When we connected with Yvonne Orji to talk about her role as Molly on HBO’s Insecure and her first hour-long stand-up special Momma, I Made It!, airing Saturday night on the cable network, it was two days after George Floyd had been killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Interviews in recent weeks had already been starting with awkward pleasantries owed to the shutdown, and this added another layer.
“I was doing OK, and then the events of the last couple of days came about,” she said. “Even in the middle of a global pandemic, somehow black men and women are being shot dead. Like copy, copy. We’re not even allowed outside. Like outside is closed, yet somehow we’re still being slaughtered.”
Orji’s Twitter account in recent days has been, like that of many black celebrities, a steady stream of messages of anger, support, information, and videos of protesters and examples of police violence, some of her own posting and some retweeted from other accounts.
On Sunday, the day that Insecure airs new episodes—and Orji, along with the cast and creative team, typically live-tweet the broadcast with viewers—protests raged across the country. The official Insecure social media account followed the lead of series co-star and writer Natasha Rothwell and posted a message to the show’s fans, which Orji shared on her own account, too.
“Though the streets of Los Angeles today look much different from what you’ll see in tonight’s episode—and though it feels, in the words of Natasha Rothwell, “lowkey tone-deaf” to promote a television show when there’s so much collective suffering—we hope this celebration of Black life, love, and community can provide some solace to anyone hurting or needs a laugh.”
“Black lives are beautiful, Black lives are complex, and Black lives matter,” the message continued. “We wouldn’t be here without you, and now we’d love to be there for you.”
In that same spirit, it’s a vital time to tell Orji’s own story, as she turns in her most complex, talked-about work yet as Molly on Insecure and premieres her first stand-up special.
Momma, I Made It! is part-documentary and part-comedy set, a love letter to her upbringing as a first-generation Nigerian-American. Footage of her first visit back to Lagos since her Hollywood breakout is interspersed with stand-up about her unique experience honing an identity from two different cultures: The conservative, Nigerian one her parents instilled in her, and the more progressive one in the Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., where she grew up.
(Among the biggest laugh lines, for example, comes when she talks about the disparity between her local community’s operatic cursing skills and her own family’s. “Nigerians, we don’t curse people out. We put curses on people.”)
Orji has a bright sense of humor, an explosive style of delivery, and a lack of filter when it comes to discussing her life—not in a manner of TMI or crudeness some come to expect in comedy, but in the openness about her identity, her faith, and her morals.
It’s all on display as we talk about coming into her own, her feelings about Molly’s buzzy Insecure storyline, and the unusual path she took from aspiring medical student to being able to proclaim, “Momma, I made it” in Hollywood.
Momma, I Made It! begins with footage of Orji in Nigeria that was filmed in January. “When you see my people, we always have joy,” she says. “It is beautiful chaos.”
Right away, we are introduced to her parents, Lolo Celine Chinyere Orji and Chief Michael Chukwuma Orji. “A lot of my jokes are about home and what home means to me,” she says in narration as she cozies next to them on a couch decorated with a throw pillow bearing her headshot.
There’s a jarring smash-cut and we’re watching Orji enter on stage at the Howard Theatre in D.C., near the Howard University Hospital where her mother worked as a nurse for 27 years. In stark contrast to the wholesome home video in Lagos, strobe lights flash to the blaring horns of Orji’s theme music as she storms the stage, rapping along, dancing, and amping up the crowd.
She’s dressed in a custom embroidered black leather trench over short shorts and thigh-high Balenciaga boots. “When I was starting out, I would say if the jokes don’t land, at least the outfit looks good,” she tells me, laughing. Yes, in other words, she always tries to look that fabulous.
Orji was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and grew up 20 miles north of the Momma, I Made It! stage in Laurel, Maryland. Her father split time between the two countries, and she would often spend her summer breaks in Lagos, a familiarity that helps her nail the local dialect when she channels Nigerian characters in her set, be it her parents or a shop owner she haggles with at the market.
“I love being Nigerian-American because now it’s cool,” she tells the crowd as they applaud. “It wasn’t always cool. Any African booty-scratchers [out there]? Look at us now!”
The slur should, sadly, sound familiar to most millennials who witnessed it hurled on playgrounds as a form of racist bullying. Insecure creator and star Issa Rae has talked about how it played a part in shaping her relationship with her race and culture growing up.
Orji says her situation was slightly different. “I never tried to assimilate to the notion of ‘I need to get rid of this thing about me that is African because it’s not cool, and then get this thing that’s American because it is cool.’”
Her parents played a large part in that centering.
