HBO Star Yvonne Orji: On Being African And Breaking Norms

Get to know more about us. We have a proud history.

25 mins read

Yvonne gives HAPPY and that is why she is our African Triumph for this week of Thanksgiving Holidays. We talk on everything you can imagine from career, love, sex, combating the negative African narrative or stereotype, deliberation of the phrase “Naija no dey carry last” and so much more…

Let’s talk about the African narrative, I tell her. Yvonne’s parents had a fit when she told them she was moving to New York to be a ‘Gester’ as they called it.  “A Comedian,” she tried to explain to them. She was meant to be a doctor, but deviated to get her master in Public Health. Her parents, Africans of course, could not be any more concerned about this decision. For several Africans this is the narrative—  this other side of career goals is not so embraced by African parents but why do African parents fret when their children decide to go an informal career route? I asked.

Yvonne: I think there are a lot of factors- it’s not just all black and white. Africans have been storytelling for centuries and things are passed down from generation to generation, through folktales and folklore. We’ve always been entertainers. You can’t go to an African event without some kind of dance.

Obviously with British rule, different things came with education, expectations of being polished, going to school in London, getting a university degree and profession that became what you do. Also, society-wise, there’s no social security so your parents are looking at their children as investments for when they get older.

You’ll have enough money to take care of your parents. We don’t have retirement homes. We don’t have social security and benefits like they do in America. So, it is really on the next generation to do well enough to take care of our parents. With all of that, it’s a proven track record that if you go into some of these professions, these are some of the things we can be certain of taking care of our families and ourselves. Now if you go to other professions, there’s no track record.

If you go to Georgetown and you get an MBA you have access to an alumni network and your can probably get a job with Morgan Stanley, you know.

There’s a formula. But in something like entertainment, there’s no one proven method to be really good. There are so many people that are good, only a fraction of the people that make it.

When I wanted to do comedy, it was like “How do we know that you’re the one that’s going to succeed?” So all of those factors are reasons why parents will dissuade their children from those careers.

Sometimes it’s not even that; it was also the fact that comedy was considered a not so smart profession given the degrees I had already acquired, It is actually not true.  

The good comics have to be smart, there’s so much to understand.

You have to understand how to adjust to an audience.

There’s so much more that goes into performing comedy than just, “Oh I have a joke.”  The assumption is that, “Oh this is not a smart career, and also you’re a woman.  

Why would a woman want to go into this career?” or “What man will say I want to marry this woman who is a jokester?”  

These are some of the challenges faced being a comedian.

There are so many elements that go into it and it’s not like they don’t want us to enter into comedy because of this, but there’s so much that has to do with culture and also expectations that dissuade our parents from saying okay.

The thing is, we’ve always been the ones to break the mold, and Nigerians are always breaking the mold. Now, it’s like, “Okay, they are going to do it anyway, but at least they are excelling at it.

Maybe it’s not to discourage them, but how we tell them you better be on top.” Now that’s the narrative that we enter Hollywood with.

You don’t have time for the maybes, we have to go in and be excellent and we have to make it, And if we don’t, we have degrees- me; I have a Masters in Public Health.

So many of us have degrees in other things and so we are able to use those aspects of our lives as well. I think that gives our parents security. I have a cousin who majored in Art in Undergrad and I’m like, “Man times are changing.” The fact that my aunt paid tuition for you to major in Art, my sister you better go out there and be amazing.

That’s progress. With that progress comes the hustle to succeed.

Meet Yvonne’s HBO Insecure family

I tell Yvonne about my concern on how Africa is portrayed on western media, a negative stereotype and narrative that does not tell the whole story. This narrative says we are all entrenched in poverty, or disease, famine, war, conflict..

Yvonne: I think that there are many stories that can be portrayed. The stories that have been portrayed are the caricatures of what some people feel that Africa is like.

Anytime I read a script and it’s like, “He doesn’t speak English”, you do realize that the British colonized half of Africa? Where is this African kid that doesn’t speak English? Which country? They speak English, they speak French.

Some of them speak Portuguese because these are the languages of the colonizers, Or the stories are all about genocide.

We’ve had wars in Africa-yes but we’ve also had other things happen. I think to a certain extent, African Americans face the same kind of portrayal.

