Several years before she passed away, the legendary Aretha Franklin reached out to Suzan-Lori Parks because she wanted the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to write a musical about her life. That project never came to fruition, but Parks has arguably fulfilled Franklin’s request through the upcoming eight-hour limited series, —which tells the story of how a shy, young Franklin persevered and triumphed to become the Queen of Soul (played by the legendary Cynthia Erivo).
We caught up with the showrunner, writer, and executive producer to talk about what “genius” means to her, the experience of bringing Franklin’s story to the screen, and how the icon’s music has inspired her personally. Read on for more details, and tune in to the third season of National Geographic’s Genius, premiering at 8:00 PM on March 21. Each episode will also be available on Hulu the day after its premiere.
Define genius. What does it mean in relation to Aretha?
A genius is a person who has a bright light that is heaven sent. Whatever your belief system is, Franklin was an otherworldly talent that was greater than the sum of her beautiful parts—her upbringing, natural talent, and hard work. And for me, a genius is someone who performs alchemy on a regular basis, which she did—she alchemized the lead, the difficulties in her life, into sonic gold on a regular basis when she wrote songs, played the piano, sang live and in the studio, and in the way she brought different kinds of people together for the greater good.
What was it like working with Cynthia Erivo?
Cynthia was wonderful and she totally captures the spirit of Aretha Franklin. We interviewed people who knew Franklin personally (like, who worked in the music business or as publicists) and Cynthia really completely captures the strong, warm, funny, tough, smart aspects of Franklin.
Our show is eight hours of the story of Aretha Franklin, and the role of Aretha required a depth and commitment that Cynthia totally has. When she sang “Never Loved a Man,” we were all on set crowded around and you could feel shivers down the spine for everyone there. Every single person on set was spellbound. That was the kind of generosity of spirit she brought every day.
What was the process for bringing the aesthetic from various eras throughout the show to life?
Jennifer Bryan is a badass costume designer—that girl can do clothes. I can look at history books, articles, and do visual research as a writer, producer, and showrunner, but it’s a combination of historical references and the imagination of our costume designer. If I write something, for example, when we’re going to recreate the moment Aretha is crowned the Queen of Soul, I’d say, ‘Take it away, Jen Bryan’—and she brings in a dress that looks very much like the dress in the iconic photographs. We really wanted to make the show look as historically accurate as we could. We all collaborated to make the world so that you really are always in the story.
What role has Aretha’s music played in your life?
“Rock Steady” and “Save Me” are the songs I remember learning how to dance the funky chicken to. You had to learn how to dance as a child, and there was nothing better to dance to than Aretha Franklin songs. My aunts taught me that “Rock Steady” is a protest song, so we’d dance with our fists punching the air. I had a whole other interpretation of “Rock Steady” than other people, because I’m like, ‘Nah, that’s a song for the movement, yo.’
What do you hope women take away from watching Aretha’s story in Genius?
A lot of times as an African-American woman, I feel in my struggles that I’m alone. Just to know that there was another sister out there who went through some similar difficulties and persevered and she was tenacious. To know that we are part of a tribe that perseveres and has such beauty and tenacity and that we can work miracles through our hard work and through our faith.