Lehigh Alumn has Role in "Roots" Retelling

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The History Channel’s remaking of Alex Haley’s “Roots,” airing for four nights starting on Memorial Day, stars a Lehigh alum in a featured role.

Sedale Threatt Jr. ’08, who graduated from Lehigh with a degree in marketing and who was known for his prowess on the football field here, plays the role of Tom, the great-grandson of Kunta Kinte, around whom the story of slavery is told. Threatt appears in the mini-series’  finale on Thursday, June 2.

“I’m just so fortunate, so appreciative really, being in ‘Roots,’ being in something that’s as historical as this is,” said Threatt, in a phone interview from his home in California.  And, he said, he appreciated being on the set and around established actors, such as Laurence Fishburne, who plays Alex Haley.

“I wouldn’t have thought this,” Threatt said. “I couldn’t have dreamt it.”  

In 2007, as a senior at Lehigh, Threatt’s dream was to play for the NFL, and he caught the attention of scouts with his athletic abilities. Three credits short of his degree, he pursued professional football opportunities and later entertained playing basketball in Europe.

But Threatt said he decided to come back to Lehigh in 2011 to finish his degree. He took a three-credit tax accounting course that he needed and, having done some modeling and acting, enrolled in some theatre courses. The latter, he said, “opened up something that was different in me.”

Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre at Lehigh, had welcomed Threatt into her advanced-level acting class, even though he had little acting experience at the time. “That turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made as an acting instructor,” she said. “Sedale joined the class and instantly raised the bar for all involved. His talent, passion, intelligence and sheer desire to excel in acting was clear and undeniable.

“Today, I'm gratified to see him continuing down this path that he charted for himself so many years ago in that class at Lehigh. There are a few of us lucky enough to know Sedale Threatt Jr. at the start of his acting career,” she said. “I look forward to the day in the not so distant future, when the rest of the world will know him as a household name."

After Lehigh, Threatt went on to study at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, finishing last May. “Roots” is his biggest project to date, he said.

The original “Roots” miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s novel, was a television phenomenon when it aired in 1977. The story traces Haley’s family tree, from African tribal roots to American slavery and beyond. The History Channel’s remake, which is shorter in length, has also been getting good reviews.

“It is a family story,” said Threatt. “It’s a boy who got displaced from his dad, displaced from his home. He’s brought somewhere new, and now, with these circumstances, he’s got to figure it out. And what’s he going to pass on to his kids?”

Though Threatt had watched the original mini-series as a child, he said did not watch it anew prior to filming. “I didn’t want to get any previous ideas,” he said. “I knew if I told my truth, I knew if I had other actors who were going to be with me in telling this story, then I’d be fine, I’d be fine. I wanted just to do my justice to that true man who lived, Tom, and I wanted to do justice to my fellow actors. I’d be giving, and I’d be supportive, whether the camera was on me or not.”

To play the role, Threatt said he drew on his past—he was raised by a single mom, his dad was absent—and past emotions he had felt. He also did research on the era “to get grounded more in the actual space of where Tom would be.” As with other cast members, “Roots” felt personal for him.

“It had no choice than to feel personal,” he said. “I’m a black man living in America. It’s a part of me. ‘Roots’ is a family story first, and second, it’s an American story. It’s about a time that we had.”

What does he want people to take away from “Roots”?

“I want conversation,” he said. “In doing any kind of acting, I think it needs to prompt and motivate dialogue. You have to feel something viscerally. That’s when I know, for me, even as an audience member, that what I just saw was good, it affected me. And now, because I’m seeing something like this, I heard it, I felt what these people felt, now I can no longer be the same."

The new “Roots,” he said, will touch viewers. “When you see perseverance, that raises fire in anybody.”

“Roots” premieres on Monday, May 30, at 9 p.m. (EST) and airs over four consecutive nights on History. Threatt appears in Night Four of “Roots,” which airs on Thursday, June 2, at 9 p.m. (EST). 

Kashi Johnson