Poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director Dr. Maya Angelou brought to life the character Nyo Boto in “Roots.” Thirty years later, she shares her thoughts on the experience and on the broad impact of “Roots” with TelevisionWeek’s Beth Duggan.
TelevisionWeek: How did you get involved with “Roots”?
Maya Angelou: Alex Haley was a brother friend of mine, so I was very close with him during the writing of the book. When he talked to David Wolper, the producer, he mentioned that he thought I’d be good as Nyo Boto. So we talked and they offered me the role. And I accepted with the hope that I would be invited to direct one or two of those segments since I was with the American Film Association. They said yes, I would be considered.
I had directed two films for the American Film Institute. Once I was on the set, though, I realized I had no experience to direct those. … I had done a film in Sweden and taken a course in cinematography, but that didn’t prepare me. So I got into it because I wanted to do the directing, but I was relieved when they didn’t offer me anything.
TVWeek: What was it like working with Alex Haley?
Ms. Angelou: Well he was my friend. It was a great piece of research and writing that he did and so I was glad to be a part of it. And then there were so many friends on the set, like Cicely Tyson, who played my daughter-but I think we’re the same age. (Laughs.) And other friends who were in that vast cast made it very fun.
TVWeek: What do you think the show taught its viewers?
Ms. Angelou: It informed some of the viewers that slavery did exist, and not that long ago. It was amazing the popularity, even in the bars. If the bartenders didn’t have “Roots” on, then there were no people in the bar. So it was amazing that it captured the conscience of the country, for a little while. People tried to be nicer to each other, for a little while.
TVWeek: Why do you think it was so popular?
Ms. Angelou: Well, all human beings want to go home, whether they know it or not. Everybody needs to know where he or she came from, which is why Americans go to England and go to Ireland. Some go to Poland, people go [to] Germany and Asians go back to Asia. And Africans go to Africa. So it’s a good thing to go back into history, because that’s home too. And it’s fascinating, in fact.
TVWeek: You spent most of your childhood with your grandmother. Did you use aspects of her personality as inspiration for Nyo Boto?
Ms. Angelou: Absolutely the same; I became her. The character was my grandmother-very kind, very strong, who spoke softly but had a huge voice. And whenever she spoke softer, you really trembled. The softer she spoke, the more you became apprehensive. She usually spoke just above a whisper, and when that went down … “Oops, what did I do?” She only raised her voice in church to sing. And she could really sing, too.
I made her kind, and she had no idea that when she sent her grandson out to get the makings of a drum, she’d be sending him into slavery. She had no idea, but he was sort of rambunctious and she said, “OK, this is what you have to do.” And of course that set off the train of events that led to “Roots.”
TVWeek: Critics have observed that the African American characters presented were not tailored to suit white audiences. How did the directors and writers achieve that?
Ms. Angelou: I think the directors did that, the directors and the writers, but I also think that the character of the actors themselves … when there’s a chance to play a really great role and you know the role, then the actor brings as much to the character as does the writer and as does the director. … The scripts were good, but as those actors acted them out, the scripts became greater.
TVWeek: Did you have a grasp on how big “Roots” would be?
Ms. Angelou: I had no idea. Nobody had any idea that it was going to become the conscience of America-and its theatrical delight as well as its ethical conscience.
As it began to be shown and the people became so caught, almost addicted to it, you couldn’t get people to do anything on the nights of the show until after it was broadcast.
TVWeek: Why does it still have such an impact 30 years later?
Ms. Angelou: The condition is still obtained, the condition of racism, sexism and ageism, all those ignorances are still obtained, they still are here. And so it’s a very good lesson.