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Photo Courtesy of Uzo Aduba

100 Women: Uzo Aduba Wants to Use Her Roles to Give a Voice to the Voiceless

We talk to the Emmy-winning standout of Orange is the New Black on how to be good, just as you are.

As a child Uzoamaka Aduba was insecure about a great many things. Her name and the now-famous gap in her teeth were among the number. "My mom would try to impress upon me constantly, 'Don't you know that in Nigeria, a gap is a sign of beauty? It's a sign of intelligence.' I'm like, 'We don't live in Nigeria, mom. We live in Medfield, Massachusetts.'" Thirty-seven-year-old Aduba is quite the opposite—dramatically, if you will. Currently chatting from a mountainside village in Mendoza, Argentina, she exudes total self-possession, and is crystal clear on not just her beauty and her talent, but on what she stands for ("Equality for all. Full stop.") and even her privilege.

"Whatever I think is hard is nowhere near what hard is. First solid lesson. Anything that I considered to be difficult, I don't have to reach that far back into my history and to my community stories to know what hard really looked like," the Nigerian-American actress states in a definitive tone. "Hard is moving to a country where you know no one and have five children. Hard is surviving a civil war. Hard is surviving polio. Hard is learning how to blend into a new culture without losing your own. You understand? Me figuring out which of the seven pairs of jeans I want to wear today is not hard."


Granted. Yet, the relative ease of Aduba's life should in no way negate the work she has done in carving out her own path. As a voice major at Boston University who fell in love with acting, she plotted her course before working her ass off. From an eager novice in theater, earning her stripes performing with the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater, and at the Theater for the New City and the Kennedy Center, to making her Broadway debut in 2007 (in "Cora Boy") and then landing a small screen television role five years later (in CBS's "Blue Bloods"), she pressed on.

And her role of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on Jenji Kohan's Netflix series Orange is the New Black, while seemingly destined for her, was in no way luck. It was not the part she auditioned for (she originally read for Janae, the track star), and once she signed on for it, it was supposed to only be a two-episode appearance. But the captivating versatility, genius physicality and depth of character that Aduba brought to her performance, cemented her as a formidable talent on the show and in the hearts and minds of viewers and critics alike.

If she had committed to the original plan encouraged by her parents, the world would have another, certainly phenomenal, attorney. And while her Screen Actors Guild Award (for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series), as well as, her 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy (and yet another in 2015 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series) are proof that she is on the right track, Aduba was not always so sure.

But where is the tenderness, openness and vulnerability? Where is that version of us?

"The day I got Orange was actually the day I quit acting, and had decided that I should go on and become a lawyer somewhere and sort of take a more traditional route for most Nigerians," Aduba recalls. "I had had my doubts or worried, but I had never quit in my spirit…until I quit that day. Then I wound up getting Orange, and it solidified for me that this is my service, my ministry message. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. Just when I thought I was out, it pulled me back in. No, this is exactly what you are. The feeling you had placed in your heart is correct."

Her passion for acting will be necessary. That is, if she is to build upon, and in some cases help dismantle, the consistently reiterated narratives that are often wrongly assigned to African women. "Strong, hard, takes no nonsense, tough as nails. I know that woman, and I know that ability to walk in that space," Aduba says. "But where is the tenderness, openness and vulnerability? Where is that version of us?" The lack of diverse stories leaves much to do, and with such a wide-open field, Aduba's future plans are slightly ambiguous.

A return to Broadway? Absolutely, that's one of my greatest loves.

Immediate acting goals? Sharpen my craft, always. And find ways to tell the stories of the people missing from the tapestry of the artistic expression, and our history.

For now the Emmy-winning, screen-slaying dynamo is just happy to add to the African creative community that is currently being recognized just a bit more.

