March 17 2010 12:00 AM

Ella Joyce speaks for Rosa Parks in ’Rose’

Ella Joyce must have the most diverse desk drawer of notices in the acting profession.

“Ms. Joyce brings an enjoyable relish to Lily’s flashy bravado,” wrote Ben Brantley of The New York Times in 1995.

“Ella Joyce is still thick like a Sweet Potatoe Pie YES LAWWDD!!” commented mistermaxxx on

“I’m a Gemini,” Joyce explained in a phone interview last week. “I have many sides.”

The “relish” review was for the highfalutin 1995 drama “Crumbs From the Table of Joy.” The “pie” plaudit was for the 2006 film farce “Who Made the Potatoe Salad?” (The misspelling is deliberate.)

With some 50 films, TV shows and plays under her belt, Joyce comes to Lansing Saturday, March 20, with “A Rose Among Thorns,” the one-woman show she calls her “masterpiece.”

As civil rights legend Rosa Parks, Joyce runs a gamut of sentiment, wisdom, humor, indignation and graphic knitting.

“It’s the part I was born to play,” Joyce said. “I have actually felt her spirit right down inside of me on stage.”

Best known for her leading role in the socially conscious Fox sitcom “Roc,” which aired from 1991 to 1994, Joyce has also starred in high-minded plays by August Wilson on the New York stage (“Two Trains Running,” “Don’t Get God Started”) and appeared on TV’s “Seinfeld.”

Joyce never met Rosa Parks but felt her presence while growing up in Detroit; Parks moved to Detroit when Joyce was a  young girl.

“I remember when they renamed 12th Street Rosa Parks Boulevard,” Joyce said.

When Parks died in 2005, Joyce got hooked on Parks’ story. She tuned each of her TVs to a different news channel and recorded every minute of coverage, then dived into books and documents to gather material for a play.

She wanted an intimate show in the storytelling tradition of the Griots, West African poetstorytellers. Since 2007, Joyce has taken "Rose" around the country.

“People say it’s like having tea with Auntie Rose,” Joyce said.

As Parks, Joyce gives props to other major figures in the civil rights era, including Parks’ attorneys, Edgar Daniels Nixon and Fred Gray, and Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council. Robinson chose Parks, then an elected secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, to spur a court challenge to discriminatory seating practices on Montgomery buses.

Lately, she has gotten a lot of mileage from her big role in Damon “Coke” Daniels’ oddball comedy “Potatoe Salad.”

“It’s a grass-roots kind of film that’s really for black audiences,” she said.

When Joyce visits her mom in Detroit, airport security guards light up.

“Wait a minute — you was in ‘Potatoe Salad,’” Joyce said, imitating a star-struck TSA officer. “Everybody in Detroit has a copy of that film.”

Director Don Coscarelli’s cult film “Bubba Ho-Tep” brought her to a new audience in 2002. (She made an unforgettably sour face as the nurse who has to intimately examine an elderly Elvis Presley.) The 2007 comedy “Uncle P,” with Master P and Cheech Marin, added another demographic: elementary schoolers.

Now, when Joyce gives talks about Rosa Parks at schools, kids who weren’t born when “Roc” went off the air in 1994 yell “Uncle P!” Joyce said that baffled teachers ask her “What’s an Uncle P?” “I tell them it don’t matter — the kids know me,” she said.

’A Rose Among Thorns’

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 20
Pattengill Middle School Theater 626 Marshall St., Lansing $15 Call
Greg Tarver (313) 869-8141