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Interview: Rebecca Naomi Jones on the Genius of Aretha Franklin and Her Sisters

Jones plays Carolyn Franklin in the new miniseries from Suzan-Lori Parks.

Every few weeks in 2019 and early 2020, Rebecca Naomi Jones would make a mad dash from the Circle in the Square Theatre, where she was playing Laurey in Oklahoma!, to Atlanta, where she was playing Carolyn Franklin, sister of legendary singer Aretha Franklin, in National Geographic's series Genius: Aretha. Even for a Broadway pro like Jones, that was difficult. But giving voice to an under-sung figure who wanted to make the music industry more equitable, and to do it opposite actors like Cynthia Erivo and Courtney B. Vance, in a project by Suzan-Lori Parks, was something Jones couldn't pass up.

Rebecca Naomi Jones
(© David Gordon)

Why were you interested in this particular project?
I've been a fan of Aretha Franklin my whole life. My father was a musician, and we had Motown records just blasting in my house as a kid. My father also was a coach for singers and for singing groups, so I just was music-obsessed from a very young age. And Aretha Franklin really is the Queen. I mean, her voice is like nothing else. Even if you're not a religious person, you can feel that she has got some otherworldly gift, and that always really touched me.

When I heard about this audition, I got so excited because I also knew that theater people were involved. I knew that Suzan-Lori Parks was writing and producing and show-running, and I knew that Cynthia Erivo was attached. I've been getting more and more TV and film work in the last 10 years, but I've really wanted to break through to that series-regular role. This made sense as a good way in, because I was going to have to sing, and there were theater people involved, and it highlighted an idol of mine.

I didn't realize until I watched it how much I didn't know about Aretha's life, and the lives of her sisters. Where did you fall on that spectrum?
I would say, anything that most people found out from this series, I also found out. Even as somebody who was obsessed with music and loves Aretha Franklin, I had never even heard of Carolyn Franklin or Erma Franklin or Cecil Franklin. Her siblings were completely unknown to me. I learned so much about their childhood and how much turmoil Aretha went through, which added so much to what I think of as her genius, because somehow she went through all of these things and came out so strong and really changed people's lives.

Another big thing I learned about her was her activism. When I think of female singers at that time who were super active in civil rights, I think of Nina Simone first. I really didn't know how much of an activist Aretha was, and how she found a way to do it her way, through her music. I loved finding that out about her. Especially in the time that we're living in now, it's important to know.

And Aretha's success so eclipsed both of her sisters, who were also trying to make it in the music industry.
It's crazy. I wonder if they weren't her siblings, if their careers might have taken off more. A big part of what held them back is being compared to her, but their voices were very different. It's tough when you're being compared to someone who's so close to you, because their music was really great. Their voices were really interesting and dynamic and unique. Carolyn had a lot of success with her writing, but anything you find on her, you can feel how much she desired that big solo career.

She died so young, too.
She died so young [at 43, of breast cancer]. She was going to school. I think she either had just gotten her degree or was just about to get her degree in the music business. She really wanted to change the music business and make it more equitable for women and for artists in general. And then, then she got sick. It's so sad.

How did you balance the shooting schedule in Atlanta with doing Oklahoma! on Broadway at the same time?
I mean, I'll be honest. It was a bit of a nightmare. TV shows don't usually shoot on the weekends, so I would leave Atlanta, let's say, Friday night, and do the weekend of shows, and the leave after our Sunday matinee. That was at 3pm, and it was three hours long, so it ended around six, and I would maybe catch a 7pm flight and be in Atlanta by 9-ish. It was a lot. And there were some weeks where I would do the back and forth more than that, depending on my shoot schedule.

It was just a nightmare because I, for some reason, was harboring a lot of guilt that no one was putting on me about not being able to be, like, fully in either place. I knew everybody was fine. We've been doing the show forever. Nobody cared. But I felt like some kind of failure in my goal to be the world's most hardworking actress. I don't know. And then I felt weirdly guilty at Genius as well, because I just felt like I wasn't fully present or relaxed. After we closed Oklahoma! in January, I think I felt more like "Oh, OK" while we were shooting.

I'm not sure I would make the same choice now to keep doing both. I eventually forgave myself for not being all things to all people, but it was a trip to get over.

Have you watched it yet?
I've seen little bits and I'm so impressed with how it looks. Our cinematographer just nailed it. It's gorgeous. And I think the wigs and costumes and set are so exactly on point and transformative. I always love that aspect of doing theater or TV or film. There's this thing that happens where you've done all this work, you're trying to be true to what you think the character is, and, especially if it's a real person, pay respect to them, and then you get a wig and some shoes and a gorgeous costume, and you're like, "Oh, now I get it." And that's it.

Genius: Aretha airs March 21-24, with all episodes debuting on Hulu on March 25.

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