"I am proudly African. My Nigerian household was culturally fundamental for the woman that I am today. It feels wonderful to see the positive response to what I do when it is entirely African in and of itself," Aduba explains. "We're living in a season of art, and theater, and music and film, sort of discovering and celebrating what my community is, and that's exciting. Be it with our Black Panther, be it with new African stories being told in the world of theater by women like Ngozi Anyanwu ["The Homecoming Queen," Atlantic Theater], Jocelyn Bioh ["School Girls; or The African Mean Girls," MCC Theater] and Mfoniso Udofia ["The Ufot Cycle" a nine-play series]. Be it with Wizkid and Drake or Afrobeats... I see my community celebrated more than when I first started, but there's still quite a ways to go. I'm excited but I'm cautiously optimistic, because I hope it's not a trend."

The moment threatens to be fleeting. However, according to Aduba, the key to sustained appreciation of, interaction with, and connectivity amongst the cultural innovators and artists of the diaspora is simply empathy. When we understand that we are all connected to the continent, she shares, we can grasp the concept of oneness. "The first time I really had that clearly laid out for me was when I was doing this musical called "Abyssinia" with an all-Black cast. We had a potluck one night. I had never been to New Orleans, and everybody was meant to bring something of their own. And I had two cast members who were both from New Orleans. One was gonna make jambalaya, and one was gonna make gumbo. And I was like, 'What is jambalaya? What is gumbo?'" Aduba laughs, expressing the lower octaves of her classically trained voice. "They were trying to describe it to me, and I couldn't quite visualize it. When they showed me the jambalaya, I was like, 'This is jollof rice.' And anybody who tries to tell you differently is lying. And then they showed me gumbo, and I was like, this is okwulu soup, another dish that we have in Nigeria. I realized, it is all the same, which means we are all connected. And if you can't see that right on our plates, then you don't want to see it."

2018 is already promising for Aduba, and not just because of her sixth season return on OITNB. She is in a good place—physically, at the moment, staring at a gorgeous mountain just off the small village she is visiting, but also mentally. Her resolution? No more making mountains out of molehills. "I started this year declaring, I am everything and I am good. Just as I am. I wake up every morning alive. I can breathe. I don't need, thank God, any medication…We always have our hardships, battles, hurdles. I'm not discounting that, but I'm not gonna add to it with stuff that I should be able to forgive, and love and be grateful for. I spent so many years doing that. I'm good on that. I'm not doing that anymore."

This concludes OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March we have published a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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Photo still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

The Official Trailer for 'Malika: Warrior Queen' Is Here

Malika surely means business in the clip that sets the scene for YouNeek Studios' newest animated pilot.

After much anticipation, the new trailer for Malika: Warrior Queen, starring Nollywood's own Adesua Etomi, is finally here.

In the trailer, we already see the Warrior Queen fearlessly stand up to defend her people against enemies who have set their sights on seizing her expanding empire of Azzaz. Facing threats of invasion by foreign cultures, Malika now has to decide how to fight a war both inside her kingdom and outside of it.

"War is coming," she declares.

Malika: Warrior Queen was executive produced by Niyi Akinmolayan of Anthill Studios. The series has been three years in the making, with a two-part comic series already available for reading; and even more so in line with YouNeek Studios' mission to create stories inspired by African history, culture and mythology.

Joining Etomi in the cast are Femi Branch, voicing Chief Dogbari, Deyemi Okanlowon, voicing the WindMaker and King Bass, Blossom Chukwujekwu as Abdul and Sambassa Nzeribe, voicing General Ras.

Check it out below.

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All photos courtesy of Remi Dada

Afropreneurs: Meet the Designer Reinventing Nigerian Workspaces

Remi Dada's Spacefinish is shaking up design to create futuristic work environments for African companies

In the digital age when a fancy rectangle in our pockets can find us whatever we want, customize it and deliver it to our door, it's odd that the same thought process isn't also applied to physical space. Why does every parking lot feel exactly the same? Can waiting rooms be designed to make time pass more quickly? How can we bring these new standards of personalization into the areas where we live our lives?