“They wouldn’t allow me to disassociate myself with my Nigerianness,” she says. “That was not an option. It was one of those things like, ‘I don’t care if you’re getting beat up, or you get bullied at school. We’re Nigerian. Here is the food we eat. Here is the language.’”
Though it might have taken time for the people who once ridiculed her to come around, she’s grateful that she never wasted time eschewing her culture, likening those Nigerian-American qualities to a “superpower.”
“I’m fortunate that I never tried to lose my superpower, and now would have to try and work to get it back. It just took some time to realize it was a superpower,” she says.
It surprises some people to learn that Orji, the star of a big Hollywood television show, has two degrees, including a master’s in public health. She was studying for her MCAT exam, following the path good Nigerian children travel to medical school, when she decided to work for a preventative health program in post-conflict Liberia because, as she once joked to Stephen Colbert, “it’s easier to work in a war-torn country than tell my parents I don’t want to go to med school.”
Still, there’s only so much time a person can bide escaping to a volatile country. When she got back stateside, her journey to ditch medicine for good and pursue comedy instead was still fairly dramatic and unusual, as far as these things go: involving a beauty pageant and a call from God.
Orji is a devout Christian who is outspoken about the role of faith in her life, explaining in a 2017 TEDx Talk that she is saving herself for marriage and was “bamboozled by Jesus” while in college. Two months into her freshman year at George Washington University, she attended a Bible study with a classmate, inspiring her to pursue a more powerful relationship with God.
In 2006, her brother asked her to compete in the Miss Nigeria pageant as a favor to a friend, but blindsided her with the news that she’d need to present a talent. So she asked God. The Holy Spirit, she said, told her to do comedy.
Orji had never knowingly told a joke before and was certain the Holy Spirit had confused her with a different Yvonne. But she listened. The stand-up set was a hit, and she had a new path in life.
At first, her parents weren’t thrilled. “She said she was studying for her MCAT. We were very happy. But then she started making jokes,” her mother says in Momma, I Made It! “We were like, oh my God, where is she heading to?”
A highlight of the special comes when Orji relays a time she was cooking with her mother and cut her finger with a knife. “If you were a doctor, you would be giving yourself stitches by now,” she jokes that her mother told her. “But you want to be a jester? Laugh and make yourself feel better!”
These are all topics of conversation and personal details that people in her position—in the public eye, gaining fame, vulnerable to scrutiny—typically keep close to the vest. Most celebrities don’t talk about their families and their values. Rising stars don’t talk about their virginity. No one in Hollywood talks about their faith. But as her profile has risen, Orji has only become more open.
“I think in the same way that I didn’t take off my superpower, I don’t take off my faith,” she says. “I don’t compartmentalize parts of me because I don’t know how. I can’t not be black. I can’t not be Nigerian. I can’t not be Christian because it’s such a big part of the decisions I make and how I operate. It didn’t even dawn on me when it was a possibility to take any of those layers off, because then it’s, what would I be left with?”
All of these things may seem to be at odds with the character she plays on TV in Insecure, a woman with a vibrant sex life and robust vocabulary of expletives. (Orji doesn’t curse herself, only when reciting Molly’s dialogue.) But she says the journey she’s had with her faith and identity has actually helped her understand the character more.
When Orji first got the script for Insecure, she told Issa Rae, “Molly’s who I would’ve been if I didn’t get saved when I was 17 years old in college.” Now she’s played the character for four seasons.
The character has evolved, as has her friendship with Issa on the series. Once each other’s ride-or-die support system, the two have had a flagrant falling out, calling out the ways in which each is toxic on the way down. It’s been a dramatic arc for fans of the show to weather; during Sunday night live-tweets, Orji and others involved with the series have had to remind people the actors are not the characters and to curb their hateful messages.
But Orji identifies with where Molly is coming from, no matter how different the two of them may seem. “There’s a version of me in her in a real way,” she says.
“The thing that probably makes people upset about Molly is that this season she’s finding her voice in a new way,” she continues. “When you attempt to do something new for the first time, you fumble it. It doesn’t always come out right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying to do it. Molly is fumbling her way through new circumstances, new scenarios, and new situations and finding her voice, but that doesn’t mean she should stop speaking.”
The massive changes in her own life that Orji’s endured, both pre- and post-Insecure, have helped her identify with that.
“You first come into the industry and you’re like, OK, now I’m learning how to be here. OK, and now I’m learning how to walk in my strength and my power in certain meetings. OK, and now I’m learning what I want beyond just this role. What do I want to say? What’s my legacy? You’re finding your voice anew. I’m finding my voice anew.”
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