Nafessa Williams has been busy. In the last several years, she’s been in cast in projects like the long-running soap opera One Life to Live, Netflix’s Burning Sands and CBS’ medical drama Code Black.
Now, in what is poised to be her breakout role, Williams will play the DC Comics superheroine Thunder in The CW’s new series, Black Lightning. Thunder, whose real name is Anissa Pierce, is the daughter of Jefferson Pierce aka Black Lightning (Cress Williams), and the sister of Jennifer Pierce aka Lightning (China Anne McClain).
Thunder, who is a part of the DC comics canon, is a metahuman with abilities that are opposite her father and sister. She does not control electricity, but instead has the power to increase her body’s density and body mass, becoming nearly unmovable. She also can become nearly invulnerable, withstanding bullets and creating shockwaves in her defense by just stomping her feet.
Thunder eventually becomes a vigilante and joins the Batman-formed superhero team, the Outsiders. It is unclear as of now if Thunder’s powers in the television series will mirror her abilities in the comic.
Similar to her personality in the comics, Black Lightning’s Anissa is portrayed as a strong-willed social justice warrior. She’s also a medical student who teaches part-time at Garfield High School where her father is the principal and her sister is a student. The television iteration of the character also retains the character’s sexual identity from the comics, as Anissa is a lesbian.
In the first few episodes, we see hints that Anissa is beginning to realize things about herself and what makes her different.
“It’s a journey in that that she’s discovering herself and these powers,” Williams told Shadow & Act on set. “It’s an exciting time. But she’s also not understanding what’s happening. She struggles with that. She doesn’t understand how. She doesn’t know her father is Black Lightning, she just knows ‘this is happening to me, and it’s affecting my life.’ And she’s trying to keep it a secret.”
Williams understands that sharing the news of her metahuman status with her parents will be difficult but is something that they have to come to terms with.
“It’s tough and it’s mentally weighing on (her father) as well,” Williams said. “It’s dangerous for him. It’s not something her parents will want her to be in.”
Not only that, but Williams says that Black Lightning and Thunder have different outlooks on how to fight for justice. “He’s MLK, I’m Malcolm X,” Williams describes.
However, Anissa’s relationship with her mother, Lynn (Christine Adams), will certainly impact her as well.
In the series, Jennifer plays the rebellious good girl while Anissa serves as the wise and overprotective older sister.
“It’s just in Anissa’s spirit,” Williams said. “She’s overprotective. That’s with everyone, with her students, with her friends — Anissa loves you if you’re in her life. You’ve got someone who’s going to watch your back and going to care for you. They (Anissa and Jennifer) have a really good relationship and I think it will be beautiful for sisters to watch the show and see it.”
On both of the sisters realizing their powers, Williams says, “there are definitely some concerns.”
“As I’m learning about my powers and the struggle I’m going through with it, Anissa asks herself, ‘Does my sister have these same genetic powers?’ ‘How is it going to affect her life?’ ‘How can I protect her?’” she added. “You’ll see the struggle that Anissa goes through and it’s something that she’s very concerned for her sister’s experience as well.”
Williams said she had not read the Black Lightning comics, but delved into them as soon as she discovered them.
“I was just proud to tell the story,” Williams said. “It’s been some time, but I definitely went back to 1977 and caught myself up. It’s an amazing story that is finally about to be told.”
“I’m really proud to tell the story of a young lesbian on TV,” she added. “Not only will young girls get inspired, but (it will) also impact how parents accept a gay daughter of theirs.”
While Black Lightning inspires hope, Williams believes that Thunder will inspire strength.
“(It’s about) being bold, walking truly in who you are and knowing what your purpose is and walking in it every day,” Williams said.
Williams talked to us briefly about suiting up as Thunder, without giving key details about the costume (which was revealed earlier this month). When we spoke with her about it, she did give us a bit of insight. “I will say that the first costume is one that Anissa believes is the costume she should be wearing, and there will be a feminine touch and modifications,” she said, while gushing about the outfit.
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays on The CW.
Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum.