“This is American history and I just get to be a vessel," she says.
Fans of WGN’s escape-from-slavery drama Underground watched one of the show’s most beloved characters make an unspeakable choice. If you haven’t watched yet, please stop reading. But if you did, then you know that Ernestine took Pearly Mae’s life in order to silence her and protect Rosalee.
Amirah Vann, who impressively portrays Ernestine, says the April 6 episode still gives her chills. “I remember filming it and just balling. It was such a pivotal episode because the idea that that was her only option is horrific,” Vann says. “That’s the thing about this show that I’m really passionate about—it’s entertainment and I love the support people live tweeted about Ernestine. But lest we forget, this was our sister and it should never be that this is the answer for the survival of our children.”
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Vann, a New York native who is best known for her theater work, is getting a lot of shine for her role, warts and all. Executive producer John Legend, who wasn’t a part of the casting process, quickly took notice of Vann and sang her praises.
“This is American history and I just get to be a vessel,” Vann says. “This is what I love to do, to tell these stories. I mean to have John Legend say something beautiful about you is a huge gift because I have so much respect for him. He is an amazing man aside from his music. The way he feels about politics and social justice is amazing.”
When Underground airs this week, fans will see Ernestine make more difficult choices as her youngest son James (Maceo Smedley) is forced to work in the fields and his friend and half brother T.R. (Toby Nichols) is forced to assume the role as James’s white owner and enforcer.
“This is a fate Ernestine tried to prevent from happening to James at all costs. This is her baby,” Vann says. “At the end of the day, we all just want to protect our children. And the young actors are really fantastic. The heart and soul that they’re bringing at that age and the informed understanding that their characters are in such a vulnerable position, is worthy of respect.”
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More than anything, Vann says, she wants viewers to tune in and feel a sense of sparked curiosity and pride in the historically inspired stories writers and executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have crafted on Underground.
“This is our story and we want to turn our backs on it because we haven’t been taught about it accurately,” Vann says. “This is a testament to our love and resilience. This is our Exodus. Let’s talk about Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs.”
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on WGN America.