Imagine Pam Grier’s ’70s characters Coffy or Foxy Brown in a modern context. How would her gun-toting, man-shaming, sexy and soulful blaxploitation characters fare in the era of Black Lives Matter?
Those films have become legendary because Grier transcended the often-superficial genre with her gritty performances and the message of women’s empowerment she embodied. A new television series “Rebel” hopes to transfer the Grier iconography to a contemporary setting with its two-hour pilot that debuts Tuesday, March 28, on BET. Eight one-hour episodes, which have also been shot, then will air on consecutive weeks.
Starring as Rebecca “Rebel” Knight will be the Sacramento-born and -raised actress Danielle Moné Truitt. Though Truitt, a seasoned theater actress, has little television experience, she’ll be surrounded on screen by familiar veterans Giancarlo Esposito, Mykelti Williamson and Method Man.
The series revolves around Truitt’s character, a cop-turned-renegade private investigator whose brother was killed by police officers. Set in Oakland, storylines will connect the struggles of her layered personal life with the complexities of modern-day policing for people of color.
Director John Singleton, writer/director of “Boyz In the Hood,” is executive producer of “Rebel” and also co-wrote and directed the series pilot. He and executive producer Dallas Jackson were instrumental in casting Truitt.
“John’s whole thing was let’s find somebody new. Let’s make a new star with this,” Jackson said in a recent interview.
Both Singleton and Jackson were convinced they had seen something special when Truitt auditioned for them in December 2015.
“She read,” Jackson said, “and after she left, John and I looked at each other and said ‘That’s her. That’s Rebel right there.’ ”
Jackson had spent a lot of time only reading the character. His wife, Amani Walker, created “Rebel” after he challenged her to create a strong black female screen presence.
“There was this opportunity for women of color to star in their own (television) shows. Kerry Washington (‘Scandal’) made that apparent,” Jackson said. “I told her (Walker) ‘the door is open now.’ ”
Soon Jackson and Singleton were pitching the project to BET’s Zola Mashariki.
“I just pushed it into the character being aligned with what’s going on right now in the country – to see this black woman have a personal journey that was affected by a lot of the issues that are going on right now with black people in America,” Singleton said.
Mashariki approved a pilot and then green-lighted a complete first season.
Truitt, who graduated from Valley High in 1999 and earned a B.A. in Theater with an acting emphasis, had begun performing professionally in Sacramento at B Street Theatre, Sacramento Theatre Company and Music Circus. In 2006, she moved to Los Angeles with husband Kelvin Truitt, with whom she has two young sons, and continued to move between Northern and Southern California for work.
She began collaborating in 2005 with actor/writer/director Anthony D’Juan while doing “Beggar’s Strike” in B Street’s Family Series. In 2012, they put together the one-woman show “3: Black Girl Blues” at the Artisan Theatre on Del Paso Boulevard and, in 2015, took it to New York for the prestigious United Solo Theatre Festival, where they were offered a rare encore engagement. Other Truitt stage credits include “In The Heights,” “Neat,” “Aida” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Truitt sang lead on the opening “Aquarius” in the ensemble of Glenn Casale’s radiant 2015 Music Circus production of “Hair.”
When the “Rebel” audition came up, Truitt was performing in a Los Angeles production of “The Mountaintop” and also rehearsing “Dreamgirls.” After an initial reading, she was asked to come in for audition with Singleton present. She learned four scenes, 12 pages of dialogue. She would definitely get two scenes, and if Singleton liked her, a third.
To help prepare for the audition, Truitt got coaching help from her former B Street colleague Elisabeth Nunziato, who had directed the actress in a 2013 microbudget feature film, “Stolen Moments.” (Full disclosure: I wrote the screenplay the movie was based on under the name Maurice Robie.)
Getting the part
“I went into the audition, and there were probably 15 women there,” Truitt said in an interview. She took a moment to herself in the bathroom.
“I was feeling a little nervous, so I gave myself a pep talk and said, ‘Danielle, God is in control. Go in there and do what you know to do, what you’ve practiced and let it be.’ ”
She was called second. It felt warmer and more accommodating than many auditions she’s been in.
After her first scene, Singleton was effusive. “He jumped up and said ‘Baby girl! Oh man I love your flavor! See, you’re black. That’s what I’m talking about! You’re a sister for real.’ ”
The director continued to the rest of the people in room, “You see how different she is from that first girl? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I want.”
Truitt was trying to keep her composure. Singleton asked her to do all the scenes, which were being videotaped, and then they sat down to chat with the camera still running. He asked her where she was from.
“I said, ‘Sacramento,’ and he says, ‘Oh, so you’re from the Bay?’ I said, ‘Well kinda yeah.’ ”
In the hallway, Truitt contained herself.
“I was trying not to smile too much … because there’s all these other ladies waiting,” she said. “I walked outside and I just started crying. I thought ‘This is the best day of my life – career-wise.’ ”
When weeks passed into two months, Truitt figured the casting had been completed without her. But in March 2016, she was called in for a “screen test” that turned into a 12-hour shooting day with Singleton again directing. It was three more weeks before she knew the role was hers.
Singleton has guided the writing to reflect Truitt’s persona in the character, which has necessarily grown through the first season.
“There’s more development of the character in general,” Truitt said. “She has a soul and real struggles that she’s trying to overcome.”
Shooting the series has been a revelation to Jackson about the craft and talent only glimpsed in Truitt’s audition.
“I said this to John and one of the other producers the other day, ‘I don’t think she knows how good she is,’ ” Jackson said. “She has a little bit of a old soul to her. She can channel this mature spirit and this rebellious spirit.”
“It’s nice to know I do have something people find intriguing,” Truitt said. “Being from south Sacramento, growing up having a hard life and being a sista can work to my advantage.
“You got to give something, not just think about what you can get. I was prepared, and I was nervous as all get out, but I was ready for that moment.”
“Rebel,” a new police drama series created by John Singleton on the BET network, debuts on Tuesday, March 28, at 10 p.m. PDT.