“Underground” star Amirah Vann readily admits during our recent webcam chat (watch above) to having second thoughts about playing an enslaved person on this WGN America drama that recounts the beginnings of the underground railroad. “It became a discussion over is this the way I wanted to portray myself,” she explains, “and portray my people?” However, after reading the scripts, “I realized it was so very different, and it was so very empowering, it was a testimony of strength and endurance. All those things made it really exciting.”
Vann plays Miss Ernestine, the head house slave and mistress of plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), with whom she has two children, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and James (Maceo Smedley). Ernestine is fiercely protective of them and her oldest son, Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), and will go to great length to protect them. “You see over the course of the entire season her willingness to do whatever it takes to keep them safe and near her,” she explains, “as safe as possible in this really crazy world.”
The actress praises “Underground” creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski for their willingness to not paint characters in broad strokes, but rather in subtle touches. “They don’t shy away from the complexity of relationships,” she revealed. “They’re not looking to make any kind of one point other than a human one.”
For Vann, “Underground” offers an opportunity not just for entertainment, but for education as well. She recounts a visit to Power Center Academy in Memphis where the show is being used as part of the school’s overall curriculum. “It’s really exciting,” she says of the students’ reactions. “It was just so wonderful to be able to talk to them and encourage them, and say, This is the proper telling of this story. It’s a legacy of strength, the first integrated civil rights movement, and the idea that it’s the history of our nation coming together as a whole to stop a really grave injustice.”
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