Thursday, February 29, 2024
Culture

“Lessons in Chemistry” Star Aja Naomi King Opens Up About Her Compelling Performance and the Power of Harriet Sloane

Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane (Photos courtsey of Apple TV+)

Award-winning actress Aja Naomi King has captivated audiences for years with her portrayal of iconic characters such as Michaela Pratt in the acclaimed series How to Get Away With Murder. Her talent shines once again in the popular Apple TV+ series Lessons in Chemistry, where she embodies the role of Harriet Sloane—a dynamic activist, devoted mother, and loving wife who forms a profound connection with lead character Elizabeth Zott, portrayed by Brie Larson. In the midst of her demanding schedule, King graciously took a moment to share insights with Taji Mag on her impactful performance as Harriet and the character’s significance in the series.

Dapper Dr. Feel (DDF): Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1950s, a period of significant social and cultural change. How did the historical context influence your approach to portraying Harriet Sloane?

Aja Naomi King (ANK): The historical context was pivotal to me in the storytelling of Harriet, and I’m genuinely grateful to Lee Eisenberg, our showrunner, the writers, and our cultural consultant, Dr. Shamell Bell, for crafting this narrative. It’s a departure from the book, and that means a lot to me. They aimed to expand the world and provide context to the significant events during this time. They’re narrating the story of Sugar Hill, an account unfamiliar to me, much like the tales of affluent African-American neighborhoods facing various forms of destruction.

I highly value their decision to delve into this community’s struggle to safeguard their neighborhood. Exploring the history of this time and the people who lived there including notable figures like Hattie McDaniel and Ray Charles, who had a mansion and a studio in Sugar Hill, respectively, was enlightening. Harriet’s story commences with her resistance against this destruction, and it genuinely astonished me. They entrusted me with the opportunity to explore and convey the significance of this narrative while honoring the community members who vehemently opposed the freeway construction.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth and Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane (Photos courtsey of Apple TV+)

DDF: How would you describe the relationship between Harriet and Elizabeth (Brie Larson), for those who haven’t seen the series?

ANK: Elizabeth, an aspiring chemist in the patriarchal 1950s, faces unexpected life turns. Through this, she forges a profound friendship with her neighbor, Harriet Sloane. In this friendship, we witness the development of a community, a true family. Despite facing different forms of discrimination, the shared experience deepens their connection. Even when tough love is necessary, Harriet provides support to her friend, Elizabeth.

DDF:  Are there elements of her journey that you find particularly relevant today?

ANK: What made Harriet extraordinary in the storytelling is the exploration of her entire life. We see her not just as a mother, wife, or activist, but as all of these things simultaneously. I appreciate the nuanced portrayal of this multifaceted human being and the complexities of [her] existence.

In this moment, it’s an important reflection to convey to women, especially Black women, that motherhood doesn’t have to conform to perfection, and we don’t have to adhere to societal expectations. For Black women, there’s often a pressure to present in a specific way to be taken seriously or be heard. This pressure is reflected in the series as Harriet fully understands that every aspect of her, from how she dresses to how she speaks, is scrutinized. The need to be overly prepared to gain trust and be taken seriously is a reality that persists today in how we show up in the world. It can be exhausting when people fail to recognize your full humanity, forcing you to repeatedly prove yourself. The moral of the story is to expose the truth of this experience and affirm that it is a genuine one.

Regarding characters that influenced the development of Harriet, I looked to civil rights activists from that era, specifically Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Studying their audio recordings and reading their words in meetings, I found inspiration. It’s crucial to acknowledge that Black women have always played a leading role in the civil rights movement, organizing on the ground, bringing communities together, and driving progress. These were the figures that informed my approach to portraying Harriet.

Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane and Paul James (Photos courtsey of Apple TV+)

DDF: Was there any type of music that you listened to while preparing for the role and filming on set? 

ANK: It was definitely a lot of Dinah Washington. There was this one song that really resonated with me, even though the time period was a little after this. I can’t recall the name of it, but that’s okay. Want me to sing it? No worries. I’m trying to remember exactly how it goes, but I did have a whole playlist of songs that captured the essence of this period. And, of course, artists like Charlie Parker, whom we made sure my character references as well. Once again, Dr. Shamell Bell was a wealth of information. She was incredibly necessary for me to build this world and craft the story for Harriet.

DDF: What advice would Harriet give Michaela Pratt from How to Get Away With Murder if they were to meet?

ANK: Yes, the advice that Harriet would give Miss Pratt would be to stand in your truth and don’t let anyone knock you down. 

Harriet’s narrative in Lessons in Chemistry commendably diverges from the book, delving into the intricate storyline of Sugar Hill and its issues of racial injustice. Aja Naomi King’s portrayal of Harriet strikes a chord with the current challenges confronted by Black women, skillfully challenging societal expectations. Don’t miss the opportunity to witness King’s remarkable performance—stream Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+ now. The series finale is November 24th.

Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane (Photos courtsey of Apple TV+)
Interview with Aja Naomi King

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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