One of the scenes of Insecure star Yvonne Orji's first hour-long HBO comedy special Momma, I Made It! finds the comedian walking the streets of Nigeria, asking Lagosians, "Do you know Yvonne Orji?" The name doesn't ring a bell and no one recognizes her.
The rest of the special, premiering tonight, June 6, features more footage from Orji's trip to Lagos in January. Though she was born in Port Harcourt, a city on the opposite side of Nigeria, Lagos is every bit her stomping ground as Prince George's County, Maryland is, where she grew up. These are all places she calls home.
Directed by Chris Robinson, with Orji acting as both writer and executive producer, segments of the special were filmed in Washington DC's Howard Theater, a place with significance to Orji and her family. When they immigrated to America, Orji's mother worked as a nurse at Howard University; the area was home to a healthy population of Nigerians and to Orji, it felt like an extension of her first home.
She's performing center stage for a crowd that knows her as a familiar face on Insecure whose fourth season premiered last month.
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"Comedy is not for the faint of heart," Orji tells me over the phone. "As a comic, you get on the stage and it's just you and the mic and a couple hundred people staring back at you. It's your job for the next hour to make them laugh consistently. Not one time, not two times, but like, for 60 minutes!"
"The writers do a very good job of keeping the show nuanced," she says. "Because this is not a sitcom; it's a comedy that's grounded. Even in the drama, there is the reprieve of humor that comes in. Even if you go back to the pilot, [you'll see] that good balance because you have to move the story forward — having our characters experience real life and then bringing the importance of levity."
Balancing careers in stand-up and acting is often an ambitious long-term goal for comedians. This is true for Orji. Before Insecure, she piloted a semi-autobiographical sitcom called First Gen, about a young woman whose strict Nigerian mother discovers she swapped medical school for a career in stand-up comedy. Oprah Winfrey and actor David Oyelowo signed on as executive producers.
Then, Orji met one of her great inspirations: fellow comedian/actor Chris Rock. She says a fellow Nigerian introduced them and not long after, he asked her to open for him during his 2017 Total Black Out Atlanta tour date.
Despite her success, Orji says she began to see comedy as "terrifying." She thought more about the trajectory of her career and what that would look like beyond comedy.
"Chris Rock actually got on me because I said comedy is my gateway drug [to acting]. He was like, 'It's not a gateway drug. It's heroin.'"
"It was exhilarating because when you're good, you're good, but then there are those off days," she told the Los Angeles Times in a 2017 interview. "Those moments where you're being super defensive and want out. TV was always going to be my safe spot. Chris Rock actually got on me because I said comedy is my gateway drug [to acting]. He was like, 'It's not a gateway drug. It's heroin.' He was basically saying that it's not a stepping stone. But I was looking to him and Eddie [Murphy] and how they piggybacked comedy into good acting roles. He said, 'Yes, but we always come back. You don't pivot and forget the thing that got you here.'"
The most daunting challenge she faced upon entering the entertainment industry was understanding how much uncertainty can come up from time to time. "The unknown variables, the stuff I couldn't control, were the things that frustrated me the most," she says. When Orji thinks about her darkest moments of confusion, she is reminded of another one of her life's great inspirations: none other than the rapper DMX.
"I'm a huge DMX fan," she confesses. "I remember [his debut studio album] It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, and I just always felt like there was a battle between his heart and his soul and his mind. He would always have a conversation [in his music] with the devil and how he was trying to rise up from the forces of darkness that were trying to hold him down. He's on a journey and he is trying to tell us he wants to prevail."
Additionally, Orji has been vocal about being a devout Christian, which has helped her navigate tough times. She has warded off the critiques that come with her personal decisions like practicing abstinence until marriage. "I'm so stable in who I am as a person, and as a person of faith," she says. "They can project, but it has no bearing on me. This is how I'm going to do my comedy."
And Orji does her comedy in a "clean" way. Before launching her Hollywood career, she performed stand-up at corporate events. She'd be called back for future gigs because of one notable fact: she doesn't curse during her sets. And though Orji is a Christian, that doesn't mean her material is focused on religion, but rather the ups and downs of everyday life — dating, work, friends and family. Orji likens her style to comedians who've perfected and played with this model, like Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Wanda Sykes.
