A good character introduction is one of the greatest joys television can offer, and in the March 8 “Underground” season premiere, viewers were treated to two of them.
Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) made her debut in a crackling action scene set to Beyonce’s “Freedom”: A confrontation with men hunting for fugitive slaves depicted a confident Tubman holding an ax in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Suffice to say that Tubman and her compatriot Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) came out ahead in that encounter on “Underground,” a saga that interweaves the stories of a number of slaves, all of whom are linked to each other through the common goal of freedom.
A few scenes later, the escaped-slave narrative introduced the fictional Georgia (Jasika Nicole), a quieter but no less driven woman who runs a boarding house. Georgia is a resourceful and welcoming woman who hosts a sewing circle at her home — but don’t expect to see her darning socks.
“They don’t even have any needle and thread,” says Nicole. “It’s just a front to get these women together to talk about what they can do to be a part of the abolitionist movement.”
In a recent episode, when a new woman wanted to join the group, Georgia showed her a hidden compartment full of guns in her kitchen. But of course, the women in the group (who are white and African-American) need more than firepower to achieve their long-term aims. Organizing, gathering intelligence, sharing resources, taking public actions and engaging in secret anti-slavery activities are all on the to-do lists of the sewing-circle ladies, who are from many different walks of life.
“They go out and they have target practice so that they feel like they can defend themselves when the time comes, but they’re not trying to hurt anybody,” Nicole says of her character, whose boarding house serves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. “They’re just trying to empower each other, and allow everybody to recognize that they can defend themselves.”
As part of her preparation for taking the role, Nicole dove into research on the pre-Civil War period and the history of slavery in North America. It’s been an eye-opening experience, she says.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much more as an adult than what I learned in high school,” says Nicole. “I wasn’t on the first season of ‘Underground,’ but for the second season, it became apparent that they were really trying to show how significant the voices and actions of women in that time period were. Women were integral to the movement, and this show is really trying to show how, even without institutional power and money, they still found these cracks in the system. It was exciting to be reminded that you don’t necessarily have to have wealth or power or status to be vocal and to try to make change.”
In conversations with an academic expert who has examined the archives of the slave trade, Nicole learned that, when captives on the ships transporting them to North America rebelled, there were often more women than men on board.
“It blows your mind and it gives me chills, because I know that women are really powerful, that we’re smart, and that we’re brave, and that we’re courageous. This is just not the story that I was told when I was growing up,” Nicole says.
Learning about the history of American slavery and about the Underground Railroad had an impact on Nicole in part due to what’s occurring in 2017. Around the time Nicole began work on the show, the Women’s March took place in Washington, D.C. In a 19th Century parallel, at one point early in season two of “Underground,” Georgia and her group carry placards and chant slogans to decry the planned execution of several slaves.
“They’re making signs. They’re going out to a protest, and I was like, ‘It’s cyclical,’” Nicole observes. “We are telling a story that has happened many times before.”
Hollywood has often shown an interest in expanding the diversity of the characters it portrays, and TV is going through one of those long-overdue cycles, in part thanks to shows like “Underground,” which has been a notable success for WGN America. It’s no longer rare to find a show on TV in which most or all of the characters are men and women of color, and some of those programs (“Black-ish,” “Atlanta,” “Master of None,” “Jane the Virgin,” “One Day at a Time,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Insecure,” to name a few) are among the most buzzed-about on TV.
And yet Hollywood is still a tough place for women of color; they’re still too rarely the star of show or the most powerful voices behind the scenes. That’s not the case on the WGN drama: One of the showrunners is executive producer Misha Green, an African-American woman (the other is executive producer Joe Pokaski). That said, the yearly stats released by the WGA and DGA can show that progress on the diversity and inclusion fronts is often very slow, and at some networks, non-existent. Though she acknowledges and still encounters those kinds of challenges, Nicole, who is biracial, says she thinks some changes are afoot.
“In the past year, I have had more auditions for a specifically biracial woman than I have had in my entire career,” says Nicole. “There are so many biracial actresses that I have seen on television, and the [programs] never get into what their actual background is. A lot of times that’s because, most of the roles I go in for, they see people of color as interchangeable. I’ve been in so many rooms with Indian women and Native women and Latina women. We’re all there for the same [role], because they don’t care what she looks like or what her identity is, as long as we’re not white.”
What’s been heartening to Nicole, who also has a recurring role on “Scandal,” is that, in the past year she has seen character breakdowns that are “detailed,” and give her indications about the history of the woman she’s auditioning to play.
“When character descriptions say something like, ‘Her father is black and her mother is white,’ that makes me know that’s going to be integral to who this character is,” Nicole notes. “Somebody has thought about this. When I think about my life growing up as a biracial woman in Alabama,” there were very few TV shows that she could identify with.
“I also know that I’ve gotten way more opportunities than black women who have darker skin than I do, because our skin color is still currency,” Nicole adds. “But when I see that [writers are] specifying those things about the characters, that makes me think they’re willing to have a dialogue, they’re willing to have those conversations. That almost beyond my comprehension.”
It’s certainly a change from a decade ago: On Fox’s “Fringe,” Nicole’s warm and witty character, Astrid, rarely got scenes or arcs that were meaty and consequential. That certainly isn’t the case with Georgia (and it’s worth noting that Nicole’s “Underground” castmate Hinds is currently doing outstanding work on a new Fox drama, “Shots Fired”).
As for Nicole, who also plays characters on the “Welcome to Night Vale” and “Alice Isn’t Dead” podcasts, she’s determined to be part of the change that she wants to see in the industry. Nicole, who was warmly received at ClexaCon, a recent convention devoted to celebrating queer women on TV, not only played a role in the independent film “Suicide Kale,” she was one of the movie’s producers.
“It was the best time that I have ever had working in this industry in my life,” says Nicole, who spoke of how freeing and joyful it was to play a character who, like her, is both a woman of color and gay.
“I honestly didn’t know that black queer women existed when I was growing up. There was nobody in the library saying, ‘You’ve got to read this book. This is going to be great for you,’” Nicole notes. “I didn’t know, and the Internet wasn’t around then, so I wasn’t able to educate myself. All I saw was television. I literally did not think that you could be a black person and also be queer. Moving to New York and seeing all these different cultures, and no one was ashamed of anything and they were just walking down the street being who they were — that was not something that I ever experienced in Birmingham, Alabama. It blew my world apart.”
The second season of “Underground,” which recently featured an appearance from Angela Bassett, airs 10 p.m. Wednesdays on WGN America. (Season one is on Hulu.)