Great performers are going to TV and Broadway for better roles.
For the second week in a row, Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter has us talking, and this time the center of our attention is (as it should be all the time for people who Know) Lupita Nyong’o, and she’s writing about why she chose to take her career to Broadway.
Nyong’o has apparently been asked, "Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?" while doing press for the play Eclipsed, a show about the captive wives of a rebel officer during the Liberian Civil War. Never mind the fact that asking an actor why they took to the theater instead of the screen is mostly a dumb question—since, as we remember it, Thespis first set foot on a stage and not a Steven Spielberg movie set all those millennia ago—anyone reading the description of Eclipsed shouldn’t have to ask why a woman, and especially a woman of color, would want to take a “small” role in a play over a “big” role in Hollywood. And even though she doesn’t say it outright, Nyong’o’s essay is just one more example of how far behind film is in the modern entertainment landscape.
The actress writes beautifully about pushing back against what was expected of her as an Academy Award winner by pursuing a lower visibility project of greater personal importance, and the challenge of finding roles for women that aren’t merely exercises in tropes. “I think as women, as women of color, as black women, too often we hear about what we ‘need to do,’” writes Nyong’o. “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.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]So often women of color are relegated to playing simple tropes: the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage, or the clown. A simple and symbolic peripheral character who doesn't have her own journey or emotional landscape.[/quote]
And while Nyong’o does not say outright that roles as rich as hers in Eclipsed are not available to her in Hollywood, the implication of her entire essay is just that. The ill-fated Nina Simone biopic Nina has endured waves of justifiable criticism in the past few months for essentially putting its star, Zoe Saldana, in blackface to play the musical legend. There was a whole lot wrong with that decision (and with the rest of that production, it seems), but Saldana herself can hardly be faulted for seizing the opportunity to play a character so nuanced and historically significant as Simone.
Maybe she got tired of playing the sexy warrior alien. Or the sexy military officer of the future. Or the sexy assassin. Maybe Zoe Saldana got tired of being a trope and saw a different path, and as a woman of color in Hollywood it’s not like you can tell her with a ton of genuine hope to wait it out for a better role. As Nyong’s says in her essay, “As an African woman, I am wary of the trap of telling a single story,” adding that, “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.”
So to find a better role, a role that let her explore the humanity and reality of being a woman of color that is also being creatively helmed by women, she turned down other projects to pursue a “small” part in the theater. And it’s pretty clear that TV content creators are getting the memo about more diverse programming, too. When you watch the annual awards season run it’s almost uncomfortable to see how the big screen has been lapped by the small one. The #OscarsSoWhite spectacle looked even more ridiculous alongside the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards where the winners and nominees in the TV categories provided a much richer tapestry on the race and gender spectrums than almost any of the motion picture fair.
While he was presenting at the SAG Awards, actor Idris Elba even welcomed viewers at home to “diverse TV” as the crowd of actors gave a sort of “Oh no he didn’t!” half cheer half groan. Elba would take home two trophies that night for his roles in the series Luther and the Netflix movie Beasts of No Nation. The latter didn’t even net him an Oscar nod, despite the fact that his peers bestowed him with the honor of best supporting actor in a film.
For her part, Nyong’o has of course not left film behind, and says in her Lenny essay that she’s working on few projects as of this writing. But she also notes that she’s taken an active role in making future parts more suitable for her. “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.”
That’s great news. Performers should feel empowered to help shape the roles they are expected to inhabit, and it’s especially great to think of women having a real, meaningful say in how their characters are brought to life. But how many more testimonials will we have to read or migrations from film to TV—and to theater—will we see by incredibly talented performers looking for better, more nuanced material?
There is more serialized programming available than ever before. People are consuming TV shows like their lives depend on it, and you can even watch hundreds of hours of shows featuring female leads. Meanwhile, Broadway is experiencing a remarkable wave of interest thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 16 Tony nomination earning spectacle Hamilton, which was written by and stars Puerto Rican performer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even the historically male-dominated restaurant industry rained down prizes on female chefs at the James Beard Awards!
And now, Lupita Nyong’o has written a lovely essay about turning down glitzier film projects to take a meaningful, nuanced role for a woman of color on Broadway. It’s just too bad she has to.