Yvonne Orji on the Entertainment Industry's Call for Diversity: ‘It Should Not Just Be a Buzzword’
“It should literally be kind of like a movement. And it should be a way of being, really,” she said on the :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter Instagram live series
Insecure’s Yvonne Orji is celebrating her Emmy nomination, the release of her HBO comedy special, Momma, I Made It! and the diverse voices leading Hollywood.
The actress and comedian recently joined PEOPLE’s Paula Ngon on the :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter Instagram live series to discuss how the Black experience is not one size fits all — and how her road to success has unfolded.
“How I first got into entertainment was through comedy, and I didn't know that I could even do comedy. I didn't really know that you can make a living telling jokes,” she told Ngon. “I used to watch Def Comedy Jam growing up on HBO, which is hysterical because I have an HBO comedy special.”
The 36-year-old actress got the hang of her comedy chops unexpectedly back in 2006 when her brother asked if she wanted to join a Miss Nigeria in America pageant. After agreeing and not giving it much thought, she came face to face with a career-defining moment when she needed a talent for the pageant event: “I just was like, ‘My talents are making straight A's, can I do that on stage? Because that's where I am in my life.’”
She went on to share that a specific prayer helped lead her in the comedy direction.
“I was praying like, ‘God, you got to come through for me. What can I do? I can't sing, I can't play the piano... What's popping?’” she said. “And I heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘Do comedy.’ And I was like, ‘Nah son. Stop, what are you talking about?’ And he was just like, ‘Well, what else you got?’”
After leaving the crowd laughing at the pageant and winning another competition shortly afterward, fast-forward more than a decade later, Orji has successfully turned her skills and love of comedy into a Hollywood career. After first moving to New York to try her hand in the industry, she eventually moved to Los Angeles where she met Issa Rae, the star and creator of Awkward Black Girl and HBO's Insecure, and began the journey to where her career is today.
Now, as a lead actress on the Emmy-nominated Insecure, Orji recognizes the shows’ gravity as it simply shows the humanity, nuance and an “homage to Black culture, to Black people, to South L.A., just a culture” — on and off-screen.
"There's no way you can tell a really coherent and cohesive story with just a fraction of representation across the board,” she said. “Not just on screen, not just in the writer's room — in hair and makeup, in the sound department, in editing, in coloring. ... It can't just be, 'Oh, we had a bunch of Black actors.' It's like, 'No, we are a support system.'”
And having this support system allows for Black people and fellow members of the Insecure team, in particular, to tell compelling stories unapologetically.
“I feel like diversity should not just be a buzzword. Diversity shouldn't be a check to just be like, ‘Yeah, we got a Black person. Oh, we got an Asian person. Oh, we got that,’” Orji explained.
The comedian and actress — who also pays homage to Black culture and her Nigerian roots in her debut stand-up special debut, Momma, I Made It! — then added that the push for diversity should be "a movement."
“It should literally be kind of like a movement. And it should be a way of being, really. Because diverse stories are the best when they're told most authentically," she added.
At the end of day, Orji said representation creates a needed space, professionally and personally, for the Black community to live freely.
“That's what diversity really should be. It's like, I shouldn't have to defend my Blackness. I should just show up and be able to be my Blackness,” she said.
For more, catch the :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter Instagram live interviews on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. ET.