Uzo Aduba Is No Ingénue
The Orange Is the New Black actor on returning to the live stage and the kinds of stories she wants to tell.
I’ve barely opened my mouth to say hello before Uzo Aduba has avalanched me with compliments. She loves my eyes, she loves my jacket, she’s so happy to see me. It's not the only praise she sings during our time together: she thanks God for her team and cast, crossing herself as she does so. Of her co-stars Zawe Ashton and Laura Carmichael, she says: "Zawe is so warm. She's so warm that touching her is almost like crawling under a blanket. And Laura! Someone should make a candy called Laura. And they're both so amazingly talented on top of that. It's a dream." And don't even get her started on working with her childhood idols, Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige, in NBC's The Wiz last year: "You can take lessons from them on graciousness. On humility. On delivering every single time."
What she doesn’t say, but certainly could, is that those lessons have paid off for her. Uzo is one of the hardest-working and highest-regarded television and theatre actresses on the scene right now. You can take lessons from her, too.
We meet during her lunch break, in a glorified storage closet at the Courtyard Theatre, where she’s currently rehearsing for her West End debut in The Maids. Before she tucks into her home-packed salmon salad, she asks if I mind her eating during our interview. In fact, she asks me this twice, since I lose my recording of our initial meeting and have to repeat my visit the following week. I interrupt her lunch for the second time, push back her costume fitting, and ask her to repeat all of the insightful sentiments she shared in our last meeting, and she's as polite, generous, and genuine as she was the first time round.
She tells me she's settling into London nicely, but that's no surprise: The Massachusetts-born actor travelled to London five times as a tourist before getting attached to beloved British director Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Maids, “but this is the first time I’ve ever lived abroad,” she tells me.
For a theatre geek, 9-5 rehearsals in the West End is basically the dream. For Aduba it really is all about the craft. Last year she told Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton of Another Round: “I’m an artist, and I do it because I have to.” In her early life she favoured sports, training as a figure skater and competing in track and field, but when she joined her high school theatre program and read her first Shakespeare play (Macbeth, fittingly, for a performer who has spent her career chasing complex and self-possessed women), her path took, quite literally, a dramatic turn.
She studied classical theatre and voice at Boston University, and that’s where her affinity for performing became not just a passion, but a professional calling. “Using my body, performing, it clicked," she says. "And I knew, this is where I need to be.”
From Boston, it was straight to New York City. She made her Broadway debut in Coram Boy in 2007. “I found a community in New York,” she says. “And not just actors, but the whole motley crew: directors, writers, musicians, painters. It was inspiring to be around other artists, and to be in the city itself.” In 2011, she starred in the revival of Godspell, (she’s a trained opera singer on top of all the rest), before making a turn toward film and TV. It paid off when she got a surprising but welcome call from her agent in 2012, following an audition for Orange Is the New Black – a reading for which she’d showed up late and didn’t hold much hope.
The rest of her TV career so far is history: Her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series has earned her two Screen Actors Guild Awards and saw her become the first woman to win an Emmy for the same role in two different categories (Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy, 2014, and Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, 2015).
Now she’s returning to her first love: the theatre. After all these years away, how does it feel to be back on stage? “Heaven,” she says. “It’s heaven.” The preparation for the play, she says, has been more intense than her television work, and she missed the work. To be able to lose herself in a character’s two-hour arc is a contrast from the stop-start-and-stop-again rhythm of TV. “The stage is a different animal,” she says, referring to the fact that eight weeks on a play results in a two-hour production, while eight weeks on a TV set often produces episodes in double digits. “With theatre,” she says, “you spend so much time in a confined narrative. You get to build it, and then you get to put all that aside and actually do the thing.”
The Maids can be a tough narrative to be confined to. Jean Genet’s intense one-act three hander follows the escalating tensions between three women: two sister maids, Solange and Claire (Aduba and Zawe Ashton), and a mistress (Laura Carmichael), and it doesn’t hold back on exploring the dark places that abuse precipitated by classism – and in this production’s case, racism – can push a person into.
Lloyd’s production of The Maids is the first major revival to relocate the play to America, with women of colour playing the maids, and the reimagining was part of what drew Aduba to the play in the first place. The script itself has not been updated to serve the concept – Genet's dialogue is rough enough to sting as it is – but Uzo is confident that what Lloyd’s production has to say about race relations in the US and beyond is implicit. “Just by my presence on that stage,” she says, “and Zawe’s presence on that stage. And Laura’s, for that matter. The audience has no choice but to go there.”
If the new racial context infused into the production gives the play fresh cultural and political relevance, it's worth noting that Genet’s original script wasn't shy on calling out inequities to begin with; his script seethes with outrage at sexism and classism alike. “[It] says a lot about where we are as women,” Aduba tells me emphatically. She elaborates: “Right now we’re breaking through and sort of breaking open into this new place with society and women and our place in it. You know, this is a show about the maids. They’re women in a position of servitude, but beyond that they’re women in pursuit of their own freedoms and their own independence and not being beholden to someone else.”
"Right now we’re breaking through into this new place with society and women and our place in it."
“And then,” she says, leaping into her next thought, “there’s just the play itself, in terms of its service to female actors. This play was written 60+ years ago, and when you think about the market then... For Genet to craft something that has so many well-rounded characters, complicated characters, some of them unlikeable, it’s exciting. You don’t come across a lot of plays that are passing the Bechdel test in such a magnificent way. Not only in terms of sheer numbers of female representation, but in terms of the way in which women are allowed to play.
