Age & Hometown: “Whatever the character calls for”; Brooklyn, NY
Current Role: A tender Broadway debut as Thelma, a soft-spoken young bus passenger who befriends Mama Watts in The Trip to Bountiful.
Little Nigeria: Raised on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park, Adepero Oduye was surrounded by neighbors of different cultures, including Vietnamese, Puerto Rican and Hasidic Jewish families. “I didn’t grow up around a lot of Nigerians, but it was like Little Nigeria in my house,” she jokes. The third eldest of seven children, Oduye learned how to make Egusi, a traditional Nigerian seafood stew, from her older brother. “We were a posse,” she says of her tight-knit family, who spent most nights at home, reading or playing Monopoly together. “I didn’t go to a movie theater until I was 11, and someone else took me,” she recalls. “Forget about Broadway, off-Broadway or any of that. It wasn’t even a thought. I didn’t learn about any of that stuff until my teenage years.”
You Can’t Give Up: At Cornell University, Oduye went pre-med, planning to follow in her doctor father’s footsteps. When he suddenly passed away, she began to question her future. “I had an inkling that I might not become a doctor, but my father’s death sealed the deal. It led me to ask, ‘Is this what I really want?’” On a whim, Oduye enrolled in acting classes, a move that initially “blindsided” her mother: “She was worried. My parents came to this country and worked really hard, and they wanted it to be easier for their kids.” But by the time Oduye landed roles in the workshop of Fela, the feature film Half Nelson and the 2011 Sundance hit Pariah, the actress' mother had become her biggest fan. “If I have thoughts of quitting, she says, ‘No. I know where you started from, and you can’t give up,’” Oduye says softly. “It’s really touching.”
It’s Cicely Tyson! Oduye couldn’t be more overjoyed to make her Broadway debut in The Trip to Bountiful, replacing her pal Condola Rashad, with whom she starred in the Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias. “I was so nervous, but it was a good nervous,” she says of her opening night. “I could feel the energy.” Even more overwhelming was getting to share a Broadway stage with one of her idols, Cicely Tyson, for the first time. “All of a sudden, she’s right in front of my eyes and I’m like, oh my God, it’s Cicely Tyson! And I’m onstage! And she’s touching my shoulder! And there’s an audience! There was so much happening,” she says with a laugh. “It was one of the craziest, most surreal experiences of my life. Every night, it’s still surreal—it’s unbelievable!”