After Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, she was hit with the same question many Oscar winners face: What’s next?
In selecting her follow-up roles, Nyong’o surprised more than a few casual observers by not chasing big, awards-baiting film work. First, she provided the voices of Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ Maz Kanata — the film’s closest parallel to Yoda — and The Jungle Book‘s protective mother wolf, Raksha. Then she took a step back from film altogether and signed on to star in a play instead.
Of course, it’s not like she chose a simple, throwaway project. Eclipsed, about five women during the Liberian Civil War, earned six Tony nominations this week, including one for Nyong’o (Best Actress in a Leading Role). Eclipsed is also significant for being the first Broadway play to feature a cast and creative team that is entirely black, female, and of African descent. (The play was written by Danai Gurira, who also plays Michonne on The Walking Dead.)
In an essay for the May 3 edition of Lenny Letter, Nyong’o expressed her frustration in response to those confused by her decision to do a play instead of more movies. During a recent round of press, she explained, a journalist asked her a “quite silly” question: “Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?” She continued:
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.
… I knew there was a sense of what was expected of me, but this play felt so important to me that I had to do it, expectations be damned.
And taking on Eclipsed wasn’t just a matter of loving the material, though that was obviously the deciding factor. As a black, Mexican-Kenyan actress, Nyong’o writes, she’s all too aware that Hollywood — and society in general — will try to pigeonhole her in clichéd roles:
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.
… 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.
And so Nyong’o turned to different avenues to direct her own success. She took on the parts of Maz Kanata and Raksha to explore the “singular catharsis [that] can be found in genre storytelling,” and the Eclipsed role of “The Girl” to “share in the incredible (and too rare) freedom of playing a fully rendered African woman.”
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that Nyong’o concludes her passionate, beautifully written letter by declaring that when she looks at Eclipsed, “[I] see nothing about it that is ‘small.'”
You can read Nyong’o’s full essay at Lenny Letter.