“As black women, too often we hear about what we need to do,” says Lupita Nyong’o

She won’t be pigeonholed.
She won’t be pigeonholed.
Image: Reuters//Mario Anzuoni
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Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has opened up about why she turned down bigger Hollywood projects to star in Eclipsed, a Broadway production about women during Liberia’s brutal civil war. Writing in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny ahead of the Tony Award nominations, Nyong’o recounted a recent question from a reporter, “‘Why would such a big star choose to do such a small play?'”

The Kenyan actress, who won an Oscar for her performance in Twelve Years a Slave, said this:

Perhaps the reporter was placing a larger value on “Hollywood” roles? I turned down a few projects to pursue this one. 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.

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. What I am learning is that the most important questions you can ask yourself are “What do I want?” and “Who do I want to become?”

As an actress, feeling connected to a fully realized, complex character is what I look for first. The size of the role, and the budget, and the perceived “buzz” around the project are much less important to me. 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… 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.

Nyong’o’s isn’t suffering for her decision. Eclipsed, written by Zimbabwean-American actress Danai Gurira. has been nominated for six Tony Awards. Nyong’o has been nominated for best performance by a leading actress.

Nor has Nyong’o shied away from big roles. She provided her voice for Disney’s The Jungle Book, starred as Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and plays the lead character in The Queen of Katwe, an upcoming Disney and ESPN production about a Ugandan chess prodigy.