PROVIDENCE — When Rose Weaver was about 7 years old, she and her family moved from the open country land of Georgia to the concrete jungle of Atlanta. And in the middle of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, there were rules for young Black children like her.
She and her five siblings couldn’t walk in through the front door of a business. They couldn’t sit down in most restaurants or stand in line at the creamery for an ice cream cone. She’d recently recalled glancing around and attempting to take a sip out of the sparkling “whites only” water fountain in the town square, but her mother, Anna Mae, who cooked and cleaned in wealthy Jewish family homes nearby, would pull her away by the collar. There was only one fountain for her, her mother would say, the “colored fountain,” that Weaver recalled “always needed a good cleaning.”
“That kind of behavior makes you slump over. It beats you down. When you grew up under Jim Crow, under the worst conditions, you’re told you’re nobody. There were times I could hardly hold my head up. But I knew there was something bigger. I knew there was something more for me,” Weaver told The Globe. “My mother was brainwashed to think that Black people were put on this earth to be servants. But at the end of the day, she always told me she wanted me to be somebody.”
And Weaver listened.
She was kicked out of high school for getting pregnant, she said, and gave birth to her first child at 16. She lived for a time in a home for unwed mothers in Providence, gave birth to a second child who she put up for adoption, and beat the odds to graduate from college.
“I did not want to be poor,” she said. “I did not want to be uneducated. I didn’t want to not have a mind to think and make my own decisions and choices. And I’ve taken what I’ve learned as an outsider to help others.”
Nearly five decades ago, Weaver made her debut on a theatre stage in Rhode Island. Since then, she’s become a beloved staple at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence (well known for her tribute role to Billie Holiday), guest-starred in “Poetic Justice” alongside Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, and co-starred in the Oscar award-winning film “The Accused” with Jodie Foster.
She has credits in a slew of TV shows including “L.A. Law” and “The Young and the Restless,” and won the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Playwriting in 2018 for her solo play “Menopause Mama” to promote “pro-aging” and gender equity.
She has earned honorary degrees from local universities, including her alma matter Wheaton College; received a Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2000; and was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Pressure is an unbelievable thing. And sometimes I was so scared I had butterflies in my stomach,” she said. “I still get them. It’s never easy for me to get up there in front of people. I have to take some deep breaths and concentrate.”
Now, at 72, she’s leaving her home on the East Side of Providence to return to Georgia to be closer to family for what she calls the “last quarter” of her life.
Q: You’re now one of the most celebrated women in Rhode Island theater. What was it like in the beginning?
Weaver: I had to work my way up. I played all slaves and maids in the beginning. And at the time, Rhode Island’s art scene wasn’t like it is today. There were musical and dance groups, and ballet. But none of them had gone that far yet. And South Providence had absolutely nothing — no arts at all. And it wasn’t multi-cultural at all. It was Black or white, and the Hispanic community didn’t really have a large presence yet.
Q: So how did you work your way in?
Weaver: [Now Senator Josh Miller’s] father was the general manager at Trinity at the time. I had my first job at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts as an administrative coordinator and I was just in a park here in Providence and was just singing along. He walked on by and told me I should audition at the Trinity Rep. I thought, are you joking?
But I did end up auditioning. I put on my little black leotard, shoes, and did a monologue of Queen Margaret from “Richard III” and he invited me be an acting fellow. And it was great. It wasn’t just learning how to act. I learned how to act, do hair, do makeup, paint the sets, and everything else that you need to do to actually know theater. Then you have some empathy for all the different jobs and don’t go in with an attitude as an actor.
Q: You’ve lived and worked in the South, here in Rhode Island, and in Los Angeles. What do each of those locations mean for you?
Weaver: When I left Hollywood and came back to Rhode Island, I was a lot more professional. I wanted to be the girl next door, but I didn’t want to look like everyone else anymore. I would go out and do a gig, and meant to stand apart.
I fell in love with all of them. There was always something to learn and take away from each of them. I have boxes on boxes of memories: interviews, photographs, reviews and critiques. I took a lot of candid shots over the years with my own camera that are all packed up. Going though them during this move and putting them in chronological order with some notes that I started writing out have made me want to capture all of those memories in some sort of project where I can talk through each stage of my life.
Q: A memoir?
Weaver: I think I could do several. One totally needs to focus on Providence and all the wonderful things that happened to me here. Thinking back, it makes it hard to leave, but I know I’ll be back often. I’ve been writing notes and organizing photographs in all different notebooks over the last year to get ready.
Q: What are some of the things you’ve rediscovered as you look through everything?
Weaver: I was looking through my journals when I was trying to write a movie script about my experiences in college. At Wheaton, I was one of the few Black girls there. I was afraid to participate as much as I wanted to in fighting for a Black Student Union and for classes that taught something about Black history. I was being pulled from me trying to not get kicked out of college and then being involved in the fight that we had to fight. I had forgotten how I felt and how torn I was.
But also during that time, I had two children and no one knew. I had to keep it a secret. I was living in a little home for unwed mothers in Providence at one point, about to have my second child. I was also the only Black girl in that home at the time. And it was the first time I had really lived with white girls.
Q: How has the arts scene changed since you made your debut five decades ago?
Weaver: When I started out, Black women weren’t getting the kind of starring parts that Viola Davis is getting right now. It’s been a long, hard road to make a living. And Black screenwriters? It was almost non-existent back then. We had nothing. I am just amazed how all of the sudden, recently, it turned around and people like Viola Davis are getting these incredible parts.
Also, a lot of people don’t respect him or have great things to say, but in Rhode Island, it was [former Providence mayor] Buddy Cianci that made the artistic community what it is today. He pulled Trinity, Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the Providence Performing Arts Center, AS220, and so many others out of a downhill spiral.
Q: What is on the horizon for you?
Weaver: I still want to write, do some acting but on the film and television side. I won’t be going up on stage as much because it’s really exhausting and you have to have the energy for it.
But I’m not going to let anything stop me from doing the stuff I love. I’m getting older, so I’m trying to figure out how I want to live the rest of these 20 or so years I have left.