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25 Years On, Rosie Perez Reflects On The Legacy Of 'In Living Color'

Rosie Perez talks to Here & Now's Robin Young about the 25th anniversary of "In Living Color." Dario Cantatore/Invision/AP)
Rosie Perez talks to Here & Now's Robin Young about the 25th anniversary of "In Living Color." Dario Cantatore/Invision/AP)

The sketch variety show “In Living Color”celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The barrier-smashing show from the ’90s featured a mostly black cast and black writers, who wrote for black America. It was created by Keenen Ivory Wayans and starred David Alan Grier, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Kelly Coffield, among others.

And then there were the Fly Girls. The dance troupe was choreographed by Rosie Perez, the Emmy and Oscar-nominated actress who starred in the films, “Do The Right Thing,” “Fearless” and “White Men Can’t Jump.”

Perez ( @rosieperezbklyn) says “In Living Color” broke cultural barriers and had a huge impact on her career. 

“The show as really really fun,  and for people of color, it was an amazing opportunity,” she tells  Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “You would walk into the office, and there were people of color there.” 

The show was written for people of color and producers were unapologetic about that, Perez says — they didn’t care if white America didn’t get some of the jokes.

“I would say that it’s in at least the top 50 or maybe even top 25 of influential, game-changing television shows in American history,” Perez says. “You know, because it dared to be what it wanted to be.”

Interview Highlights

On being rejected by Don Cornelius of “Soul Train”

“I had asked him way back when I said, ‘Would you be my manager?’ And Don Cornelius’ response was, ‘In order to manage someone, they have to have something to be managed.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He goes, ‘Besides of you just shaking your ass, I mean, what is it?’ And I got up and I walked out of his office. And it was years later, I was choreographing an event for AIDS, and Mr. Cornelius was there, and he says, ‘I owe you an apology. I was wrong.’ ”

On her career beginnings and learning to dance at a Catholic children’s home in New York 

“Well, I was a ward of the state for a while when I was younger, and the nuns taught me how to tap dance and modern dance.

“It was run by nuns and priests. That was the beginning of it, and then in school, I was the manager of the cheerleading team. I would say those two elements were what led me to become a choreographer.”

Watch on YouTube.

On meeting Spike Lee, who was holding a contest to see who had the biggest butt

“I jumped on the stage and climbed up on the speaker and started making a mockery out of it all. I was like, ‘Is this what you want?’ And I was bending over, and he bought over a security guard and I thought they had brought him over to throw me out. And he says, ‘We just don’t want you to get hurt. Get down.’ So I got down, and he goes, ‘Tonight is fate.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you wish.’ And I had no idea, in his head, he was considering me for ‘Do The Right Thing.’ ”

On becoming the choreographer of the Fly Girls 

“Initially, Keenen Ivory Wayans had offered me the job, and I was very excited about it. And when I walked in, the prejudice kicked in right away. As soon as I opened the door, it’s like, ‘OK, she’s New York. She’s Puerto Rican.’ You know, they had all these preconceived notions of who I was and my abilities.

“And I had an assistant who had been working with me forever. His name is Arthur Rainer, and he’s black. He just looked at me, and he said, ‘Forget these girls. Come on, let’s do our thing.’ And thank goodness he said that because he knew the real me. I was shaking inside. And I said, ‘OK, line up,’ and you know, and that’s how it went.”

On the mission behind “In Living Color” 

“We already all knew what the show was supposed to do. And coming from New York, for me, ‘In Living Color’ reminded me of ‘The Colored Museum’ by George C. Wolfe. ‘The Colored Museum’ was a series of skits that were performed on Broadway as part of a collective, like a whole play. It was being unapologetic and discussing issues in the African-American community from an African American’s perspective. When I was pitched what ‘In Living Color’ was all about, I was very very excited.”

Watch on YouTube.

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.