Anika Noni Rose has had a big television year (Power, Roots), and it’s about to get even bigger with The Quad, BET’s new drama about campus life at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Tony Award-winning actress (Caroline, or Change) plays Dr. Eva Fletcher, the newly hired president of fictional Georgia A&M University who quickly finds out the prestigious school, while rich in history, has more problems than she originally thought.
“I thought it was a story that hadn’t been told on television before,” says Rose of the series, which was shot on location at Atlanta’s Morehouse and Morris Brown colleges. “I like the character. I like that she is multifaceted and different, and I thought it was time for me to do something that wasn’t a guest star or an arc. It was time for me to take the lead, so here I am.”
Although she has real-life experience with HBCUs (Rose graduated from Florida A&M University, as did Quad co-creator Rob Hardy), she describes her character as a fish out of water in the HBCU world. “She’s originally a New Englander,” Rose says of Eva. “She’s from Connecticut, so she doesn’t have any experience with the South or with HBCUs. She comes out of [the] Ivy League. And she’s somebody who’s very type A, very pulled together, but all the while she’s looking very pulled together there are some things in her life that are absolutely falling apart. … She’s flawed, she’s messy. And I find that always much more interesting than the nice, tidy hospital corner.”
As Eva juggles a demanding job, a failing marriage, and a rebellious daughter who also happens to be a freshman in the incoming class, she also finds a serious rival in the school’s band director, Cecil Diamond (Ruben Santiago-Hudson).
“Part of your job when you’re the head of an organization is to figure out where you can cut back,” Rose explains. “And so she finds that there’s a lot of money going toward the band that could be cut and used other places. But the band is also the school’s biggest draw, and [the band director] knows that he’s the biggest draw. So he doesn’t want to be cut, doesn’t think that anything should be taken away from him, and is going to fight her every step of the way. So they’re not friends.”
Eva does find a friend and confidante in colleague Ella Grace Cadwell (Jasmine Guy). And a complex relationship with her daughter, Sydney (played by Jazz Raycole), introduces viewers to other members of the freshman class. “It’s very interesting because Eva had her daughter young; she had her when she was in school,” Rose explains. “So there’s not that much space between them in age, but there’s a lot of space between them mentally. Her daughter is bucking at being in this new place that she didn’t have a choice to move to. She’s trying to find herself and distance herself from her parents, and she doesn’t really have the freedom to mess up the way another kid would because she’s not away from home. Home is right there, and everything she does reflects on her mother. And according to her, everything her mother does reflects on her. So they are in a rough spot.”
Rose says The Quad will touch on a lot of typical college experiences, as well as those specific to black college life: “In this situation, we have a couple of white students, and for them, this is the first time for them to be a minority on a campus, and that’s an interesting thing to explore.”
“The effects of hazing, which all universities deal with, not just in fraternities and sororities but also with the marching band,” Rose continues. “If the marching bands are very, very, high-end marching bands, they also end up being big fraternities and sororities. So we’re dealing with all of the things that happen on college campuses — the good and the bad, the joy and the camaraderie. Figuring out that although you come from a completely different place than somebody else, you all have a lot more in common than you might think.”
Rose, who has been shadowing directors this season with hopes of directing an episode in the future, says The Quad has something everyone can relate to. “I think it will speak to a lot of people whether you went to an HBCU or not,” she says. “It will speak specifically to those of us who went to HBCUs, but an HBCU is ultimately college, so there will be something for everybody to grab on to.”
The Quad premieres Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 10 p.m. on BET.