Actress Folake Olowofoyeku opens up about bringing the Nigerian immigrant experience to a network sitcom and why she's proud to play a nurse on television.
African actors rarely get to play African roles on American TV, especially respectful ones. Folake Olowofoyeku is the notable exception. Over the past year, the Nigerian actress has quietly made history as the star of the CBS comedy series, Bob Hearts Abishola. The sleeper hit has already been picked up for a second season.
Because it was hard for many to imagine the upside of an American TV sitcom with the premise of a white man in Detroit falling for the African nurse who cares for him in the hospital following a heart attack scare, many folks just didn't know what to expect. Some folks still haven't checked it out.
"I understand what the reservations were," Olowofoyeku tells OkayAfrica via phone from Los Angeles. "You just have to watch it. You have to give it a chance and not just judge it based on what your ideas might be."
Those who have given it a chance have learned that, based on the show's premise, Abishola, who lives with her aunt and uncle, is not who they thought she would be. In fact, when Bob starts pursuing her, she seems just as confused as his own family and many of us. Busy raising her son Dele and working long hours as a nurse, a relationship is the absolute last thing on Abishola's mind. Bob has to pursue her, respectfully of course, to get her to even consider the idea of them.
Olowofoyeku, herself, admits to having some initial trepidation about the show. "I didn't want it to be a stereotypical caricature of African life. I've found myself in situations like that before, but it became very obvious very early on that it was not going to happen. And even during the audition, with my depiction of the character, I was very cognizant of the fact that I didn't want her to be [that]."
"I'm so proud of our show on so many levels."
And it hasn't been. One of the reasons for that, says Olowofoyeku, is because the writers (which include OkayAfrica's 100 Women honoree and Bob Hearts Abishola co-creator/producer Gina Yashere who also co-stars as Abishola's close friend Kemi), "focus on the humanity of all the characters." Arguably only Chuck Lorre, the powerhouse behind the long-running comedies Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, could even bring this show to CBS, which, in the past, has had very few Black women in leading roles. No American network, it must be reiterated, has ever featured a Nigerian immigrant's story.
According to Olowofoyeku, her character Abishola is "not quite like me. She's a bit different." In a good way.
"I love her strength. I love her discipline. I wish I was as disciplined as she is," she says of Abishola. "I love her kindness. I love that she's kind and generous. I love that she's Nigerian and that she's Yoruba. I mean there's just so much I love about her. I love that she's open to love."
Photo by Michael Yarish.
Being able to speak Yoruba is also one of the best things about Bob Hearts Abishola for Olowofoyeku, who is joined by other actors of Nigerian descent on the show, including Chewing Gum's Shola Adewusi (Auntie Olu), Anthony "Tony" Okungbowa (Kofo), best known as The Ellen DeGeneres Show's one-time resident DJ, and Bayo Akinfemi (Goodwin).
"I think that's phenomenal," she says. "It's surreal sometimes being on set and just seeing it play out. I think Yoruba sounds very romantic. It warms my heart to hear it. I think that it should be considered one of the romance languages."
Growing up in Lagos in a family of legal eagles, Olowofoyeku didn't think she'd become an actress. Not generally encouraged to pursue the arts, Olowofoyeku, who still counts the legendary Kate Henshaw among her main inspirations, never seriously considered acting as a career. Coming to the States as a teenager and attending City College of New York (CCNY), where she even played basketball, changed that. So much so that she majored in theatre and excelled, even earning Best Actress accolades for her starring role in the award-winning short film, When They Could Fly.
"I didn't want it to be a stereotypical caricature of African life. I've found myself in situations like that before, but it became very obvious very early on that it was not going to happen."
After college, Olowofoyeku pursued acting professionally, mainly in theatre, in New York City and then Los Angeles, participating in productions of King Lear, The Vagina Monologues and Angels in America. Over time, she got guest star, supporting and recurring roles on several TV series, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Westworld and Transparent, plus a few films and video games. But it wasn't until Bob Hearts Abishola, Olowofoyeku admits, that she felt financially comfortable acting. "I knew that I had to just be tenacious and dedicated to the craft and something would come along, but I don't think anything gave me the opportunity to actually make a living on just acting until the show."
Even though she has some training in improv, Olowofoyeku, herself, is surprised by her success as a comedic actress. "I'm not a funny person, but I can be funny," she explains. "I didn't think my big break would be in comedy though, especially not a sitcom. You know, I'm like a sci-fi fantasy head so I just assumed it would come in that genre." Her actual dream role would be playing Bloodstorm, a vampire version of Storm from the X-Men comic series. American actors Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp have played the traditional version of Storm on the big screen. She also creates music under the moniker, The.Folake, which is also her Instagram and social media handles. Acting, however, has been her main focus. And TV success has come with a great upside.
Photo by Michael Yarish.
"It's opened up a lot of opportunities. People are interested in my thoughts for the first time in my life," she laughs. "That's including my family members. That's where being the youngest is not so great. For the first time, my opinions matter. I guess people don't think I'm wasting my time or being a joke anymore."
And she's putting her newfound power to use. Recently she partnered with the ONE Campaign in Nigeria to raise COVID-19 awareness. "I am really concerned about everyone during this time, especially Nigeria, and I wanted to partner with an organization that would allow me to be as hands on as possible in working with healthcare professionals who are on the ground and the government and just find out ways that I can be useful and ONE seems to have a lot of energy," she explains.
In these turbulent times, playing a nurse means even more to Olowofoyeku, who even met with the Nigerian Nurses Association regarding her role. "We know that nurses are so underpaid considering the amount of work they do and how vital they are to our species. And I just hope that, moving forward, more revenue and more resources are allocated to them for their personal care and for the care of their families because they definitely deserve it. So, yeah, I'm proud to depict a nurse."
The pandemic, Olowofoyeku says has made her appreciate her journey and realize just how incredibly proud she is of herself and Bob Hearts Abishola. "This time at home, during the quarantine and the lockdown, has given me an opportunity to just slow down and recognize how far I've come and how significant our show is and how important it is in the world," she says. "I'm so proud of our show on so many levels."