Anika Noni Rose Reflects on Playing the First Black Disney Princess: 'People's Minds Were Opened'

"It is an amazing legacy," Anika Noni Rose tells PEOPLE of voicing Princess Tiana, Disney's first Black princess, in The Princess and the Frog

Anika Noni Rose On Why She Decided to Start Her Weekly 'Bedtime Stories For the Littles!'
Anika Noni Rose On Why She Decided to Start Her Weekly 'Bedtime Stories For the Littles!'. Photo: Getty Images

Anika Noni Rose is reflecting on The Princess and the Frog's lasting legacy.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Tony winner, 47, opens up about voicing Princess Tiana, Disney's first Black princess, in the 2009 animated film and the impact she continues to see, nearly 11 years later.

"It is an amazing legacy to have been the first," Rose says. "I feel like because of how much people still love Tiana, people's minds were opened towards other things."

Namely, the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black singer and actress, as Ariel in Disney's upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid.

"Halle is magnificent and a beautiful young woman with a beautiful voice, and I think she's dead perfect for that," Rose says. "It's hard to say, 'This is what I did.' You know? But I'm grateful to have been able to open that door, and I'm excited to see what she does because her voice is really magical. It should be really fun to see."

Even with the progress that has been made, Rose recognizes that the push for onscreen diversity is still so important.

  • For more from Anika Noni Rose on Princess Tiana's legacy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

"When we don't include children of color in fantasy, we are saying that they don't exist in that space of adventure and imagination," she says. "That can really stunt a child's joy and proclivity forward. Maybe they're going to be the next great author. Maybe they're going to be the next great artist. Maybe they're going to be the next great musician. It's that much harder for that child when they don't see themselves in that space."

"Fantasy is not a real thing," she adds. "Surely if there is room for flying trees and talking chairs, then there's room for that child, whoever that child is."

When she was a kid, Rose says she first wanted to be a "veterinarian and a superhero." But then her dreams shifted when she started watching stars like Dorothy Dandridge, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson onscreen.

"My parents made sure that I saw those things and that I was aware of representation," she says. "That shaped my artistic life. It's a gift I'm really grateful that I had, that my family was into art and making sure that I saw it."

With the current movement and ongoing protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Rose says she's hopeful for the future.

"We're looking at a swath of ethnic backgrounds, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds," she says. "I think because of the amount of people who are coming out from all different places, that in itself gives hope, because it means that people are no longer screaming into a void. The injustice that has been taking place for so long is now being seen, recognized, spoken on, not just by the people who are experiencing it, but by people around them, and that's really how change happens. It's about everyone speaking up."

the princess and the frog
The Princess and the Frog (2009). Everett

To this day, Rose says she still gets recognized for voicing Princess Tiana.

"I've been out and doing things and had people standing behind me say, 'I really like your voice. You're Princess Tiana,'" she says. "I'm like, 'Oh, okay, I am.' It's amazing. It's always surprising, but it lifts my heart. That in itself is an honor, that people recognize you that way."

One time at Comic-Con, she made a little girl's day by singing "Almost There" for her.

"She was dressed as Tiana from head-to-toe, but she was frightened of the actual experience," Rose says. "She was maybe a year old, but she could stand on her own. I just got down with her, and I started to sing 'Almost There' for her, just quietly, just me and her. And she stopped crying, and she just looked at me. Her eyes got big, and she just sat there and looked at me for the whole song with a little smile on her face. It was so sweet."

69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals
Anika Noni Rose. J. Merritt/Getty

Amid the coronavirus lockdown, Rose has figured out a way to bring her voice to children everywhere through her weekly series, Bedtime Stories For The Littles. The series appears on her IGTV every Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

"I love children's books, and I thought, 'We're all going through so much,'" Rose says. "There's so much stress in little kids. They may not know exactly what's going on, but they feel everything. They feel their parents' distress, and they feel the energy in the air. I was like, 'How can I assist in giving them something soft, something that's a relief, something to look forward to at the end of the week and also give the parents a little bit of a break?' I thought, 'Well, my family members who are babies and my god-babies, they love for me to read them bedtime stories.'"

Thus, the idea for Bedtime Stories For The Littles was born.

"It was just another way I hoped to be able to give something," Rose says. "People have enjoyed it, and it makes me really happy to see the comments and that people come back weekly to watch and to listen. I think that it's very important to push and inspire literacy in children and to make them excited about reading."

RELATED VIDEO: Anika Noni Rose Wants to Help Children Find Their Love of Books Like She Had as a Child

Rose says the rest of her time in self-isolation has been spent focusing on "how I can be better."

In order to take care of her mental health, Rose says she wakes up each morning and immediately takes a "sanity walk."

"I think people underestimate the power of the sun and of vitamin D," she says. "Even when the sun is not really out, you're still getting vitamin D. So I make myself walk even if I don't feel like walking. It really lifts your endorphins, and it helps to propel me into a day. Whether it's a day full of things that I need to do or I have nothing to do, it allows me to move into the day in a much more positive space."

When life gets back to normal, Rose says she's most looking forward to going to see a movie.

"I miss being able to have a movie experience, although I really enjoy a drive-in," she says. "I went to a drive-in movie, and I was really excited about that because that's something that I felt for years needed to be brought back. But I miss being able to be communal when I want to be."

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