BRTW Salutes Nichelle Nichols
Actor, Singer, Aerospace Advocate
Podcast episode transcript below:
Hello Revolutionaries! This is Heather Harvey, Black Revolutionary Theatre Workshop Co-founder and Producing Ensemble Member. Welcome to BRTW’s Black History Month Heroes. Every day throughout the month of February we’ll share another hero in honor of Black History Month, someone who inspires us to be better, badder, and more revolutionary. Today’s hero is: Nichelle Nichols
Many of us probably came to know Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant (and later Commander) Uhura on Star Trek. As significant as that is, there’s more to this story than Trekkie fan-girling (I promise)! BRTW’s mission is, in part, dedicated to improving representation for Black people, and Nichelle Nichols took an important step forward in that effort.
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois in 1932. Her father was elected Mayor before they eventually moved to Chicago, IL. While Nichols gained fame for acting, she is also a singer, and she started taking singing, dancing, and acting gigs when she started out. In 1961, she starred in an Oscar Brown musical meant to be a thinly veiled reference to Playboy. While the musical ultimately failed, Nichols was spotted by none other than Hugh Hefner himself, which lead to her working at the Chicago Playboy Club. This lead to more singing and dancing club gigs in both Chicago and New York.
She appeared in Carmen, Porgy & Bess, and Blues for Mister Charlie in addition to modeling and singing in national tours alongside Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. She even worked with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry 2 years before Star Trek. In fact, the two enjoyed a brief affair before she landed the life-changing role.
In 1966, Nichelle Nichols made history as one of the first Black women to gain a recurring television role that was not a servant. In fact, this Black woman was quite far removed from it. She was a lieutenant. Despite the quick boost in prominence, Nichols almost left the show to pursue the Broadway roles she’d enjoyed in the past. The day after she told Roddenberry that she wouldn’t return, she attended an NAACP fundraiser. While there, she had a conversation with none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and not only was the civil rights leader a trekkie, but he also encouraged her to stay on the show, insisting that she had become an important role model to Black people.
Of course, Nichols not only stayed on the show but made television history again just 2 years later. In 1968, Nichols and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk kissed in an episode called “Plato’s Step-children.” The Star Trek writers and producers crafted a storyline that resulted in the 2 kissing having been forced into it by alien telekinesis. The thought at the time was that television audiences would be less concerned about nonconsensual intimacy but they would be more concerned about interracial intimacy. They were so concerned that, reportedly, they prepared a different edit just for southern audiences. However, with mounting production concerns and the cost of showing a different take for half of the country, everyone-including the south- saw the uncut kiss between a Black woman and a white man for the first time on national television.
After Star Trek was cancelled, Nichols went on to star in several Star Trek movies. However, her impact didn’t just end there. Nichols volunteered at NASA and helped recruit women and people of color. Not only was her program successful- recruiting the first woman astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride, the first Black astronaut, Colonel Guion [GUY-ON] Bluford- she became an important inspiration to others who would pursue a future space exploration. Former NASA astronaut, Mae Jemison, cited Nichols as her inspiration. Since the 1980s, Nichols has served on the National Space Society board of governors and still continues to advocate for space exploration.
BRTW salutes Nichelle Nichols for being one of the first figures to create opportunities and representation for Black women in nerd culture and aerospace.
Thank you for listening to today’s BHM Hero by Black Revolutionary Theatre Workshop!
We have a few upcoming events if you’d like to be Black and badass with us in person. First, Ensemble Member, Sheyenne Javonne Brown wrote an amazing play called Summoned which explores Black love and fidelity as we balance our commitments to activism and career. You can catch the semi-staged reading at Theatre for the New City on Monday, February 26 @ 7pm. And you can get tipsy while you learn you Black History with us on Friday February 23 and Saturday February 24. We’re going to bring the Black History Month Heroes to the stage for a slightly raucous good time.
You can support Black Revolutionary Theatre Workshop and stay up to date with our work by following us online. We’re on Facebook @BlackRevolutionaryTheatreWorkshop and Twitter & Instagram @TheBRTW. You can subscribe to our e-letter on our website, BlackRevolutionaryTheatreWorkshop.org.
And most importantly, our work is expensive to create, so if you want to support us, you can make a one-time or monthly recurring donation on our website. BRTW is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, and your donation is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Tune in tomorrow for another BHM hero. PEACE!
Don’t Miss BRTW’S
Live Black History Month Heroes Celebration
Friday 2.23.18 & Saturday 2.24.18 from 8:00 – 9:30 pm
353 Studios in Manhattan
There will be booze, Black history, and bad-assery