BWW Interview: JITNEY's Nija Okoro - A Blessed August Wilson Aficionado
The Mark Taper Forum will be the site of August Wilson's JITNEY's Los Angeles stop on its national tour, beginning November 22, 2019. JITNEY, the final piece of Wilson's THE AMERICAN CENTURY CYCLE follows a group of struggling guys in Pittsburgh as they attempt to make a living driving unlicensed taxis, a.k.a. jitneys. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs this 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Play. I grabbed the chance to pose a few questions to Nija Okoro, who plays Rena in JITNEY.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Nija!
The Mark Taper will be the third stop of your national tour of JITNEY. You've just concluded your first at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Any audience responses take you by surprise?
I've always believed that this play and its themes are universal; but I've been pleasantly surprised now how people of all races and backgrounds have said that they "know these people." They seem to connect to the characters in a very personal way. It's beautiful to see. It has also been a pleasant surprise to hear from the audience's reactions that the play is just as funny to them as it is to me.
The Mark Taper production will also mark your third time you perform on the Mark Taper stage, right? Have you worked with any of the JITNEY Mark Taper crew before?
Yes, there will be quite a few familiar faces. Anytime I visit the Taper to see a play, I'm always met with folk I've been fortunate enough to work with. So I look forward to our first day in L.A. I'm sure it'll be quite the reunion. I absolutely adore the folk there.
Here's another 'third' I've found - JITNEY is your third August Wilson play (MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM and TWO TRAINS RUNNING), or did I miss others?
I actually did JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE at Juilliard. Phylicia Rashad actually saw that production. I later understudied her production of JOE TURNER'S at the Taper. After that, I had the honor of working with her three more times. Being back at the Taper doing an August Wilson play is definitely a full-circle, pinch-me moment.
What aspects of August Wilson's writing draws you to his plays?
He's one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The way he depicts humanity in its fullness and truth is spot on. I've heard it said that he loved every single character he wrote. And that adoration leaps off the page. Each character has dignity and is beautifully complex. Ruben often talks about how Mr. Wilson wanted to preserve our culture through his work. His stories do a brilliant job of honoring our culture and people.
Any other plays of August Wilson's Century Cycle you'd like to be part of?
Every single one! I adore all of his plays. I always feel so blessed when I get to work on a Wilson play. It teaches me so much about life and this art form. I want the opportunity to play each one of his women. That would be an absolute dream.
Please describe your character of Rena as if you were writing her a letter of reference for a prospective job position.
Rena is loving, hardworking, nurturing, speaks her mind, a forward thinker and doing the best with the hand she's been dealt.
What flaws of Rena would you intentionally omit?
Hmm? Maybe I'm biased because I honestly can't think of any flaws! Rena has taught me so much about what it means to be in relationship. She's a master communicator.
In an alternate universe, under what circumstances would you find the characters you've portrayed (JITNEY's Rena, MA RAINEY's Dussie Mae, TWO TRAINS' Risa) interacting? Checkout line at the supermarket? Waiting room in a hospital? Box office line for concert tickets?
Ooh! Maybe a potluck thrown by a mutual friend. That would be fun. Risa and Rena are definitely two sides of the same coin. They'd have an interesting conversation. But Ms. Dussie Mae might be bored by all the girl talk that goes nowhere. She might be like "where the band at?"
Can you share some memorable moments you had with Phylicia Rashad during MA RAINEY in 2016?
I don't think I could pick one. It was all absolutely magical. The first thought that comes to mind is how she would often break out into song or a monologue from a Wilson play. We'd all be in a trance under her spell. She's brilliant. Such grace and talent.
How about fun incidents performing Jo in THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE at The Geffen in 2017?
Now that was a lot of fun. But it hard for me at first because Jo was often very serious, the straight man if you will, and working opposite the hilarious Matt McGrath was a struggle for me. I remember walking off stage during one rehearsal because I couldn't stop laughing. It was definitely a challenge. I had to be soooo filled with the circumstances Jo was dealing with or Nija would lose it. It was actually blessing in disguise! I had to go back to the stuff I learned in Acting 101 to make it through.
Any city JITNEY will be playing in that you're anxious to visit? (relatives? friends?)
I'm excited for every city, but I have an uncle that I haven't seen in over a decade that lives near Seattle. So he'll come to see JITNEY. I just found out that he's done three August Wilson plays in Washington. Maybe that's where I got the acting bug from! I'm also named after him. My middle name is Happy and that's what everyone calls him. He's never seen me perform, so this will be a memorable experience for us both.
What emotions would you like the Mark Taper audiences to leave with after your curtain call?
I hope each person gets exactly what they need. That's always my prayer. Whether it's a revelation about their own life, a new understanding, a good cry, a hearty laugh, or all of it. There's something for everyone in this play. That's the beauty of JITNEY.
Thank you again, Nija! I look forward to experiencing your Rena and company.
Thank you. I can't wait for you to see the wonderful production!
For JITNEY ticket availability and show schedule through December 29, 2019; log onto www.centertheatregroup.org