With a myriad of notable roles alongside the likes of Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Hudson, Colin Firth, Queen Latifah, Toni Collette and Will Smith to her credit, Sophie Okonedo has worked with a who's who of Hollywood.
And this season, she's on Broadway starring in A Raisin in the Sun, and she's among a who's who of the theatre world.
And although it's her first time on The Great White Way, Okonedo isn't new to the stage; In fact, the 45-year-old Oscar nominee is a proven veteran in her native London — starting out over two decades ago with the Royal Shakespeare Company and also working with The National Theatre. The lion's share of work has been with the Royal Court Theatre, where she has served on the Board of Directors in recent years. "I've done quite a bit of theatre in England… I was trained in theatre," she told Playbill.com.
But Broadway is another world for her. Okonedo is on a thrill ride with her critically acclaimed debut in Kenny Leon's latest revival of A Raisin in the Sun, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through June 15. "I am just loving every minute of it," she beamed about her role — playing Ruth Younger — in the fabled play co-starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose. "If I had predicted what would happen, I couldn't have predicted it. With this play, the joy I have of performing it, the incredible cast I'm with and then all of the accolades with it, it's really unbelievable." To top it all off, she netted a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role, among other treasured accolades. Not bad for her first time up to bat on The Great White Way.
"Well, if it's always like this, you're never going to get rid of me," she quipped.
In film and television, Okonedo is no stranger to acclaim; her role in the 2004 historical drama "Hotel Rwanda" led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Two years later, her performance in the HBO film "Tsunami: The Aftermath" garnered her a Golden Globe nomination. And just a few years after that, her performances in the British series "Criminal Justice," led to a British Academy of Film & Television Award (BAFTA). Her 2010 leading role as South African civil rights activist Winnie Mandela in "Mrs. Mandela" received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress. Okonedo was also appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) during the 2010 Queen's Birthday Honors, a special honor that recognizes outstanding achievement and service across the United Kingdom.
|Photo by Brigitte Lacombe|
Broadway came calling before, but she couldn't commit; "I won't say what it was because I hate to say when someone took the part but I had the opportunity twice, once on Broadway and once Off-Broadway," she said.
"It was when my daughter was younger and I couldn't come over for six months. One time she didn't want to come with me; the other time I asked her and it was school and stuff like that so I wasn't able to leave her during that time."
Timing is everything, and Okonedo is surely happy she held out for Raisin, which she said she never read before taking on the coveted role. "Remember, it's an American play and although it's big here, it's not that big in England," she pointed out. "Where I was brought up, it's not part of our childhood research. We have other plays like Look Back in Anger, which was a massive, massive play in Britain around the same time."
Late, great playwright Lorraine Hansberry's most famous work is considered an American classic. Centering on the Younger family and fateful decisions made after the death of their patriarch, A Raisin in the Sun was originally produced on Broadway in 1959 and directed by Lloyd Richards. A movie version followed in 1961 starring the play's original cast members ( Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands) and has become cinematic legend. In 2004, Leon made his Broadway directorial debut with a star-studded revival led by hip-hop superstar Sean "Diddy" Combs and featuring Tony Award-nominated performances by Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald. Rashad and McDonald won for their respective roles.
"As soon as I knew I had [the role], I didn't read any theories on it, I didn't read any people's writings," Okonedo said. "I exhausted all I did on what the play was and I researched around what it would be like living in the 1950s at the that time in America in the south side of Chicago. That was my only research." "That's all I researched and I certainly didn't look at any other performances of A Raisin in the Sun," she added.
Her technique seems to have paid off well. She's already won a 2014 Theater World Award, which recognizes distinguished debuts, and picked up a string of other nominations along the way.
Regarding the Tony Awards nomination, where she's up against her fellow castmate Rose, alongside Sarah Greene ( The Cripple of Inishmaan), Celia Keenan-Bolger ( The Glass Menagerie), Mare Winningham ( Casa Valentina), Okonedo says the feelings are "euphoric" and "incredible."
"I was really shocked and just felt really privileged that I was in that small band of people who have those nominations this year."