This morning, Lupita Nyong’o was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway play, Eclipsed, but when she took up the part, there were some who questioned the decision. In a new essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, Nyong’o explains why this role was more important than appearing in another Hollywood blockbuster.
“During my last round of press for the play, a journalist asked me, ‘Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?’” the recent InStyle cover girl writes. “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? 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.”
“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,” she says. “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. This allows the audience to be fully immersed in their lives, although the presence of the men around them is deeply felt. 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.”
That isn’t to say that Nyong’o has taken a break from Hollywood: Since her Oscar-winning role in 12 Years a Slave, she has lent her voice to Raksha in The Jungle Book and Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and can be seen next in Mira Nair’s biopic The Queen of Katwe. But the actress is taking a stand against parts that don’t excite and engage her, like her role in Eclipsed.
“I look out at the diverse audiences who come to full houses and experience our performances, and feel proud of being a part of sharing this important story with the world,” she writes. “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.”
Read her full, empowering essay on lennyletter.com.