History will be made tonight when Nafessa Williams slips into the role of Anissa Pierce, i.e. Thunder, in The CW’s Black Lightning. The highly-anticipated show will also feature the first black superhero family on network TV.
The series centers around the Pierce family, led by patriarch Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, no relation to Nafessa), a principal of a charter school as well as an advocate for education. With his ex-wife (played by Christine Adams), Jefferson is raising his two daughters, Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and Anissa; the latter of whom is gay.
Set in New Orleans, Jefferson is struggling with a long-kept secret that nine years ago he was gifted superhuman power to harness and control electricity, which he’s used to keep his city's streets safe as a masked vigilante called “Black Lightning.”
After seeing the damage his powers caused his family, Jefferson left his superhero days behind to settle into being a principal and dad. Now, his daughters are realizing they have super powers of their own and embrace them to become Thunder (Anissa) and Lightning (Jennifer). Together, the two women inspire their dad to rise again, and help save their city from crime and corruption.
“I'm really honored,” Nafessa Williams says about playing Thunder. “We don't really get to see young, black women opposite each other on TV and film. I'm really proud to play a role for young lesbian women to see themselves [and] to see how loving and supportive the family is. I believe that family of lesbian and gay teenagers need to see that, if they're struggling with accepting their child's sexuality.”
To get herself superhero ready, Williams says she studied one of her own superheroes: 1970s B-movie superstar Pam Grier.
“I went back and studied her and her action films, and I think she's such a bad ass,” Williams, who’s been stunt training for the role since last summer, adds. “[Black Lightning creator] Mara Brock Akil is another hero. I've always admired her… I just think she's so eloquent, and classy, and smart. How she tells stories… and sets them up for black women to look strong and independent on TV, the messages that are within her writing [are incredible].”
Just like in the comic of the same name, released by DC Comics, Thunder has a love interest, Grace Choi, played by Pretty Little Liars’s Chantal Thuy. Like the character in the comics, Choi is bisexual.
Like Williams herself, Anissa is a force to be reckoned with, not just as a superhero, but as a staunch advocate for education. At one time in her life, Williams was going to law school and worked at the District Attorney’s office in Philadelphia's homicide unit. That is, until one day she decided to achieve her dream of being an actress. One might say her time in the homicide unit prepared her to play Thunder.
“I've lived a life before getting into this industry,” Williams says proudly. “I think that it's helped keep me grounded.”
Williams would sometimes cry at her desk knowing that acting was what she was meant to do. One day, she decided to “walk in her own superhero” and go to an audition. “They told me I couldn't go, I couldn't have time off, and I went anyway,” she remembers. “I [returned] the next day, and I couldn't log into my computer. They fired me. I was literally fired for going on an audition, but it changed my life.”
A little over a year later, Williams booked a series regular role on One Life To Live and moved to New York City. “That was the confirmation that this is what I'm supposed to be doing,” she says. "Life begins when you walk in your purpose, and you encourage other people to walk in theirs.”
Having grown up in Philadelphia's inner city, Williams says playing the crime-fighting Thunder is literally a dream come true.
“This [role] means a lot to me for young black girls to see me come out of the same place they are in, and go off to be a superhero,” she says. “My goal is to empower young women to walk in their own superhero, whatever that is — whether you're a young single mother, whether you're a student, whether you are volunteering in your community… Like, who would've thought that this little girl in the ghetto in Philly would be playing the first black, lesbian superhero on network TV? Ultimately, my goal is to inspire little brown girls that look like me, that are sitting on the porch wearing cornrows. They see me, and say, ‘I can do it. I can make it out of here.’”
Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, January 16 at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.