This week, Code Switch takes a look at the past and present of immigrants on TV with video profiles of a quartet of groundbreaking artists who are changing the game for how immigrants are depicted on the small screen. Read Jeff Yang’s intro essay for this package, “Fresh On The Screen: How TV Is Redefining Whom We Think Of As ‘American.'”
Yesterday we heard from Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi. Today’s profile: comedian and star of HBO’s Insecure, Yvonne Orji. Come back later this week for stories from Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan and Grey’s Anatomy star Sara Ramirez. This special package is made possible by the Vilcek Foundation.
“There are only five professions you’re allowed to be if you have African immigrant parents: engineer, lawyer, pharmacist, nurse or doctor,” says comedian and actress Yvonne Orji, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when she was six. “And from the time I was born, I was the good one who was supposed to grow up to be a doctor.”
But after a stint as a beauty pageant contestant led her to put together a standup routine (“I didn’t have any other talents!”), she became hooked on performing for audiences — to her Nigerian parents’ dismay. They told her that it was a waste of her education (she has a BA and an Masters in Public Health from George Washington University) and that there was no way Orji would ever make a living in entertainment. And for a while, it seemed like her parents were correct — until she scored a gig writing for the TVOne show Love That Girl, starring Tatyana Ali. Meanwhile, her standup career began to take off, and her drawn-out career conversations with her parents started to sound less dire and more like fodder for comedy.
With that in mind, Orji wrote a pilot for a web series called First Gen, about a Nigerian immigrant family with a daughter who wants to ditch medical school for showbiz. The trailer she and a group of friends shot and uploaded went viral — and got Orji noticed by producers for HBO’s forthcoming series starring “The Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” star Issa Rae, “Insecure,” now shooting its first season with Orji playing Issa Rae’s best friend.
But First Gen remains a dream goal for her. “We’ll get it made!” she swears — even if the project still hasn’t met her parents’ approval. “They keep asking why I’m so eager to air our family’s dirty laundry!”