Anika Noni Rose is a quiet force. The kind of actress whose understated performances linger in your mind and elevate whichever project she’s working on. Witness her unforgettable range in her Tony-nominated performance as Benethea in the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, and this week, in the film adaptation of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.
Rose plays the feisty Kainene, a twin sister, as she lives through the the Nigerian-Biafran War (1967-70). She spoke with ESSENCE.com about falling in love with Kainene before ever getting the script, getting the news of her Tony nomination, and her thoughts on the abduction of over 200 Nigerian girls.
How does one take in the news of being nominated for a Tony? What did you do that morning?
[Laughs] I called my parents. I jumped up and down a little bit. I called my castmates, who are also nominated and congratulated them, and we were happy together on the phone. Then, I went and did a show.
We’ve been waiting for the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun for a very long time – the film was completed in 2012. Were you familiar with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work before this?
Yes, I read the book when it came out. I loved the book so when they called me about it and were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t know, it’s a book, I think it’s called Half of the Yellow…’ I was like, ‘Half of the Yellow Sun?!’ I knew immediately what they were talking about and accepted it without even knowing the role I was up for. I was really excited. I think that [Chimamanda’s] voice is phenomenal and vital and fresh and new and long lasting. She excites me as a person. Having met her, I now know that her person is as exciting and fresh and vital and real. She is thrilling to me. I was really honored to be able to take part in introducing the role to her voice.
You didn’t know which role you were going for but was there any character in the book that you really leaned towards?
I loved Kainene in the book. I loved her. I was really happy to find out that it was her.
Kainene is an Igbo. Are there any Igbo words that have stayed with you since that filming?
My favorite Igbo word was “Mba” which means “No.” It just sounds like it means no. “Mba!”
The film has reportedly been banned from screening in Nigeria. What are your thoughts?
I say it’s disappointing. You can’t hide history. You can’t. You can put as much dirt over it as you want to, but sooner or later, it’s going to grow through or poke through or blast through. You don’t want it to blast through, because that means you’re now in the cycle of repeat. That’s the reason we want to see history and share history and talk about history so that you don’t get caught in the cycle of repetition. That is for everybody, every human, because we are human and because it is our tendency to repeat. We are at turns wonderful and giving and kind and then the other end we are atrocious and awful and inhumane. Those are the things that we don’t want to repeat.
The film comes out at such an interesting time in Nigeria, especially with the young women who were abducted in Chibok.
It’s awful. The real tragedy is, yes, that the girls were taken at all, but the fact that the world was not concerned until they were shamed into being concerned. That is a perfect example of things that need to be said out loud. Somebody should have been calling those girls’ names out loud, day one, and brought attention to that. Women, young women particularly, but women in general, often get dragged into war. We are not the ones brandishing the weapons, often. We are not the ones making the decisions often that cause war to happen. We are the ones that are dragged in kicking and screaming, either because our children are snatched or we are snatched or rape is used as a weapon. We often are the ones who suffer for that, and I find that atrocious and shameful and sad, extraordinarily sad.
Half of a Yellow Sun is currently screening at the New York African Film Festival. It also opens on May 16th in New York,and May 23 in Los Angeles. Click here for a full listing of play dates and venues nationwide.