"I like observational comedy," she says. "I am a little quirky, and snarky [like Fey]. [Sykes] talks about observational things, but she always throws in a question; she always makes you think. It was almost like trying to put a mirror in front of you."
Orji was approaching adolescence when the HBO series Def Comedy Jam first debuted in the early '90s. The series was the burgeoning comedian's earliest introduction to the world of stand-up.
"The only reason I'm in this business is because I heard God tell me to do comedy."
"I would sneak into my parents' room every Friday night and watch," she says. "Just being able to see the confidence it took to stand up there and to be the best version of themselves was like, 'Wow.'" The kings and queens of comedy on and off the show that particularly inspired her were Martin Lawerence, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Miss Laura, and Monique.
Orji says she watched them to figure herself out, and seeing all Black faces made all the difference.
"Growing up, you soak up whatever had brown people on it," she explains. "Living in an African household, it was, 'Study and do your work.' You only had a certain amount of time to watch TV. Then you're going to a school that's predominantly Black, so if you're not watching Martin the night it comes on or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when you get to school then you're out of the conversation. I wanted to make sure that I'm in the loop; I don't want to be left out."
Orji was eventually propelled to test the waters, first performing stand-up for the talent portion of the Miss Nigeria in America beauty pageant. Then, after graduate school (she has a Masters in Public Health from George Washington University), Orji moved to New York City to pursue comedy as a potential career.
One of her first big breaks was doing a half-hour special on The Africa Channel. In 2011, she landed an internship in the writers' room of the Martin Lawrence-produced show Love That Girl, starring Fresh Prince's Tatyana Ali. Orji eventually earned an on-camera appearance in one episode. She told her co-workers in the writers' room her identity story and they persuaded her to write a show about it. It was then Orji understood that what she considered normal would excite a mainstream American audience.
But in 2014, after moving to LA, Orji's money dried up and she found herself crying on Sunset Boulevard. The doubt set in. Her parents were discontent with her path and she contemplated starting over. Orji says she came across a random Bible scripture that she says guided her. In a 2016 Breakfast Club interview she said, "The only reason I'm in this business is because I heard God tell me to do comedy."
"Outside of faith, what else am I gonna do to make it?" she remembers asking herself. So she picked up a book called Stand Up Comedy and, as she began writing her material, another book called You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom by Philip Rosenthal, who executive produced the classic sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.
Orji wanted to study all facets of the comedy craft, from writing to structure to style to overall storytelling. And she wanted to broaden the American understanding of Africans through comedy.
Photo via HBO
"I'm always aware and conscious of the narrative of what it means to be African," Orji says. "In the past, we've had Coming to America. A hilarious movie, but, like, a caricature of the 1980s image of an African in New York. Then you have Black Panther, which is super empowering, but also [takes place in] a fictitious country. Then you have The Lion King, and it's like, well, everything's not a safari. I love that Africa is hot and I love that Africa is popular. And I'm glad that Insecure is poppin', but the Black experience has been around— it's just now we're getting an opportunity to tell it in a very nuanced way."
As more Western attention is on African music, from afrobeats to gqom, the focus extends to other cultural productions as well. Now, there's an audience for a Nigerian comic from Maryland who's also a woman, and an entertainment behemoth like HBO recognizes the return on investment and cultural reach enough to put money behind it. With this newfound attention, Orji is invested in the default role of representation she has to play. "I'm very conscious of how I want us to be portrayed," Orji says. "In my comedy special, I made sure to wear something from an African designer or African company in every scene. My outfit from the special was designed by Laurence Basse and she's West African. Even the [title] graphics and the specialized custom font was created by Hust Wilson out of South Africa. A win for one is a win for all. Let's put all Africans on."
She hopes that with her growing influence, she can contribute to an even more advanced Western understanding of African cultures and identities, starting with what audiences see on TV.
"It's okay if every shot is not a swanky shot in Lagos — it doesn't have to be," Orji says."There are still dirt roads in Nigeria, and that's okay. Americans, or whoever visits Nigeria, have to deal with it and learn and understand, just like there's hoods and slums in America, there's spacious mountains and million-dollar homes. I think once we're okay as a people accepting that there are multiple sides to our story then we can be more free to share them... If you're trying to be perfect, then you're not actually being."
