Blair Underwood talks tracing his African roots and 'Streetcar' role
Blair Underwood will trace his roots tonight on NBC’s prime-time series Who Do You Think You Are?.
His search for his ancestors sends him to the American South, where he learns some startling news about his background. Then Underwood travels to Cameroon to reconnect with his African ancestors.
The veteran actor also has a new play in the works. Underwood will grace the Broadway stage in a multicultural adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire, which opens April 3.
In an interview with theGrio, Underwood talked about the importance of African-Americans tracing their roots and revealed details on his upcoming Broadway debut.
theGrio: Tell me about your episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, what was your experience like?
Blair Underwood: It’s a comprehensive two weeks of your life. A grand treasure hunt and you don’t know what to expect. It was a life changing situation. I see myself differently now. I found out a lot of things on my mother’s side that I was unaware of. There were some personal revelations, but also some historical revelations too. The fact that there was a whole line of free people of color in the 1800s and late 1700s in Virginia, I had heard of the free people of color, but didn’t know they existed so early and were some of my relatives.
I found out my four-times great grandfather Samuel Scott, who was of color, owned two hundred acres of land in Lynchburg, Virgina, and I found that they owned two of their own slaves. It’s a long story, but some of my relatives in the early 1800’s bought some of their own relatives, and listed them as slaves so that they would not be enslaved by white owners.
WATCH A PREVIEW FOR BLAIR UNDERWOOD ON WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE HERE
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Do you think it’s important for more black Americans to make an attempt at tracing their roots?
I think it is. Because of the DNA testing we were able to identify 10 generations back on my father’s side. We found out that my family on my father’s side resides in Cameroon in West Africa. My father and I went back at the end of the show and it felt like the end of the movie Roots. People were singing and celebrating. My father and I represent a generation of the family that are here on this continent that have ‘made it.’
If we can start to rebuild our family trees there is strength in that, there’s empowerment in that, knowing who you are. It’s an intangible thing, but its empowering nonetheless.
There has been some discussion about the terms we use to classify black people in the U.S. Do you prefer being referred to as black American or African-American?
I do say I am a man of African descent. I say in the last line of the show that as black Americans living in the United States, we are African-American, not because we were born in Africa, but because Africa was born in us.
You are starring in the latest Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, what made you choose this play to be your Broadway debut?
Its one of the greatest plays ever written by the American playwright Tennessee Williams and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The role in the play made Marlon Brando a star at 25 years old. It’s an iconic play, and has a number of revivals over the years since the 1940’s but never with a multicultural cast. It’s set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana and you will feel the south when you see the play.
What was the inspiration behind this multicultural production of a traditionally all-white Broadway play?
Stephen Byrd, produced Cat On a Hot Tin Roof back in 2008 and has the rights to this play and this was the next one that he wanted to do. I’m glad he did it because it gave us a chance to shine the light on another playwright of another color.
Will there be any adjustments to the script because you are African-American? The character you are playing, Stanley Kowalski, is a Polish character.
Well first off, I’m not Polish, so we took off the last name of the character Kowalski and I will just play a character named Stanley. That’s really it, everything else just plays the same.
My ancestors were free people of color so this is very similar to what was going on during this time period in America with free people of color. The fact that you had these light-skinned women who come from an aristocratic background of wealth and in Mississippi is not unrealistic at all. Just because people don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that it is not authentic.
Film, TV, and stage, you have done it all, Is there anything that you haven’t done professionally that you would still like to do?
I feel like in many ways I am just getting started. There are many things that I still want to get done in every medium, film, television and on the stage.
You have been on the scene for decades as a working actor. What would you say has been the most integral element to your success in this industry?
The key for me has been to not rely on people to hire me and creating my own opportunities. I’m a Christian, and I say that because when you are focused on a higher power you realize that someone hiring you or not hiring you is out of your hands, it is preordained. I believe what for me is going to be. There are so many roles that I wanted that weren’t for me. I wanted to be in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof badly, but it wasn’t for me, so it didn’t happen. But here I am a year later with this amazing opportunity to be in Streetcar Named Desire, and this role was apparently meant for me.
Follow Chris Witherspoon on Twitter at @WitherspoonC