Marsha Warfield Takes Her Place in the Parthenon of Black Queer Women on Television

Marsha Warfield doesn’t think she’s a legend. “I’m old, that’s all,” she tells me over Zoom. But that’s it — Ms. Warfield has been around for decades. Many of us know her as a stand-up comedian or from her five seasons as Roz Russell on the hit 80s NBC sitcom Night Court. She reprised her role as Roz for the the Night Court reboot, a triumphant return that sees the character’s identity as a lesbian finally made cannon. And in tonight’s season finale, Roz is getting married! I had the pleasure of talking to Ms. Warfield about that, as well as her place in the Parthenon of Black queer women, and queer women on television.

“I started in 1974,” Warfield explained. “I started doing stand up and back then there wasn’t a lot of representation. Now, you go back in time and you say, well, there was this show and there was that show. But you don’t realize they were the only show and then a couple of years later is another show, but there wasn’t a whole lot of representation. Behind the scenes, there was even less — there were no Black women involved in much of anything. So to see where we are now from here, I’m very grateful to have been able to see these changes.”

She calls the fact that there are now so many more Black creators, be they writers, directors or actors, a “blessing.” She added “I looked at women like Pia Richards and Della Reese and those women who kicked down those doors. And you have young women say they see me that way. It’s kind of mind blowing. It’s like, really? I’m Johnny come lately in this game. There were a whole lot of other people who had to do a whole lot of other things for me to get the opportunity to be Roz and to be in sitcoms and guest starring roles and stuff.”

Roz Russell was the acerbic and no-nonsense bailiff in Judge Harry Anderson’s night court for five seasons. Personally, I loved Roz — she was one of the many female TV characters whose dry sense of humor helped to form my own appreciation of comedy and the fact that goofy wasn’t the only way to be funny. She was also a Black woman who was surrounded by mostly white people and was able to hold her own. In fact, people didn’t cross her; some may have even been a little scared of her.

When Roz joined Night Court’s fourth season in 1986, she couldn’t be an out lesbian for a variety of reasons. One was that it simply wasn’t done at the time. (It would be another 11 years before Ellen came out on primetime television.) The other big one was that Warfield had promised her mother that she wouldn’t come out while she was alive.

“I didn’t think it was unreasonable at the time, all things considered,” she admits, citing how many parents of queer kids are ostracized from their social circles. “I understood the pressures on her as a parent of a gay child, that so many people would perceive that as a failure of parenting.” Still, just because she understood, it doesn’t mean she liked it.

But the thing is, Roz didn’t have to come out, and neither did Warfield. It feels like an “if you know, you know situation,” and well, take one look at Warfield, and you know. When I tell her that I always knew that Roz was a lesbian, she bristles slightly. “People always say they knew, and that always pisses me off,” she says a bit curtly.

“My mother said that when I told her, she said, ‘yeah, well, I know.’ What do you mean you knew? If you knew, why did I have to go through that? Why did I have to go through that denial? If everybody knew, and they tell me online, ‘oh, we knew, it was never a big deal.’ If it wasn’t a big deal, why was it a big deal in my life? My whole life, people told me that I was different and that kind of stuff, but nobody ever explained anything or made me understand.”

Even though both Warfield and Roz’s sexuality was a pretty open secret, it’s hard not to think about what it would have been like for Black women and girls to have seen Roz get to have the same kind of romantic entanglements that her straight peers did on a primetime sitcom, on what was then the biggest network for prime time TV. That’s why it matters so much that 30 years after Night Court went off the air, Roz is an out lesbian, and it’s not a big deal.

Reboots are hit or miss, if you ask me. (Usually I’ll tell you they’re a miss.) But the reboot of Night Court, starring Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone, daughter of original judge Harry Stone, retains the fun formula of the original, down to the Black female bailiff. There are so few of the original cast members still alive, it’s not a surprise that they would bring Roz back as a guest star. And the show wasted no time making Roz a lesbian, and not only that, but a happily partnered one — in her first appearance, she is arrested for getting into a fight at her bachelorette party.

Roz is back for the season two finale, which airs tonight, and it’s finally time for her to get hitched. Except there’s a problem: her wedding venue has been double booked and she has nowhere to hold the wedding. Of course, Abby — and others at the court, including Roz’s old friend Dan Fielding — step in to make Roz’s day as special and perfect as she is. Warfield tells me that she “loves” that Roz marrying a woman isn’t the story at all. “This is just a character that the cast loves who is getting married,” she says. “The point is our Roz is getting married.”

Warfield is also particularly buoyant talking about Roz’s wedding, because she herself got married back in August! And it’s not something she ever envisioned happening to her. She and her wife got married in Vegas (as someone who recently married her wife similarly, I have to say, go team elopement!), but she says that now her wife wants to have a ceremony where they can jump the broom.

“We might be stepping over the broom, there ain’t going to be no jumping involved. I’m far too old to jump,” she quips, and we both laugh. It’s clear that Warfield never thought she’d live in a world where she gets not one wife, but two, and that she and her most beloved character would both get their happy ending.

“I think a lot of times, younger people, they see how far we have to go, and they don’t appreciate how far we’ve come. And when you’re standing on the mountain, and been climbing it as long as I have, you can look back and say, ‘no baby, we’ve come a long way,’” she tells me seriously. “We’ve come a long, yeah, there’s work to do, but we’ve come a long way.”

You can watch the second season of Night Court, including the season finale, on Peacock.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 128 articles for us.

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