Last year, Orji returned to the Breakfast Club to talk about her identity and, just like her successful show with Issa Rae, millions tuned in to listen. Co-host Charlamagne tha God asked Orji, "Do Africans really look down on Black Americans?" to which she responded, "No… Specifically for Nigerians... It's not even that we're looking down; we're just always looking up. So, if you're not in our purview, we don't see you...We think we're better than everybody."
Orji clarified further in my conversation with her.
"Me saying that to Charlamagne — it literally is the way Nigerians have grown up," she says."You're in competition with everybody and [your] only job is to make sure you come out on top. That is your mission if you choose to accept it. Our immigrant parents made that our mission whether we liked it or not. 'We didn't leave everyone we know, we didn't leave everything behind to go across the seas for you to come here and act like you don't want to be educated or you don't want to get the best job. That's not a possibility.'"
"On the side of Africans too, you have to also understand the plight of African Americans in America. You also have to understand the strides that they have taken and the things that we're able to benefit from because African Americans labored hard, fought for, died for, in order for us to now come in and profit from. In order to move past the conflict, people have to be ready to have the conversation."
She continues: "Of course, [that sentiment will be] challenged or it'll be taken out of context because there's still a lot of healing that needs to happen. On the side of Africans too, you have to also understand the plight of African Americans in America. You also have to understand the strides that they have taken and the things that we're able to benefit from because African Americans labored hard, fought for, died for, in order for us to now come in and profit from. In order to move past the conflict, people have to be ready to have the conversation. I think both parties need to be willing to put down biases and incorrect assumptions in order to have a practical conversation so that we can be stronger together."
Orji believes this healing process can take form in comedy, and that her special is a testament to this. "I love being Nigerian American because I feel like now it's cool. Before, it wasn't always cool," she says on stage. She then relishes in another thought: the duality of being both Nigerian and American. Though she speaks to multiple audiences at once, she plays interlocutor more than interpreter.
"I am part of this audience," she explains. "I am equally Nigerian and American, and it's not like I gotta placate to this one and that one. I have a dual-lens. This is how I see it from the American point of view, and this is how I see it from the Nigerian point of view. I am aware of the balance that exists within me, so I'm aware of the balance that exists within my fan base."
In "The Power of Comedy" David Remnick writes, "The best comedy can always reveal what's hidden, or trying to hide." For some, a once-hidden voice, regardless of what it says, is riveting in itself. Orji's comedy doesn't always ask critical questions or incite deep social commentary. Whether her work prompts that kind of conversation or not is up to the audiences that engage it. What she does is talk about her life to those who care to listen. She has stories to tell — and, for her, that is enough.
The more intimately hilarious moments of Momma, I Made It! aren't all in her stand-up, but in some of the filmed interactions of her at home with family.
As Orji states in the special, for many first and second-generation Americans: "You have only four options as a Nigerian: you're a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or disappointment."
"I have a whole two degrees that I'm not using right now," Orji tells me. "My mom and dad were like, 'You better go to school' and I was like, 'I want to be creative!'"
Her education is something she brings up often, in stand-up, and in interviews. It could be an effort to separate herself from the average comedian (or the average American), to reinforce the "Nigerian immigrant excellence" trope she leans on in her storytelling. Perhaps it's a soft effort to appease her parents, as she succeeds in a career path they once denounced. Sometimes, it feels like she's honoring them.
In the 2019 book of essays, Politics and Identity Formation in Southeastern Nigeria: The Igbo in Perspective, Apollos O. Nwauwa and Ogechi E. Anyanwu reference an exploration of how naming to Igbos, as well as in other Nigerian cultures, can bear a connection to the formation of one's identity later in life: "Onumajuru states that in Igbo culture, 'A name is as important to the info as the birth of a child because the parents express all their expectations in life in the name they give to their children. From the names the children bear, one can guess the intentions, life-experiences, and/or expectations of the parents.'"
In the Igbo language, Orji''s middle name "Anuli" means "joy," or "daughter who brings happiness." In naming her, Orji's parents may have unknowingly helped ordain this part of her path. Indeed, Orji has obtained a level of success that feels both surprising, but written in the stars.
Along the way, she's made her parents proud. But more important, she's managed to make them laugh.
Watch Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It! on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now tonight (June 6) at 10PM ET
Photos courtesy of HBO
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