“It’s exciting, and I think it’s a real example of this neo-feminist movement happening right now, and the modern feminist idea of like what it is to be a woman. It’s OK to not fall in line, you know. It’s OK to step outside the traditional box of women that you see portrayed, onstage in particular. These women aren’t entirely soft. Nothing about them is diminished. They are loud, big characters.”
Aduba could just as well have moved on to speak about the cast of Orange Is the New Black. In both The Maids and Orange, women take the lead, and for once, they’re not ingénues. They’re big, loud, messy, and, most important, compelling as hell.
Is it this "loud, big" quality that draws her to roles? Are Solange and Suzanne cut from the same cloth? “I like finding women or characters that have a piece of truth inside of them,” she says, “but who also are willing to bear themselves entirely as well. They’re not afraid of cutting themselves open.”
But while you can find similarities in Solange and Suzanne’s passionate natures, Aduba is committed to portraying characters she hasn’t seen before. She wants to “tell the stories of the missing”, she’s said before, and she certainly doesn’t want to perpetuate the idea any one kind of woman should be seen more than any other. Quoting Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, I ask: “Do we know how to write and watch plays that have complex, flawed female characters?”
Uzo smiles and leans in. “That’s a great question,” she says, and takes a bite of lunch. “You know,” she says finally, “there have been wonderful parts that I’ve seen portrayed by women. But as a collection of roles, I don’t know if I’ve seen that really articulated in our storytelling in whatever medium, film, television, and theatre, frankly.”
And what about the state of representation in entertainment overall? Our interview, and The Maids’ premiere, happens shortly after several major race-related moments in entertainment: the whitewashed Oscar and BAFTA nominations on one hand, and Beyoncé’s "Formation" drop on the other. Mainstream entertainment is in racial crisis, with audiences and the industry alike scrambling to figure out how to restructure with an eye on inclusion and celebration of black culture and art.
What does she think, as an industry insider? Aduba sighs. “I just hope we lose the need for this kind of question, that it becomes the most boring, uninteresting thing to ask,” she says, and a big laugh bubbles up from her chest to replace that tiny sigh. After a pause, she lays it out for me: “Here’s the thing when you talk about inclusion. I hope that it’s a style and not a trend.” In what way? “We talk about staples in our closet all the time. There are many things in our fashion world that are timeless pieces. I always say the crisp white button-down is never going out of style. The ballet flat is never going out of style, neither is the black blazer.
“But hot pants are a trend. That’s a trend. They’re not here to stay, I hope. So I don’t believe that inclusion should be the hot trend of the moment."
"I hope inclusion is a style and not a trend."
In January, Oscars president Cheryl Boone-Issacs announced new criteria for voting eligibility, but it may be some time for them to yield tangible results. More needs to be done in securing long-term recognition of black artistry.
“When we talk about inclusion," Aduba says, "what people hope and wish and desire to see is for those groups that have previously been excluded to be included on the same scale as those groups that have always been included. I pray that becomes the norm. And I think that in order for us to really achieve that, we first have to recognise the hurdles in front of us.
“We have to see the fact that we have a history, globally, with racism. A history of making some people less visible than others people.
"We have the very obvious barrier of pay inequity in this country. That’s real. LGBT issues. These are not made-up things. These are real, real things that we have had to do as a human family.”
Aduba's next project is also her debut film role. She plays Vicky in an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor's directorial debut. It’s a story about characters we’ve definitely seen, but how those characters now facing a reckoning. American Pastoral is a book primarily about privilege, and the consequences of unchecked privilege. It's about the crumbling of middle-class picket-fence American ideals, at least for one family. “It’s about transition,” Aduba says. She circles back to acknowledging hurdles, to becoming aware that people experience racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia. “We have to start the real, honest conversation about where we are with that,” she says.
“We’re living in a time right now where we have the opportunity to be the people we say we are versus where we’ve been. We have that opportunity right now to get on the other side of all of that. And if we don’t, I worry, you know, and fear what our future generations will be forced to endure.”
For her part, highlighting those stories of the missing is the guiding force behind her career trajectory. It was the ultimate reason for her appearance as Glinda in the live televised production of The Wiz last December. “I felt really grateful and humbled and to be asked to play that part, to be Glinda the Good, and I knew in my heart that I had to do it. I have a little niece,” she says, her smile widening. “And I was just so excited that little girls and little boys across the country were going to see someone like myself be a good witch and have that experience that I never had as a child.
“I think it’s so important that we see plays like [The Maids and The Wiz] going up, so young females who might think, Oh, the only thing for me is to play the girlfriend, or the wife, or, you know, the best friend, or strictly the ingénue, will see it can be something different. I think that’s why it’s important that we see women in all kinds of roles – political, medical, maths, and sciences – because, whatever non-conforming life you’re living, it just makes you think, I could do that. Maybe that’s me too.”
For her, the key is to keep telling stories, to keep pushing representation beyond its breaking point, until it's so commonplace it's boring, and until there's no question of what a woman can't and can't do, and how women can and can't work.
Discovering "a deeper and greater confirmation of the fantastic ability of women" is one of the purest joys of her job, and she's tired of the myth that women's stories and work don't belong in the mainstream. "I don’t know who is out there creating this lie," she says, "and I don’t know who’s perpetuating it, but it is a lie. Good people can work together, period, end of story, that’s it.”