The Emmy-winning actress revisits Freedom Summer.
Like your protagonist, Celeste Tyree, you went South during the Civil Rights movement. From 1964 to 1966, you performed with the Free Southern Theater, and your debut novel [Freshwater Road] draws on some of your experiences. Emotionally speaking, what was the toughest thing about revisiting that era?
The entire process of writing the book was painful, like peeking at a wound, but I think that [through writing] I exorcised many of my own demons about race. This book is my attempt to push us up so that people can see that it's a positive thing to overcome a struggle.
Celeste heads South for reasons both personal and political.
I didn't want to make her some liberal, wide-eyed revolutionary. I wanted her to have a complexity of reasons for going South. Most of the young people who went down hoped that the experience would give them, in part, an identity.
Early in the book, you introduce a woman named Sophie Lewis, and although her appearance is relatively brief, she's an important character.
When I was in Mississippi with the Free Southern Theater, we visited the home of an opera singer, one of the greatest voices to emerge in the country in the past 40 years, Leontyne Price. I had been given some of her beautiful music some time before, but then during my stay, I learned that she was from Mississippi, and I thought, "These two things don't mix." And I never forgot that Mississippi had produced such an incredible talent. I modeled Sophie Lewis on her because I didn't want Celeste's whole experience to just be Freshwater Road. I wanted her to see different sides to life in Mississippi.
Color has a big impact on the way characters view each other, from Celeste's color-conscious mother, to Celeste herself, who literally grows browner as the story progresses.
I did not consciously make Celeste get browner through the book, so I didn't realize it until you pointed it out. I wish and hope and pray for the day when black people don't have this issue with color because, really, we all came on the same boat.
You parallel the impact of racial oppression with that of gender oppression. Do you think that female Freedom Fighters had a tougher pill to swallow?
Most definitely. There were some very smart women, black and white, who went to the South, but they had a difficult time because there was no awakening at that point.