I was talking to someone earlier about the fact that a lot of African Americans feel that the movies that get green light in Hollywood are ones that are portraying a slave narrative.

For me, I’m just like, there are so many stories, even within the slavery era that have not been touched on- it’s not one size fits all.

I’m not saying that we don’t need to see any more war movies set in Africa, but I’m saying that it helps when the narratives are extended.

It helps when you have a slave story, but then also a love story, or a drama, all of these other things that can coexist. I think that’s along the same line in what you are speaking about. For the most part, Africa is one note,

it’s up to us as a new wave of African talent who are able to go in and create our own story lines. You have Chimamanda who wrote Americanah, Lupita who said, you know what, I’m going to create a movie because this is a different type of African story.

This is a woman who came from Nigeria and has to navigate life in America. That’s something we haven’t seen. It’s also a love story of love lost and of love found.  

So let’s tell that story,  Humanizing the African experience because we’re African and we know there’s so much to us, but you have people who’ve never been to the continent and haven’t experienced it in ways that we have so they can only tell certain type of stories.

It’s up to us now to take ownership and take the power and say, these are worthwhile stories that need to be told.

That’s one reason I wanted to do First Gen. First Gen is a show that I created about a Nigerian-American girl who decides to drop out of Medical School and live her dreams as an entertainer, something that’s out of the norm and someone like David Oyelowo comes in and says. “I can identify with this story as Nigerian, as British, my kids are first generation.

I can identify with this story so let me help you birth this vision.” We just need people of African descent to be able to usher in the next wave of African voices that can tell stories. I’m not saying that it’s only Africans that can tell the African story but it helps to have authenticity and some layers. I wanted to portray the image of a Nigerian family who are the neighbors next door.

The parents speak with an accent, the kids maybe do, maybe don’t. Maybe they do when they are around their parents and they don’t when they are around their friends. How do Africans view the elections in America and democracy? I just want to tell the story about regular Africans and look at different situations through the lens of this particular family.

Yvonne Orji with David Oyelowo

You touched on what I was going to ask you about— which is on why you created First Gen.

I had read up that Yvonne had created this web series that was doing really well, so with her answer to combating the one-sided narrative, could the solution be that Africans tell their own stories Is that in essence what you’re saying? I asked.

Yvonne: I mean, we have the power to create the narrative, and anytime you have the power to create the narrative, create it. Maybe you’re not the storyteller and you want to be an actor. Do that but get a book about the country you’re portraying, read and empower yourself and then link up with someone that is a better writer than you. Say, “I would love to play this character in the book, what do you think about translating this into a movie or a short?” There are so many different ways to get in, but if you just say, “Oh, there’s never an opportunity for Africans and never an opportunity for people of color period,” It starts with you. You don’t get the right to complain about it if you’re not a part of the solution.

TANTV: You mentioned Lupita. She actually took Vogue to Kenya to film.  I guess is a good example of how you can bring your roots into mainstream?

Yvonne: Absolutely, I think for the longest time, our people have this sense of, “Oh to be accepted into the mainstream, we have to water down the things that make us special.” So many Nigerians in America don’t speak Igbo or Yoruba and their parents say, “Oh you are in America so just speak English.”

You have kids that don’t speak their native tongue because they were told it was better to speak English.

It’s unfortunate because once language goes, a lot of things follow and it’s harder to get that back as an adult.

But I think now you have a lot of first generations who want to know their parents’ country for themselves. They say, “ I want to experience Nigeria and love Nigeria for myself and I don’t know that much about it, but it’s so much a part of me.”

The people, like Lupita, who are like “This movie I did is based on a prodigy in Uganda, so come shoot me in my country, I’ve been on Vogue before and there are so many exotic places in America, but there are so many exotic places in Kenya. Come and see the beauty of my country.” That’s wonderful, we need that.

TANTV: So what is your hope for the African Narrative to be reconstructed? What will be your hope for the African narrative, for mainstream media, Africans abroad, Africans on the continent? I share with Yvonne that this Africa’s Triumph is my own little way to add to a positive image of Africa. If you saw the last feature I did with Eunice of Ebony LifeTV, she’s also doing really well portraying really good images of Africans. What are your hopes?