Nigerian designer, Remi Dada, is doing just that. With both architecture and business degrees, Dada started his career in tech working in user experience and product marketing–eventually ending up at Google Nigeria. Once he started working in the office however, Dada didn't find it to be an environment that sparked inspiration or productivity. It felt more like rooms with tables and chairs rather than a place that nurtured new, progressive ideas. Luckily, the perfect project presented itself: redesign the office. Dada jumped at the opportunity to meld his practical knowledge in user experience with his love of design and architecture–and the result turned some heads.

Thus Spacefinish was born, a pioneering design company based in Nigeria that works with companies to transform ordinary office space into beautiful and functional environments that increase productivity and employee satisfaction. I spoke with Dada about the purpose of Spacefinish, the importance of design in the workspace and the unique properties of designing in Nigeria for Nigerians. Read on for insights from the design entrepreneur on the impact of spaces and what the future holds for the company.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: In your experience, how important is workspace environment in Lagos? How is it viewed?

It hasn't been prioritized. A lot of employers do not invest heavily in their employees and you can see that in work spaces all over the world. Now, people are also beginning to understand that high-performing employees–especially millennials–want to work in a space that inspires them and with people who inspire them. Right now in Nigeria it is still very new.

We've been able to measure how companies have been performing prior to us renovating their space and afterwards. What we've seen consistently is that our spaces help with employee retention, they help with collaboration and they help with inspiration. One important thing that we always measure and that we try and add to our design is what we call 'PIC.' PIC is the measure of productivity, innovation and collaboration–now we can track that within a workspace. These three key things are the pillars of how we create better work spaces.


A sketch showing plans for a space in the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos.

With that data, it's probably pretty simple to pitch Spacefinish to a company. But what was it like in the beginning to try and sell the first Spacefinish idea outside of Google? You're essentially coming into a stranger's space and saying 'you're doing this wrong.'

True. We were very lucky in that the first space we did was a Google office. It's Google. Everyone aspires to have a workplace like Google and people visiting the office were curious about how a space like that could exist in Nigeria. So there was a lot of interest but no commitments. Our first real commitment came from a company called Andela, a tech startup aspiring to be like the spaces you see in Silicon Valley. But they were looking to create a space just to meet their capacity and meet their head count, that was all. They thought they wouldn't be able to afford what we'd done for Google.

I went and pitched for them to do something different instead of creating the standard, generic workspace that we've all seen. Then I took our approach: connect the expense and cost of that project to the potential output of the team working there and how that could affect the company's bottom line. When we do that, it becomes an easier conversation to have. Once we are able to connect with the key decision makers and give them metrics they actually care about—like it's not about having a pretty space but about having a space that will allow people to achieve their short and long-term goals—they tend to be more receptive.

A meeting room at the Google offices in Lagos.

Do you feel like a bit of a disruptor or trouble maker?

I would say when we started we didn't feel like a disruptor. For me, it felt very natural because it was in line with what I was hired for and the world I was coming from. When you work at Google, you tend to live in an innovation bubble. So we didn't feel like disruptors while it was happening, but when we got people's reactions—the industry's reaction—then we realized that what we were doing was actually groundbreaking and very new to that part of the world.

Okay. And then what do you do after that? You just keep poking at that nerve?

Yeah. [Laughs] So what happens after that is the floodgates open up and we start to see a lot more demand than we can handle as a company. That gave me the confidence to quit my job at Google and do this full time. We are now starting to figure out how to do it to the best of our capacity at the same level, and sometimes surpassing, what our peers are doing across the world.

What do you find is the most important element within the workspace? How does Spacefinish highlight that?

People are the most important element in the workspace. One CEO said that his team was very unruly—weren't well composed. There is a mentality that we all subscribe to, especially coming from Nigeria where you see people at the local airports not obeying the rules. But those same people, as soon as they land in Heathrow, they're suddenly very compliant. They're the same people. The only thing that changed is their environment. New spaces can cause people to change their behavior—they morph into the space. For that client, the leadership was very happy that their team members began acting in the way they wanted them to act when we changed the space. The psychology of the whole thing is very interesting. That's why we take a human-centered approach to design, with a lot of qualitative and quantitative research before we begin.

View of the Vibranium Valley warehouse workspace in Lagos.

