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Lupita Nyong’o was taken aback when a reporter asked the Oscar-winning — and now, Tony-nominated — actress why she decided to take a role in the Broadway play Eclipsed.
“A journalist asked me, ‘Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?'” she writes in a new essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter. “This question felt quite silly … but then it went deeper than that. To me it felt like a question about our value system in this culture, the ways we define success for ourselves as well as others.”
In the essay titled “Why I Chose a ‘Small Play’ Over the Big Screen,” Nyong’o, who won the best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in 2014‘s 12 Years a Slave, questions the value placed on “Hollywood” roles and women, especially women of color, being told what they “need to do” and not going after what they want to do.
After turning down several projects, Nyong’o says, she began starring in Eclipsed, a portrait of life for women trapped by a rebel commander during the Liberian Civil War, two months ago. On Tuesday, the play earned six Tony Awards nominations, including one for Nyong’o, and is among the frontrunners for best play, The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney reports.
Of her last big-screen roles — voicing Raksha in The Jungle Book, now in theaters, and Max Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the actress says she was more engaged in the “mythical, magical stories” of genre storytelling (only appearing in animated and CGI-version) compared to playing a live-action role that doesn’t challenge her, such as “the wife.”
Lupita Nyong’o in Eclipsed on Broadway. (Photo: Getty Images)
So when the Broadway role came along, Nyong’o writes, “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.
“So often women of color are relegated to playing simple tropes: the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage, or the clown. We are confined to being a simple and symbolic peripheral character — one who doesn’t have her own journey or emotional landscape.”
She continues, “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.”
Though the actress won’t write off taking lead roles in the future, Nyong’o says she is currently focused on taking risks, partly because of the larger conversation the industry has been having about diversity in films.
Of the play, which features an all-female cast, playwright and director who are all of African descent, Nyong’o ends her Lenny essay by bringing it full circle: “I look at this play and see nothing about it that is ‘small.'”
On Tuesday morning, the actress responded to the Tony nomination for her Broadway debut by focusing on the play’s message.
“Our hope is to awaken something in the consciousness of our audience to affect change around the world,” Nyong’o said.
Her next film role will be in Queen of Katwe, which is set to hit theaters in September.
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