Yvonne: I think once we create excellent material, get together and say “Hey, let’s do these things together.” There is no competition, the same way David Oyelowo was like “ I saw First Gen and I’m happy you asked me to be a part of this and I will help you.” We need collaboration. Beyond that, we need a commitment to excellence. It’s not like, “let me do this thing for this amount of money.”- no be committed to excellence, be committed to an amazing product. If you’re writing, if you’re shooting, if you’re acting- don’t cut corners.

Create something that you would be proud if the whole world saw, and saw it in its uniqueness and its authenticity. You need the creator, you need the collaborator; you need all of the pieces of the puzzle working together. Have the doers, the executioners, and change the narrative!

We have the opportunity because there are so many Africans and Nigerians in the industry across the board that are acceptable. We’ve done our part to infiltrate Hollywood.

We’ve done our part to do what it is that we’re supposed to do. Now the question is, “Whoever comes behind, what else can you do?” The excuses are gone.

There are lots of African actors, production companies so it’s not like there is a lack,  It’s really about people believing that they have a story worth telling.

As far as changing the narrative, it means to be different. Chimamanda did her part. Lupita did her part and said, “You know what? I read it, I love it, there’s no reason this can’t come to a movie screen near you. I will get the rights.”

There’s another book that I read by my home boy and once I finished it in my mind I’m like, how do we auction this? I’ll take it to my agent and say, “What are we doing with this? It’s a beautiful narrative.” So, the pieces are all there; it’s all about people coming together to create the puzzle and that’s it- that’s what changes the narrative

TANTV: You celebrated about the Instagram official verification (blue check mark) with the lovely Luvvie Ajayi and other sisters.  Why was it necessary to mark it in such a manner? Also, “Naija no dey carry last”, it’s like your favorite quote?

Yvonne: For me, “Naija no dey carry last”  is a statement that I live by. I have it tattooed on my wrist, I believe in it, I stand by it . Also I have a scripture verse on the other wrist that says, “My time in your hands.” For me, God and country are very important. But also, my culture. The lens that we can look at things, it’s different because I have a different filter. The African filter, the Nigerian filter. That pride that we have as a people, even if we don’t have money, even if we don’t have running water, no matter what, we just have resilience.

There are a lot of things wrong that we would like to see changed, but no matter what, we don’t finish or fail just for failure’s sake.  Resilience is in us, we will get back up and figure it out and for me, that’s what I take in my hustle and in my career. I’m like, “You know what, people say Yvonne you’ve been in LA for a short time and you’re already on a premium show” and I’m like, “You think four years is a short time? That’s a long time. For me, those four years were four years of struggle, of hustle, or not eating, of no health insurance, four years of a lot of things. You may see that as a short time but for me, that was a long time.” That was four years of sowing the seed, of not quitting. That is a part of my makeup. That’s what the point is to me. Having the narrative of, this is what it means to be Nigerian, the same values that our parents instilled in us when they decided to leave everything they knew and all the history and the culture. They could go drink stout and Guinness at someone’s house and what they knew. They left all of that for the unknown of America. The same way that they did that is the same spirit I have of no matter what may come, I better do well. I think it is a common sentiment.

TANTV: You had an event, “The Night of Nigerian Excellence”. What was that about?

Yvonne: That was important for me, I was thinking of doing an event and it was like, “Oh I don’t have a big enough platform. I really want this to be a time where Nigerians can come together.” I was talking to a friend and he was like, “Why don’t you just do it? Just do it and everything else will fall through.” I don’t want to talk about doing something and then let it fall to the side. I said,“It’s an annual event I want it to celebrate Nigerians not just in the arts, because that would be too easy but also academically.” Nigerians are excelling, I think the last few kids that got into all 8 Ivy League schools were Nigerians.  That’s a feat in itself. There was also a Ghanaian. We’re not just in the arts, we’re in technology, we’re excelling. For me, the Night of Nigerian Excellence was bringing together Nigerians from multiple fields who are excelling. Part of it too is bringing newer Nigerians who show potential who just need guidance or mentorship and say, “Look if these Nigerians can do it with similar resources and similar backgrounds, there’s nothing that can stop you from achieving the same excellence.” That’s the spirit of the event.

