Yvonne Orji is clearly having her moment. The Nigerian American actress and comedian will soon gear up for season five of HBO’s acclaimed series Insecure, while earlier this summer her first HBO special, Momma, I Made It!—a stand-up show highlighting her immigrant upbringing—debuted. As if that weren’t enough, Orji has also been hard at work completing her first book, Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams, set to be released next year.
Her success is enviable, however, her motivation is far from mainstream. The actress has described her work on Insecure less in terms of the show’s success (directors have included Regina King and Kerry Washington) and more in terms of its social impact, while she considers the HBO special an homage to the sacrifices made by her mother and father. “Our immigrant parents come here and sacrificed themselves—their dreams, their families back home, their friends,” she says. “It’s such a selfless act. This is how I wanted to honor my parents. They’re getting old and I need this piece of art to live on for all eternity.”
As for her upcoming book, Orji is just as clear about its purpose: “I didn’t need to write a book; I was called to write it,” says the actress, a devout Christian who has previously stated that she will remain a virgin until marriage. “In church it’s taboo to say God bamboozled me. But in my life and in my journey there have definitely been times when I’ve wondered, ‘Am I being punked? Nothing that is happening is remotely close to what you promised me.’ If anyone has walked with God or religion, you know your faith is being activated in those moments when you feel like you’re being bamboozled.”
If being a practicing Christian in Hollywood is far from the typical path, so is Orji’s tightrope trail between two cultures. “I’m as staunchly proud to be Nigerian as much as I’m frustrated by it. I’m equally proud to be American as much as I’m frustrated. Let’s put these together in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” says the bilingual actress, describing her HBO special that artfully toggles between her two worlds. On the one hand, Orji stands commanding and perfectly polished at The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. There, in thigh-grazing boots and a black blazer that sculpts her figure to perfection, Orji recounts childhood experiences and her journey from pre-med student to stand-up sensation. Less expected in a comedy special are the trips to Nigeria, where director Chris Robinson follows Orji and her parents to Lagos, the country’s bustling metropolis, as well as to her family’s village. “It would have been easy to just stay in Lagos, but we had to go to the village to see my grandfather’s house. For my culture, this is so important.”
And it’s that split screen—honoring her heritage while looking ahead—that makes Orji instantly relatable. She’s friendly, thoughtful and open about her past, her mission and her hopes for the future. With one foot grounded in her Nigerian culture and the other navigating the entertainment industry, the actress slips in and out of a Nigerian accent to demonstrate certain ideas, and back to American English for others. Back and forth, she weaves two distinct cultures into her own highly personalized melting pot of humor and humility.
“All of us want to have joy, to live prosperously, to procreate and set up the next generation. Our hopes and dreams are simple. We complicate them. In Nigeria, we are very communal in those pursuits; in America, it’s more independent,” says Orji, who moved from Africa to Maryland when she was 6. After receiving a master’s degree in public health at The George Washington University, she went to New York to pursue acting before coming to Los Angeles in 2012. “When I first came to L.A. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. It’s got the creativity of New York and the weather of Nigeria. Why did it take me so long to get here?’ I didn’t know a place like this was possible.”
Home is now in Franklin Village, a place where Orji has spent an exceptional amount of time since the pandemic began, a period she says has divided into two phases. The first, during April and May, was a frantic time spent rewriting her book and editing the HBO special. Since the June 6 release of Momma, I Made It!, Orji says phase 2 has allowed her to finally shift into a slower gear.
“I now have the luxury of isolating in a way where I’m my only responsibility. I need to be still in order to further become the best version of me,” says Orji, who has used this time to turn her garage into a gym and take long baths. Future plans call for installing a Jacuzzi in her garden. “I want a place where I can watch the stars at night. This is my cocoon phase and I can’t come out of this a caterpillar. My hope is that phase 3 will allow me to emerge like a butterfly.”
Photography by: Ser Baffo