I'm originally from California and I grew up in Silicon Valley–it's a very peculiar place simply because of the concentration of resources. There are surely different challenges for a developer in Nigeria versus one in Silicon Valley. What is the most unique thing for you, after all your travels and experience, that makes designing for Nigeria special?

That's a really good question. You rarely find imagery of inland Africa that is progressive and modern. The first time in recent times was the Black Panther movie and that's why it was so huge. Kids could see a different version of what Africa could be in their collective imagination. I'm making this correlation because that is what I think is different for us, from a design standpoint. For example, the Google office in Nigeria looks very Nigerian. It has a lot of cultural nuances and it is locally relevant to the region, however it is a very sophisticated and modern space with all the right technology. There's videoconferencing, micro-efficiency, access control and security but with the backdrop of an African space. When people see that, it feels very fresh and new and there is so much content that we can use to inspire–from artwork to traditions–and we infuse all those things in to the spaces we're creating.

Do you have a favorite space you've done?

All the spaces we've done have been fantastic. But I think my favorite to date is the PwC office, it is an innovation hub and a huge cultural departure for PwC. They are more or less known as a rigid, stoic brand and they wanted a space that defied all of those things. So we created an innovation hub that was super, super, super futuristic and the first of its kind in West Africa. Anyone who knows interior fitouts understands that lines are straightforward but curves are complicated. This space has a lot of curves. That's difficult to do anywhere in the world but 10 times more complicated in Nigeria because we just don't have access to the right tools and technology that you will find elsewhere. But it came out very well and that has been my most exciting space so far.

A look at the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos

Was it also the most challenging?

It was, yes, because of the design ideas we wanted to achieve. We have things like revolving doors that were inspired by the hobbits' shire in Lord of the Rings and a single workstation that extends across the entire space. There are a lot of lights, floating elements and Nsibidi—an ancient African writing system that we used to create a new language. The artwork is very deep and gives a timeline of different instances in Africa where technology has inspired innovation. It was a very involved and challenging project. But we do the challenging things because we feel it allows us to move forward and push boundaries.

Sure. It's exciting for you and everyone you work with but also, I'd say, for the local contractors and artists doing the artwork.

You know, that is something that we do differently. Most architecture firms just design but we design and build. We do that because, when we started, no one in the market really understood what we were doing. We were asking for materials that didn't exist so we had to create our own. Also, everything we do is local, we don't import anything–which can be an even bigger challenge. But we want to know that we are helping to build industries here in Nigeria, we want to help fix the lack of resources in this part of the world. We could import but it doesn't help the community and economic infrastructure in the long run.

A meeting room in Vibranium Valley

I think the first time our impact hit me was when we were building a place called Vibranium Valley. That's been our biggest project so far: a 2,000 square meter office that was built in a massive warehouse. I went there on a Wednesday one day and we had over 200 people working in the space. And for the first time I was like, "Wow, we really have the ability to create jobs as well." It put things in context for me.

Are there any plans to venture outside of offices and corporate workspaces with your human-centered approach? Classrooms, waiting rooms, etc.?

We are actually about to embark on our first non-office project. We are designing and building the interior of two international airports in Nigeria: Lagos and Port Harcourt. Two very massive projects that we couldn't say no to because...no one says no to international airports [Laughs]. So it's a good way to toss us into things outside of the workspace. So everyone should come fly to Nigeria and check it out when we're finished.

Catch Nereya on her Instagram here.

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Still from 'Harriet' trailer.

Watch Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman In the Moving New Trailer for 'Harriet'

The highly-anticipated biopic about the life of the iconic freedom fighter is due out on November 1.

Back in 2017, it was announced that Tony-winning actor and singer Cynthia Erivo would be taking on the role of the iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. We've been anticipating its release ever since, and today, the trailer for the buzzed about film has finally arrived.

The moving and climactic trailer sees Erivo delivering a convincing performance as Tubman. The film follows the hero's journey from escaping slavery to becoming a legendary abolitionist and freedom fighter. Here's the official description of the film via Shadow & Act:

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
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