By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Sad news of Ntozake Shange’s passing broke the weekend actress Afton Williamson flew home to New York City from Los Angeles. The groundbreaking poet, author, and playwright held a special place in Williamson’s life. “I moved to Harlem ten years ago and I had been walking through Harlem doing her monologues for years. So it was interesting nostalgically to come home to Harlem the weekend she passed,” Williamson said. “She played a big part in who I am as an actor.”
By the time she hit her teens, Williamson who now stars on the new ABC police drama The Rookie, saw that there were real possibilities for her to have a career as an actress. She recalls, “I was in high school in my first drama class and I was just so excited because I had only done drama in church. This was the first time I was thinking I could be serious about this. Like ‘Can get paid for this?’” The difficulty of finding material she could connect with at times dampened her youthful enthusiasm. One instance of seeking out material that resonated with her on a deeper level, reduced her to tears. “I was thinking, ‘There’s got to be something that reminds me of me’. I was there for hours and hours. I ended up crying on the phone to my mother,” she remembers.
Eventually, the universe stepped in one day at her Toledo, Ohio high school in the form of Shange’s most famous play. “One day they told me to clean the back of the library and I came across this tiny little book. Something was blocking it so I kept pushing past the other books to get to it. I pulled it out and it was all wrinkled and it was called For Colored Girls… There was a girl on the cover that looked just like me. I read it through my break and ended up getting in trouble! I read this book maybe seven times until the time I decided to direct it when I was at Eastern Michigan University.”
Her decision to direct the play was rooted in pure faith, love and passion. Williamson knew there was a very slim chance that at her very predominantly white Midwestern university, an opportunity to do this play would just come along. She decided to put on the production and direct it herself. “I decided for the first time, I would not be in the limelight. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever been involved in, directing that play.”
The actress takes that unshakeable confidence and indomitable spirit into her new role as police officer Talia Bishop on The Rookie. Though she has played a police officer in another role (as Wiggins on The Night Of), this is physically her toughest role to date. “We had two weeks intense tactical training for both the pilot and the series. We did ride alongs, we sat in on roll calls with the LAPD. I didn’t know how hard their job was,” she marvels. “I’m a martial artist, I taught kickboxing, Krav Maga but,” she laughs, “I have never been as physical as I have been as working on The Rookie!”
The show, which follows the lives of a trio of rookie cops (one of whom is a middle-aged man basically starting life over) and their new colleagues is more than just action. “Cops are human. Being a cop is what they do. I would hate for someone to define me as just an actor,” she said. So Talia is a woman who is about her business. She is Type A though her heart is so doggone big, it clouds that sometimes. “I’m blessed we’re doing an intricately written, character driven show that’s about amazing people who happen to be in the LAPD. It’s not a show about cops who happen to be people.”
Williamson is also excited about the number of women of color involved in The Rookie not only on screen but also behind the scenes. “When you’re brown while walking with a vagina you always make the time to make sure you’re up on everything that looks like you because for a long time there was only A or B. Now there is a plethora. The DP [Director of Photography] on our show is a Black woman. Our basecamp AD is a Black woman. All these beautiful Black women come in as guest stars.” She finishes, “It’s just nice to be a part of all that!”