TANTV: So HBO’s Insecure, Sex and the City, and Girls. How do you differentiate? I read a quote I think it was on Luvvie’s blog about how with Sex and the City everyone can relate, but with Insecure, people want to put it in a box saying it’s only for black people. What do you think about that? Why should everyone relate to the characters?

Yvonne: I think that it’s not so cut and dry- there are very few similarities between Insecure and Girls other than the fact that it’s on HBO. I think the beauty of Insecure is that it has afforded people to see and appreciate a story about two black girls and the experiences they have and see them be as natural as they are. Insecure is not a novel concept. It’s not so far reaching that it’s amazing. It’s so basic if you will. Black people can be entertaining just by being black.  You don’t have to put a superpower on them. They’re cool even when they’re awkward. They’re cool and relatable even when they get it wrong. The show is just showing the basic goodness that exists when you allow voices to live authentically. We appreciate the critical acclaim and the social media. We appreciate that people from various backgrounds are watching and identify with the characters and that’s beautiful. What I appreciate about that is for years black people have been asked to appreciate and love shows that did not represent them in any shape or form. We’re so accustomed to eating what we are fed and finding the good and finding what we like. A lot of times when shows are created that have not a lot of white leads, it’s relegated to, oh that’s their show or that’s for them, like the humor is segregated. It doesn’t have to be and I think Insecure shows that. Like you can have a show that everyone can enjoy. This is a narrative, this is a story-line. That’s refreshing.  I hope it doesn’t stop. I hope new authentic voices can create. I say this all the time, we don’t need another Insecure because that already exists. What a lot of networks do is say, oh this one formula exists so let’s do another version of it. Like let’s make another Insecure. Issa is very clear that this show isn’t for everyone. I told her, I don’t have friends like Molly and Issa. My friends are different; we lay hands on each other and pray for each other. We still love each other as Issa and her friends do. It’s introducing me to a new type of black experience. I think that’s what entertainment and the arts should do; they should widen your palette to different narratives and voices that you aren’t familiar with

Yvonne Orji as ‘Molly’ and Issa Rae as “Issa’

TANTV: You’ve taken me to the next question about Molly’s character and also I saw your Youtube video. You also proudly talk about being a virgin and a Jesus lover, also in comparison to Molly’s character. She seems to be a typical female in today’s society. How do you merge your characters? Do you think Molly is an empowered character?

Yvonne: My faith is something I don’t shy away from. Through my faith there are things I do.

I am 33 and a virgin waiting to get married and that’s something I’m proud about. For me, as an actress, there knows that that’s not everybody’s story.

I know that every role I take won’t be from the virgin waiting to get married. That being said, there are things I have about me that I’m like okay these are my limits.

I have boundaries I need to respect not only for myself, but as an actress. Molly’s character is very free sexually and she does engage in sex on the show and in language that I don’t engage in. But, it’s finding the balance.

I don’t do nudity and that’s personal throughout whatever job I take. It’s like okay, so how do we do this scene that might require Molly to have sex, knowing Yvonne has a no nudity clause? How do we marriage the two? What that does is being able to talk to the directors and producers and say hey, how can we be as truthful to this character knowing that this is the actress we have playing her and she has her limitations.

How do we tell an authentic story while still respecting the boundaries of the actress? Obviously there will be roles that I won’t be able to do because sometimes the roles call for blanket nudity and that’s the vision of the writer or creator. Like you get that.

t’s just like I know that I’m not going to date every guy because not every guy is willing to wait. The guy for you is there, just as the role for you is there.

I don’t see it as a limitation but a refining of the things I will be doing in my career and my life.

That’s okay, the options are there and some are even better. As far as Molly’s empowerment, she’s extremely empowered.

She takes control of who she is. I don’t think she shies away from the woman that she is. She’s like, “Hey I am a woman that’s on top of my game.

I rose out of the hood to become a lawyer. There’s that and I’m where a lot of people want to be.

I know how to interact in all white spaces and all black spaces.” So, Molly is dope. I told Issa, Molly is probably who I would’ve been if I didn’t get saved at 17.

It’s so interesting that I get to play this character that is similar to me in some ways and isn’t in others, but there’s still a humanity and still a beautiful quality about her that I get to bring to life, because Molly is an everyday woman.

