapist Evan Williams, and their two daughters. "It's like whatever you want," she says. You can make your dreams happen here."

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