Lupita Nyong’o argues that black women often have to hear what they need to do. But she advises women to ask themselves: "What do I want?" and "Who do I want to become?"
Something is making the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o uncomfortable and as the artist she is, she has decided to write on why she chose a ‘small play’ over the big screen- Hollywood.
The Kenyan actress who is starring in Eclipsed (a Broadway production based on women during Liberia’s brutal civil war) recounted how a journalist asked her “‘Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?'”
Nyong’o who has come to be known for her phrase “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid” which she uttered in her acceptance speech after winning an Oscar for her role in Twelve Years a Slave, writes in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny in answer to the question and expounds on how black women have to work hard to fit in the pigeonholes set by the society.
According to Nyong’o, she argues in the article, she felt that the question was about the value system in the culture and the ways in which people define success for themselves as well as others. She writes:
Perhaps the reporter was placing a larger value on "Hollywood" roles? I turned down a few projects to pursue this one. I knew there was a sense of what was expected of me, but this play felt so important to me that I had to do it, expectations be damned.
I think as women, as women of color, as black women, too often we hear about what we "need to do." How we need to behave, what we need to wear, what's deemed as too much or not enough, the cultural politics of what society considers appropriate for us and for our lives. What I am learning is that the most important questions you can ask yourself are "What do I want?" and "Who do I want to become?"
As an actress, feeling connected to a fully realized, complex character is what I look for first. The size of the role, and the budget, and the perceived "buzz" around the project are much less important to me. As an African woman, I am wary of the trap of telling a single story. I decided early on that if I don't feel connected to, excited by, and challenged by the character, the part probably isn't for me…. The chance to appear in Eclipsed after winning an Oscar was an opportunity to share in the incredible (and too rare) freedom of playing a fully rendered African woman.
But at the moment I am onstage, night after night, with four incredible actresses, telling a powerful story about women who are rarely given a complex rendering. It's the first play on Broadway to feature an all-woman cast, playwright, and director, and the fact that we are all women of African descent makes it even more incredible — and I feel profound gratitude to be a part of it. I am proud of my decision to take the time to sit with myself and not get caught up in what others want for me.
The actress has also been featured in big roles such as Disney’s The Jungle Book, where she has voiced a character, starred as Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and plays the lead character in The Queen of Katwe, an upcoming Disney and ESPN production about a Ugandan chess prodigy.
In her role in Eclipsed, a story written by Zimbabwean-American actress Danai Gurira, Nyong’o has been nominated for Six Tony Awards for the best performance by a leading actress.
She is proud of her co-stars: Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh, and Akosua Busia, who bring to light the life and struggles of the African woman.
Since she knows what she wants and who she wants to become, ‘Nyong’o is open to risks and wants to try stories that “thrill and terrify” her. She wants to engage in “the conversation the industry has been having about women and racial and cultural representation,” the African actress says: “I have recently decided to participate more fully in the development of roles I choose in the future.”
Image Credit: James Shaw/Rex Shutterstock
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