TANTV: So when she is not at work, is there a way to be too black or too African in a professional setting versus when you are chilling with your friends?

Yvonne: Yeah, I think Molly understands the art of code switching, she understands that there’s a time and place.

There are so many things to it though. To say that, you would have to say is the white workplace wrong to not allow this woman to be completely and fully black?

There’s no yes or no answer to that but I think it brings up the conversation of how Black people in certain environments can’t be the full extent of their blackness.

I’m not white so I don’t know if there’s ever a white person that’s been told directly or indirectly, “Hey you and all your whiteness is not accepted here.

You might have to turn down some aspect of your whiteness in order for you to be palatable to the greater environment.” I’m not white so I don’t know if that narrative exists.

But, I know as a black woman, it absolutely exists. I said this in another interview but I know acting or entertainment is the one place where I’ve been told to Black it up or be more Black- whatever that means.

Even the concept of “Black it up” is weird because are you saying that the essence of all Black people is how Rashida portrayed?

I grew up in the suburbs so I am Blacked up; you can tell me to African it Up so that might be easier for me- I know how to Naijaify some things but the essence of being black comes up to the fact that there’s no one way to be black. I help people out with auditions and I remember one time someone said they needed an African accent.

I said, “You know, I may not be able to help you. The authenticity with which I am giving you this accent might not be what they want. They are accustomed to a caricature of an African accent. So, you trying to get it write might be a disservice. “

They want the idea of an African accent or what an African acts like and not the authenticity of what it means to be African. And that speaks to your question.

Obviously in a corporate environment, there’s a corporate culture. The same way if you’re in a library and there’s a library culture and you’ve got to whisper and you can’t talk too loud or on the cell phone. There’s written and unwritten rules to everything.

The conversation can now go into who makes the rules- that’s the conversation for another day. There are a lucky few who break the rules but sometimes you have to infiltrate to break the rules.

TANTV: Let’s wrap up with a talk on Love and dating. Have you ever been in love?

Yvonne: I think when you’re in it you think you’re in love and when you’re not in it you realized you weren’t so I think the answer is no

TANTV: Okay, do you have tips for dating and finding love?

Yvonne: I think be yourself-the best version of yourself. Always evaluate yourself. Going back to Molly in the last episode, Molly let go of a really good guy for a guy she thought she wanted. She doesn’t realize for her that there are some things about her that make her not a desirable candidate but in her mind, she’s perfect, it’s always the guys. Sometimes it’s good to self-reflect and say, “What are the things that make me me? Are there things about me that are great? Or anything that I could understand could be a turn off?” Or whatever, and just also be yourself. There’s someone that will love you and your flaws and help you turn them into things that are no longer flaws.

TANTV: I could see some rumors stirring up online about some of the guest stars as Molly’s boyfriend like Jidenna and some other cute guys. As an actor, how do you differentiate when fans starts creating this fantasy life for you? How do you separate the character versus the real Yvonne?

Yvonne: I don’t have any problems separating the Character from the real Yvonne. I’m Yvonne and Molly is Molly. When I’m not working, I’m not cursing. Molly is a character. I’m very much a tomboy. When I don’t need to be dressed up or at a gala, I’m in jeans or a sweatshirt because I’m comfortable on my part with separating. Even in the scenes with all the writers and producers, and the kissing scene, it’s very mechanical. As an actor you have to make it believable. Obviously Nigerians would like the narrative of “Ah, Jidenna an Igbo boy, Yvonne an Igbo girl” but that’s not how this works. Can that narrative play out? Yes, there’s people that find love on set all the time. A lot of the other dates that Molly goes on, a lot of those guys have girlfriends in real life. You have to respect that we’re all actors. If you feel good chemistry, then good we did our job to make you believe. We’re making you believe that we could be an item, we could be something.

TANTV: Back to the dating advice. For women who are not virgins but want to practice celibacy, what do you advise? How do you advise they go on that journey?

Yvonne: I think the same rules apply. Knowing your why and having your why be strong enough to sustain you when it gets hard or frustrating.

Keeping the why as a forefront. If you’re like I want to wait because the last dates I’ve gone on I’ve gotten into it pretty quickly and I really want to know before I get in bed with someone that this is person worth my time.

