Having made her great escape from Litchfield Penitentiary, Miss Rosa of “Orange Is the New Black” made a pitstop at SUNY New Paltz.
Actress Barbara Rosenblat, referred to as “the Meryl Streep of audiobooks,” plays the role of Miss Rosa in the critically acclaimed, top-rated Netflix series and came to the College as part of the One Book/One New Paltz (OB/ONP) program. The goals of this program are to foster community, encourage reading and support literacy by making one read accessible to everyone in the community, according to OB/ONP Committee Chair and Webmaster Charlene Martoni.
“The goal is to get people thinking so that they can go forth and make a difference in the world,” she said.
Martoni said she pushed for “Orange Is the New Black” by Piper Kerman to be read among those in the program because of all of the prevalent themes within the book, such as the issues of transgender people and sexual violence in prisons.
“These are issues college students can really make a difference about if they learn about them,” she said.
Martoni said she felt that this novel would be an important read in the community as more of these types of injustices are coming to light in the media.
“It’s important for people to realize that these communities, these institutions, have their own [injustices] going on inside of them,” she said. “The only way that they can be fixed, really, is if people outside of them are aware of them. Because the people inside of these institutions do have rights, but their rights aren’t easy to protect, so they need help from other people.”
During Rosenblat’s Nov. 21 presentation, she held a Q+A session and read an excerpt from “Out of Orange” by Cleary Wolters, the ex-lover of Piper Kerman, whose pseudonym in the “Orange Is the New Black” book is Nora, and who is portrayed in the Netflix series as Alex Vause, played by actress Laura Prepon.
Rosenblat, the narrator for the audiobook version of “Out of Orange” read from “Prologue: Karma,” where Wolters expresses her initial reaction to reading Kerman’s “Orange Is the New Black.”
The author wrote of her first experience watching “Orange Is the New Black” — unbeknownst to her. At first, she admitted, she thought the opening scene of the first episode was a shampoo commercial, nearly ready to turn off the television with her finger on the power button. There was a “soft, tinkling piano” playing in the background and an attractive blonde woman taking a bath, drinking a glass of red wine.
Then all of a sudden — a “loud-sounding alarm interrupted the piano and the haunting sound of a heavy, metal door slamming shut” gave her chills. The camera zooms out of the happy, showering blonde woman to reveal that she is now in prison. In the next scene, the same woman is dressed in an orange jumpsuit and says, “My name is Piper Chapman.”
“And I dropped the remote,” Wolters wrote. She heard “lesbian lover” and “drug smuggling” and instantly caught on to what she was watching — an on-screen adaption of the experience of her ex-lover.
Rosenblat said she was thrilled at the prospect of being in a show that took place in a women’s prison and had initially auditioned for the role as Russian character Red.
She was told she wouldn’t be cast as Red but was instead offered the role as Miss Rosa, a fictional character only found in the “Orange Is the New Black” Netflix series. To her agent she said, “Great, who is she?”
“Oh, what’s she done?”
“We don’t know.”
“Where’s she from?”
“And by the way, she’s got cancer. Will you shave your head?” Rosenblat was asked.
Rosenblat said she initially walked away from the role, but decided otherwise days later when the producers of “Orange Is the New Black” employed three-time Emmy award-winning special effects makeup artist Josh Turi, known for his special effects makeup in movies such as “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014), “Men in Black 3” (2012) and “Ted 2” (2015). She kept her hair and endured a three-hour-long makeup process during each day of filming.
She said that the challenge of being cast as Miss Rosa was finding out who the character was, as she did not have much help.
“As an actor, you have to bring your A-game and you try to build something from whole cloth,” she said. “You have to invest what you get with blood, plasma, guts, a soul, an attitude and you have to make a choice and hopefully the director sees that and says, ‘Yeah, we can work with her.’ They like that.”
Rosenblat said she learned a lot about the life of women in prison as she played the role of one.
“The thing to understand is that they are people,” Rosenblat said. “They are mothers. They are sisters. They are daughters. And they have lives.”
Martoni said that the OB/ONP program is a great opportunity for people in the New Paltz community to learn more and empower themselves.
“This program and the books we choose get people inspired,” she said. “We have a very diverse age range, from the elderly to those in high school, and I think that the benefit of being empowered affects them all.”
OB/ONP chooses a book each February. Book suggestions for the upcoming year can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story first appeared in The New Paltz Oracle on December 3, 2015.