When Maya Rudolph sets out to learn about her past on Tuesday’s episode of the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots, she has a simple wish — to establish an identity.
“I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone,” she tells host Henry Louis Gates Jr. of being the biracial daughter of the late soul singer Minnie Riperton and music composer and producer Richard Rudolph. “And I think being mixed, too, I kind of, sort of grew up feeling a little orphaned by the idea of my heritage.”
The Saturday Night Live vet adds, “I know I’m from ‘peoples,’ but I don’t know who they are. I want to know people’s names, I want to know what they did, I want to know where they lived. I want to go as far back as possible.”
Rudolph, 43, certainly gets her wish.
She discovers that a maternal ancestor, a third great-grandfather, was a freed slave denied the compensation and liberty granted to him by his owner’s will. In the 1830s, he challenged the owner’s grandson in a court of law and won.
“How is that even possible?” Rudolph asks. “I can’t imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that’s tremendous courage.”
After pausing, Rudolph says, “Yeah, they’re my people. That’s really cool.”
But following another maternal line leads to a shocking discovery. In one emotional moment, Gates presents Rudolph with an 1860 Kentucky census that documented the 32 slaves owned by a John Warren Grigsby. Rudolph’s curiosity with the census turns to a startling realization when she sees her maternal ancestor listed without a name and only by his age — 5 — and his sex.
“I cannot believe I’m looking at this,” she says. After a moment of silence, though, she breaks down.
Her reaction to the slave census is similar to that of TV producer Shonda Rhimes, also featured in the episode, when she is presented with such a record.
“We always have a box of tissues,” Gates tells PEOPLE. “Most guests will cry, male and female, and we don’t know when it will happen. There’s no way to predict it. When Shonda sees that she has an ancestor named Matilda who was a slave, she says, ‘I wanted to name my daughter Matilda,’ and she breaks down. You just don’t know where that moment of complete empathy [will happen]. It’s almost as if they are stepping inside the identity of an ancestor.”
Watch the exclusive video above for a preview of Rudolph’s journey, and to see the stories of Rhimes and third guest Keenan Ivory Wayans, tune in to the “In Search of Freedom” episode of Finding Your Roots, airing Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.