If that’s your why, you start to go on dates that you want to know the person. If that is your why and all your dates are at midnight, then you’re setting yourself up and it defeats the purpose. Be strategic in the conversation you have or the base you have.

Things happen at 3am that can also happen at 5pm but it’s also easier to happen at 3am. Make different plans. Also, just be upfront. I have friends that are like, if a guy finds out I’m waiting they might not want to date me. Well, then they might not be the guy for you.

Do you want to date someone who really goes against the grain what you want to do or what you believe? If I was dating someone that said, “This acting has so many things, I don’t want you to do it.” I would say, “Thank you for the meal that we shared but you aren’t the one for me.”

You can’t dissuade me from my purpose. If someone is like “I really love you but if we had sex I would love you more and marry you,” well there are no guarantees.

If he can talk me out of this thing that I’ve wanted to do what else is he going to talk me out of in my life? I think there’s a refining of your options of who you will date.

You have to accept that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not for everyone, but I don’t want to date everyone. I just want to date one good guy who accepts me and is understanding of this decision? I think they should have fun, understand what it is, and stand your ground and find a person that will respect that.

TANTV: On women’s friendship, Issa Rae gave you that call about the role. What do you have to say about women’s friendship and collaboration as opposed to being competitive with the same craft? What advice would you give to women? And where do you hope to be in five years? And any advice for struggling artists?

Yvonne: As far as women collaborating, I feel like we all need each other. How I got to LA was that I reached out to a Nigerian guy that someone told me about on Facebook and I saw his name and I was like that’s an Igbo boy, I’m Igbo so he can help me. I reached out to him like, “Mike I don’t know anything about LA, I want to come. “ and he did.

At the time I was already doing comedy and I was able to send him some stuff. I feel like we all have the ability to help each other and we should.

As far as women specifically, there shouldn’t be that much competition. There’s not that many of us in general and when there are not that many it would be in our best interest to assist where we can. We’re better in numbers.

For me with First Gen, two of my producing partners are female. One is Nigerian and the other is African American and we all came together for the project.

It’s all about who can help you tell the best story, who can help things that feel good for you even better? I feel like when you look at it that way instead of as competition and more as an opportunity to go from good to amazing.

I would love to direct either in five years or ten years. I want to keep telling stories. I hope First Gen is on air, I hope to be married with kids.

As far as what will actually happen, who knows? God has surprised me so much on this journey. Everyday I’m wake up and I’m waiting to be surprised even more. If I can even say it or think it or dream it, I know that he can take that and supersede it. Who knows?

TANTV: Your message to struggling or upcoming artists?

Yvonne: Know your why. Why are you in this? If you just want to do it for the fortune and fame then good luck. Will that come? Maybe, it might. People think it’s really glamorous. Your layer takes some, your agency, by the time you see your check you’re like, “Huh?” I hope fame and fortune is the byproduct. What has helped me is the understanding of never letting your skills and talent take you somewhere that your character cannot sustain you. There are a lot of talented people in the industry, but they come with a character that isn’t sustainable to their success because it might cripple you or kill you. Just make sure your talent and character are in a symbiotic relationship. Just do the work. Have the drive and the initiative. Be able to see opportunity where others’ don’t. Case and point a friend of mine wanted to come to an event that I was going to and I was like, “ It’s sold out but just be around because you never know what can happen.” Sure enough I go and there’s an extra ticket and when I reached out, they were like, “ Oh I’m nowhere close by.” I was like, there you go, you missed that opportunity. How bad do you want it, how bad do you want that opportunity? If you hear no, it’s like okay, what are they saying no to? Is it me, the concept, what is it? Turn that no into a Yes someway somehow.

TANTV: What is the one thing you want the world to know about you?

Yvonne: My full name is Yvonne  Adaeze Orji and that translates into “Archer of happiness, daughter of a king.” I hope that the legacy I leave, whenever they think about me, they remember the goodness I brought with me in whatever interaction. I hope there is a penetration of joy, and light that I bring with my essence and my aura. I’m the daughter of a King, I hope I made him proud.

Thanks for joining me this week on another feature story of our first season of Africa’s Triumph Story Series on the Huffington Post. Catch up on our last story here if you missed it. See you next time on another exciting feature story of an African Triumph! Stay Triumphant!

Leave a Reply