Two years after winning an Oscar for her performance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o has yet to appear in a live-action role on the big screen. Since February, however, she has performed on for live audiences in the Broadway play Eclipsed, written by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, and in a new essay written for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, the actress describes her decision to tackle a “small play” instead of chasing Hollywood parts.
Eclipsed, which was nominated for six Tony Awards this morning, tells the story of five women who, during the Liberian civil war in 2003, are trapped by a rebel commander. Nyong’o writes that the work is like running a marathon every night, though ultimately rewarding (and not just because she’s up for Best Actress in a Play). She says a journalist once asked her why, as a big actress, she would choose to do such a small production instead of continuing her work in Hollywood. “This question felt quite silly. I mean, I’m an actress; why wouldn’t I want to be in an incredible, gorgeous, meaty piece about the complicated choices of women during wartime?” she writes. “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.”
Nyong’o says she turned down several on-screen roles to pursue the lead in Eclipsed, which features an all-black, female cast, and that Gurira’s play means more to her than playing a peripheral character in a film. Since 12 Years a Slave, the actress has lent her voice to characters like Raksha in The Jungle Book and Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, characters she says interested her because, even as computer-generated renderings, they encompass more cathartic singularity than a role like “the wife” or “the sidekick,” which black women are often relegated to.
“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,” the essay reads. “As an African woman, I am wary of the trap of telling a single story… 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. The playwright, Danai Gurira, has conceived a drama where the only people onstage are women… 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 goes on to cite the careers of Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Viola Davis as actresses she admires for the strength of their performative choices, rising above playing “trope” roles and defying what the industry expects from them. “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?’” Nyong’o notes. “Partly because of the conversation the industry has been having about women and racial and cultural representation, I have recently decided to participate more fully in the development of roles I choose in the future… 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. I look at this play — 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.”
Despite several upcoming film roles, the 33-year old says she values her current time onstage, performing in a “small play” which she feels is playing a bigger part in opening the eyes of the world to stories by and about black women: “I see a work of incredible power that is transforming lives by daring to offer women of color fully rendered narratives, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.”