If you haven't noticed, Yvonne Orji is on an ever evolving glow up. A philanthropist, actress and hilarious comedian, she is in power mode and is not letting up. On Nigerian Independence Day, she celebrated the return of her Night of Nigerian Excellence gala and the release of her second HBO special A Whole Me.
Hosted at Beauty & Essex in Los Angeles, Night of Nigerian Excellence honored Nigerian activists, actors, artists, athletes, creatives, executives and musicians to celebrate their culture and excellence. This celebration perfectly complimented Whole New Me which also pays homage to her African heritage.
Below, Orji dished on her new HBO special and the beauty in recognizing your own and celebrating excellence across the African diaspora.
EBONY: With the success of your first HBO special and your second, A Whole Me, having just premiered, what does "a whole me" mean for you regarding you doing your life and your career on your own terms?
Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me really does mean just that—a whole me. It is letting people know that in this current season, in this current moment, this is the best version of Yvonne Orji that I know, that I like, that I love, and that you are going to experience. We are constantly evolving, changing and growing. I am committed to my growth, but in this moment, I have been me. The me that I have been was great. I honor her and I thank her for all she allowed me to do, but now I have more information. Now I am returning to the me I was always supposed to be without some trauma and some characteristics that weren't favorable for becoming and being my best self. I am embracing the journey because, without all those things, I wouldn't be the me I am now. Now things are in the right proportions and the proper perspective, and I am a whole me. I can do deals from this whole version of myself, enter relationships from this whole version of myself and nothing pays better than freedom, baby! Freedom is sexy, so when you have the freedom to be your most authentic, vulnerable and valuable self, everything pops from there.
Congratulations on commemorating the third year of the Night of Nigerian Excellence. How excited were you that it returned for another successful year?
I am so excited about this year's Night of Nigerian Excellence 2022. I feel like this is our best year yet, and it was all kismet. My second HBO special was premiering on October 1st, which happens to be Nigerian Independence Day, and this is our first time doing Night of Nigerian Excellence after the pandemic. Everything just lined up; it was perfect alignment. I am so grateful to everyone that showed up and to HBO for supporting this another year, which speaks to how gracious they are and how willing they are to honor a talent with such specificity in their art.
There is a new space in which Black folks across the diaspora are bridging similarities and differences by celebrating significant historical events like this. What is your hope for what your work, in general, will inspire across our community?
I feel like Black folks across the diaspora are linking together, are finding similarities, even in our differences, because we are more alike than we are different. Even at the event, it wasn't just only Nigerians; it was friends of the diaspora. There were some Nigerians, some East Africans and some folks from other West African countries—so it was a celebration of us across the diaspora. Even things like being at the event and having authentic Nigerian food in the heart of Hollywood—where else can you do that? I think Nollywood has done a great job of showing art and entertainment from the Mother Continent and transferring it to America. And then it's like I have this unique opportunity where I can tell stories with Nigerian themes for first "geners" in America and translate back to Nigerians in Nigeria. My hope is for us to continue doing more dope work and collaborating.
The whole event's purpose is for us to meet each other and know each other so we can be in the room where it all happens; this is how deals get done. Some executives spanned Hulu, Netflix, Universal and Fox in the building, saying, "Hey we are all here, talent is here, strike up a conversation by the bar and let's do the next project and then the next deal." That is my hope for why the event is so important, and it is also my hope for how we can continue to tell stories important to us in the diaspora. What was special for me in doing A Whole Me was being able to put different talents on. Chigul plays the iconic character "Shady Shola." She is a woman who has been killing it for years in Nigeria, she's hysterical and impressive, and when I met her, I was like, 'You're a star. I promise you that you're bigger than the opportunities you have been given." I kept remembering her year in and year out, and I even had her on my first special when I went to Nigeria. When creating the vignettes for this, I thought there is only one person I want to play, "Shady Shola" and I told her, "Girl, get ready." To see how the American audience has taken a liking to her and see what I saw in her years ago has been beautiful. That's what we have the power to do when we have a platform; you can reach back into the diaspora and bring people along and bring them up. Namo—I have known for over a decade—and Nneoma—whom I found during the pandemic—are people who have been doing comedy on the internet, and I found them. It's like, "Hey, keep doing your thing and dreaming your dream because when one of us pops, we all pop."
Who are some Nigerian icons that inspire you across the entertainment industry?
There are tons of them. Every time I see a new name that I recognize as Ibo or Yoruba, I'm like, "Whoa, whoa, that person is from Nigeria!" That speaks volumes to me because, again, representation matters. When I started trying to branch off into entertainment, it was Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo, and then Uzo Aduba came suddenly. Seeing those people, my mom was like, "Okay, maybe you can do this thing; maybe it makes more sense." The more names she saw, the more acceptable it was for me to do this thing. Then you have people like Nkechi Okoro Carroll who are showrunners, and I remember when we were watching TV and her name came on the scream and my mom was like, "That woman is Ibo! That woman is from Nigeria!" And I'm like, "Yeah, I know her." Amazingly, our parents get excited when they see those same names. You have someone like Ayo Edebiri; she's on the new Hulu show, The Bear and Jimmy Akingbolas who's on Bel Air. It is so important to see representation across the entertainment industry. And then you have the execs like Pearlena Igbokwe! It goes across. Let's not forget the folks in fashion; Janelle Okwodu, senior fashion and culture editor at Vogue. So seeing Nigerians across multiple platforms, it's all inspirational to me. When I see those names show up either on TV or in the press, it inspires me to keep going, and to say hey, we are all in this together; no one is on an island by themselves. We can all "each one, reach one" and bring one another up.