Former company member returns to Trinity Rep after 20 years
On a chilly winter day in Rhode Island, Rose Weaver calls in from the warm sunshine of Georgia. Living about half an hour from downtown Atlanta, the actress, singer, speaker, and writer moved there from Providence last summer to be closer to her family. She grew up in the South before heading to New England for college, and has spent much of her professional career back and forth between Rhode Island and Los Angeles. Coming back to Georgia, Rose says, was an important way to connect with her roots.
“My whole community of fans and friends are in Rhode Island, so I knew I would miss them a lot,” Rose says. “But when COVID hit, I was alone, and I realized I wanted to go home with my family.”
That didn’t mean Rose had no plans to come back to Rhode Island, of course. When she announced her initial departure, she made it clear that she’d return at times to visit friends and complete new projects. One of the first of these new projects? Trinity Rep’s production of Gem of the Ocean.
Rose has a long history with Trinity Rep: she first joined the company in 1973 as an acting fellow, making her Trinity Rep debut in Brother to Dragons. After performing in shows such as The Boys from Syracuse, Another Part of the Forest, and multiple productions of A Christmas Carol, she left Rhode Island in 1984 to land film and television roles in Hollywood. Then she returned to the state a few years later, appearing in shows like The School for Scandal, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Into the Woods, Measure for Measure, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Trinity Rep. 2001’s The Piano Lesson, also an August Wilson play, was the last time she appeared on the Trinity Rep stage.
“It’s almost like returning to a love of my life,” Rose said of coming back this season. “I’m returning to the Trinity stage in a really great role, and this role, Aunt Ester, means a lot to me.”
Aunt Ester, pronounced like “ancestor,” is a 285-year-old former slave and the matriarch of the household on 1839 Wylie Avenue. Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904, so if you do the math based on her age, Aunt Ester’s birth year is 1619: the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in what’s now the United States. She is renowned for her soul-cleansing abilities, and her wisdom drives the play’s plot.
Rose isn’t new to the works of August Wilson: as mentioned, she’s been in The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but she’s also participated in readings of other Wilson plays. To prepare for a role as legendary as Aunt Ester, Rose has done plenty of research. She had been reading about African enslavement, especially in Rhode Island, before being cast, and considered what she learned when getting into the mind of the soul-cleanser.
“This character is incredible, and she is so strong,” Rose remarked. “Staying in touch with Brown University has given me a wonderful knowledge about slavery, but also African traditions and rituals carried across generations. I’ve been trying to understand the rituals that Aunt Ester would know. She’s 285 years old, so I’m thinking about what her childhood is like, shedding an ocean of tears as she was coming across the Atlantic, and thinking about the slaves who didn’t make it. I want to understand her from the inside out.”
The youngest of six children in a Georgia sharecropping family, Rose moved to Atlanta as a child during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Rose participated in theater and choir in high school, which she credited to building her self-esteem and introducing her to her career path.
“I was bused to an all-white school, and I was spit on,” Rose said. “Had it not been for that experience in the drama and music department, I don’t know where I’d be. It helped me to gain a little bit of confidence, since my back was hunched from all of the Jim Crowe bullshit. Even singing with the choir taught me to speak up for myself more.”
After graduating from college, Rose planned on becoming an arts administrator. She loved performing but being the first in her family to go to college, she wanted a stable career that would support her mother and her son, whom she had as a teenager. While singing at an event she put together for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA), the father of state senator Josh Miller told her she should try out for shows at Trinity Rep. Rose soon auditioned for Founding Artistic Director Adrian Hall, who swiftly selected her as an acting fellow.
After her first experiences at Trinity Rep, Rose took some time away from the theater to break into television and film. But she noticed that there weren’t many roles for Black women on screen – and in theater – at the time. Rose said that while opportunities for Black actors have improved since the beginning of her career, citing former Trinity Rep actress Viola Davis as an example, there is still a ways to go when giving Black actors opportunities and representation. That’s one reason why during the pandemic, she created The Directory of Black Artists in Rhode Island, so folks looking for Black artists in the state could know where to find them.
Rose also recalled how when Buddy Cianci was mayor of Providence, she was an artist-in-residence for several public schools. Here, she’d work with students on performance and poetry, many of which had the goal of building marginalized students’ self-esteem.
“Once in a while someone sees me and recognizes me from a show, and it brings such joy to me, especially when it’s a young person,” Rose remarked. “Helping kids, especially kids of color to not give up, that was the theater for me. Even though I felt discriminated against quite often, I still felt I had to do this for them. Theater has helped me walk in other people’s shoes, so maybe we can understand and have empathy with what other people go through, and we might love each other more, by walking in the shoes of so many characters.”
Later in her career, Rose would return to Trinity Rep and split her time between Rhode Island and California. It was during this period that she appeared in what may be her most well-known Trinity Rep show: 1994’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, based on Billie Holiday’s final performances before her death in 1959. Rose portrayed the legendary jazz singer in what was the longest consecutively running production at Trinity Rep at the time (2019’s The Prince of Providence has since surpassed the record).
As Billie Holiday, Rose got to showcase her award-winning singing voice. Rose also enjoyed the role because she was a character that she felt she could really get into the head of. She hopes that the same happens when she plays Aunt Ester.
“Billie got so into my being that I had to go to a yoga retreat to get her out of me,” Rose said. “After a few sessions of reiki, I felt power surge in me and I burst into tears. It was like a force that came out of my chest.”
Sometimes, to really get into your characters, you have to write them yourself. Before and after earning her MFA in creative writing from Brown University at 50, Rose wrote multiple plays, including Skips in the Record, partially based on her own experience when her grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease. Another show she wrote, Menopause Mama, addresses the experiences of menopause, womanhood, and life as an older woman – something that is not often centered in modern media. She earned a RISCA grant for this show and used it to tour it around the state.
Going forward, Rose said she’ll continue to write, as well as take film and stage roles that interest her
e. This year, she and Gem co-star Ricardo Pitts-Wiley will appear in the film About Fate starring Emma Roberts.
“I’m getting older but I still want to do good work while protecting my health,” Rose said. “I’m not afraid of death, and I know we’re all gonna die, but I want to be able to say what I did. Like Aunt Ester says, it’s about what you do in-between birth and death that counts.”