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‘Genius’ Season 3 Finds Its Aretha Franklin in Cynthia Erivo

Nat Geo's “Genius: Aretha” will combine archival footage of Franklin’s real-life performances and Erivo performing songs from her catalogue.

Cynthia Erivo poses for a portrait at the Shangri-La Hotel to promote the film "Harriet" during the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto2019 TIFF - "Harriet" Portrait Session, Toronto, Canada - 10 Sep 2019

Cynthia Erivo

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Nat Geo’s “Genius” just got infused with a lot more soul. Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award winner Cynthia Erivo is set to play the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin in the latest installment of the Emmy Award-winning anthology series.

Billed as “the first-ever, definitive and only authorized scripted limited series” on Franklin’s life, “Genius: Aretha” will feature a combination of archival footage of Franklin’s real-life performances (including songs like “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”) and Erivo performing songs from Franklin’s music catalogue. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) will serve as showrunner and executive producer of this season. Clive Davis and Atlantic Records Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman are set to executive produce alongside Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Francie Calfo, “Genius” co-developer Ken Biller, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane (MWM Studios), Sam Sokolow (EUE/Sokolow), and Diana Son.

In a statement announcing the casting, executive producer Brian Grazer said: “Cynthia Erivo blew me away. Not only is she an incredible and bona fide star, but she is soulful and has tremendous depth as a musical artist. Cynthia is the perfect person to portray the profoundly human story behind the genius that is Aretha.”

Aretha Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, praised Erivo’s casting as well: “For ‘Genius’ to honor Aretha is a great affirmation of her legacy, and Cynthia Erivo is an extraordinary talent with an amazing voice!”

Erivo, who won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2016 for “The Color Purple,” also spoke about how important this role is for her. “Aretha Franklin has been a source of inspiration for me since I was a little girl,” said Erivo. “Her strength, passion and soul are evident in her everlasting legacy, not only as a transcendent artist, but as a humanitarian and civil rights icon. To have the opportunity to bring her legacy to life and show the fullness of her being, her humanity and brilliance, is an honor. What I know and have learned about what my voice, as an artist, can do and the power in it has been highly influenced by Franklin. I feel privileged and excited to be a part of the sharing of her genius.”

Filming for “Genius: Aretha” begins this November, with the season scheduled to air in Spring 2020. Since 2017, the past two installments of the anthology series have focused on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, with Geoffrey Rush and Antonio Banderas, respectively, in the lead roles.

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