Kyla Pratt was the definition of America’s sweetheart in the late ’90s and 2000s for Black millennials.
Her early roles showed the multifaceted and expansive experiences of Black girlhood. She had spunk as the tomboy-ish hooper Monica Wright in “Love and Basketball.” She showed us what it looked like to advocate for yourself while coming of age as Breanna Barnes in “One on One.” And she affirmed us in “The Proud Family” when she said “I’m Penny Proud, I’m cute and I’m loud, and I got it going on.”
The 35-year-old is in a canon of young actors, along with Raven Symoné and Keke Palmer, who played a pivotal role in early aughts television by helping Black girls see themselves in the characters they portrayed. In a lot of ways, Pratt is the blueprint. The powerhouses making the most creative and innovative TV today, including Issa Rae and Quinta Brunson, grew up watching Pratt. And those who didn’t still stand on her shoulders.
Pratt, who began her acting career appearing in Nike commercials at 8 years old, said she didn’t set out to make such a significant impact. She just wanted to act. It just happened by virtue of the kinds of roles she chose.
“My mom is an actress, so I enjoyed watching her work, and I wanted to be like Mommy,” she said. “And literally everything I auditioned for, I was that young girl, I would let you know if something was too grown for me.”
“I’ve just been very fortunate to be a part of projects that people still care about.”
Pratt’s distinctively South Los Angeles voice is bringing new life to her beloved animated character in a reboot, “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.” Nearly 20 years after the final episode aired, original creators Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar have revived the show to explore life for a pubescent 14-year-old Penny Proud for a 10-episode season.
Along with Pratt, most of the heavy-hitting original cast is returning: Tommy Davidson as Oscar Proud, Paula Jai Parker as Trudy Proud, Jo Marie Payton as Suga Mama and Karen Malina White as Dijonay Jones, to name a few. New cast members include Keke Palmer, EJ Johnson and A Boogie, with some occasional celebrity guest appearances from Lizzo, Jaden Smith and Lena Waithe, among others.
Pratt said she knows that in the age of reboots, bringing a show back can feel played out, but with “The Proud Family,” it just felt right.
“I think knowing the situations that we had, and the storylines that we had, and the people that we have working on the project, I never felt that way. I felt like they were about to kill it in every single way,” she said.
“Just to be able to be a part of it and have so many people come back, and so easily,” Pratt continued. “And to have so many people that are in this entertainment industry now that wanted to be a part of it, even if it was just the guest star, is an amazing feeling. It just shows you how important this was to people who came up when we came up.”
The original “The Proud Family” series was on air for only two seasons, with an accompanying movie that premiered in 2005. Yet the series still holds serious weight in the canon of not only Black television but also animation. (It doesn’t hurt that the infectious original theme song was sung by Solange and Destiny’s Child.) It was a cartoon with multigenerational appeal, depicting Black families, friendship, history, culture and linguistics.
When Pratt auditioned to be the voice of Penny, it was her first voice acting job. “I remember walking in and seeing the cutout of the character, and I remember saying, ‘Oh, she kind of looks like me,’” she said. She ended up voicing Penny from ages 14 to 17.
Pratt told HuffPost she didn’t realize the effect the show had until people started coming up to her and singing the show’s praises.
“I sat back like, wait, there isn’t anything on TV like this,” she explained. “To me, this is a family, this is a daddy, the mama’s cool. You got a Suga Mama, who is crazy but has your back no matter what; we all got Uncle Bobbys who we sometimes claim.”
She added, “I related to it so much. I don’t even think recording it that I thought, like, oh, this is going to be great and people are going to love this. I didn’t realize until after the fact how much of an impact it had on everyone and how much it molded me as a young woman.”
In addition to the “Proud Family” reboot, Pratt is currently co-starring in Fox’s “Call Me Kat.”
Her portrayal of Penny Proud, though animated, was especially significant. The show broached taboo conversations around peer pressure, dating and more, often in imaginative ways. It offered a space for Black kids to just be kids. Pratt said she hopes the conversations explored in “Louder and Prouder” offer something similar for kids today.
“I’m just so excited that a newer generation also gets to enjoy what we had back in the day,” she said. “And then also we can go back and go back to that space of being 10, 11, 12, and take us to that area where we were first watching it.”
“The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” premieres on Disney+ on Feb. 23.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to note that Pratt’s character in “Love and Basketball” was named Monica Wright, not Monica Calhoun.