By the end of the day, she was making headlines for her Tony nomination for the play Eclipsed and her essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter called Why I Chose a ‘Small Play’ Over the Big Screen. In the piece, Lupita writes about fielding questions about why she decided to do a “small” Broadway production when she’s such a well-known Academy-award winning actress. If you were to ask me that question before I read the essay, I would have said “because Hollywood was probably offering her sh*t roles” and while Lupita puts it way more eloquently, that’s basically the gist. She went where the material was the strongest. Here’s how she explains it:
So often women of color are relegated to playing simple tropes: the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage, or the clown…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.
It’s a relatively new thing to see actresses discussing and defending their career choices so openly but in this case it’s especially powerful because we know, for someone who looks like Lupita Nyong’o, the options are limited at best. When Sarah wrote about the reality of Lupita’s casting possibilities in Hollywood right after her Oscar win in 2014, she basically predicted how few substantial opportunities Lupita would have on film. We haven’t seen Lupita’s face on the big screen in two years, yet she has starred in two of the biggest films of late, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book. I loved both movies. She’s exceptional in them and both were really smart career choices. But, again, in both films, we don’t see her face.
For two years, the roles Lupita deemed worthy of her aptitude were either CGI or not on film. That’s embarrassing for Hollywood. It’s very telling of the film industry that Broadway is where Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o has chosen to focus her talent because the best material was on stage, not on screen. Eclipsed garnered six Tony nominations. By all accounts, it’s supposed to be excellent. Joanna raved about it here a few weeks ago.
Eclipsed is the first Broadway play with an all-woman cast, writer and director and all are of African decent. When does that happen in Hollywood? Never. Eclipsed is the story of several women trapped by a rebel commander during the Liberian Civil War. It sounds fascinating. As Lupita puts it “why wouldn’t [she] want to be in an incredible, gorgeous, meaty piece” of work? She also touches on the class system in entertainment culture. Broadway is deemed lesser than TV and film. If you look at the calibre of talent and stories that are on Broadway, the hierarchy seems a bit messed up. It’s dangerous to write off Broadway as “small plays” when that is where some of the best work for people of colour lives. See: Hamilton. (Note: if you are reading this and you have Hamilton tickets, I am willing to sleep with you for them. Holler at me.)
One of the most notable paragraphs in Lupita’s Lenny essay is when she talks about having to defend her career trajectory to begin with. I wonder if Bradley Cooper or Benedict Cumberbatch were questioned in the same way about their choices to do Broadway at the height of their big screen careers. Lupita writes:
“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?”
Yes to this on so many levels. The questions “what do I want?” and “who do I want to become?” are big, universal life questions but for so many women of colour, the answers have limits. Lupita has actively chosen not to be a stereotype. She is consciously deciding to only act in roles that excite her and that portray fully formed, complex human beings. In her Lenny essay, Lupita hints at some big roles coming up. Other than Disney’s biopic, Queen of Katwe, we don’t know a lot about what she’s going to do next. Whatever it is, I can’t wait.
Attached – Lupita out in New York yesterday.