Self-reflection and spirituality color every aspect of Orji’s life. When asked how she manages the professional demands of Hollywood, she describes embarking on hourlong walks near her home and chatting with a higher power: “I’m like, ‘I’m really proud of who I’m becoming, whatchu think?’” This summer, she spoke with the model Hailey Bieber on her YouTube channel, which has over a million subscribers, about reconciling faith and the world of entertainment, two seemingly disparate spheres, with the pair covering on-screen nudity and sex. At one point, expressing frustration with the intense focus on the latter, for different reasons, in both realms, Orji confidently proclaims, “Being a virgin is not the best thing about me!”
She employs a similar brand of casual confessional within her stand-up comedy, unpacking with verve and wit the complexities of coming of age in the suburbs of Maryland and Pennsylvania as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants (her mother features in the joke she shares with T in the video above). It’s an approach that often calls to mind the work of Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah, who also extract material from their experiences at the center of cultural crossroads, but Orji’s poignant observations and sharp explorations of Black womanhood are entirely her own. “As a child of immigrants and as the only girl of four children, my voice was stifled growing up,” she tells me. Then she chuckles. “But it didn’t stop me from using it.” Last year, she achieved the comedian’s dream: an HBO stand-up special. Titled “Momma, I Made It!,” the show weaves together sections from an hourlong set Orji performed at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., with scenes from a pilgrimage she made in 2019 to Nigeria, where she visited her grandfather’s village, conducted on-the-street interviews with passers-by (had they heard of “Yvonne Orji the actress”? Cue blank stares) and perfected the art of market haggling. “That was my love letter to the immigrant struggle, the immigrant hustle, the immigrant sacrifice,” she says. “It was important to me because I knew it would be important to my parents.”
Orji’s original plan was to become a doctor. But she is quick to admit that her heart wasn’t fully in it. “I would have been a horrible doctor,” she says, all three syllables of “horrible” stretched out to their fullest comedic potential. Even the idea of surgery makes her queasy. “I was hopefully going to just talk to you and your pain would go away,” she says jokingly. In 2006, she found her true calling, though, while preparing for a Miss Nigeria beauty pageant and deciding to try stand-up for the talent section. “I started discovering my funny from that moment on,” she says. “I realized it wasn’t a fluke or a one-time thing. Then I was like, ‘How do you make a life out of this?’”
She spent the following years performing wherever she could: fashion shows, wedding receptions, baby showers. In 2009, she moved to New York to pursue comedy in earnest, working a temp job during the day and doing stand-up at night. Then, six years later, she was cast in “Insecure” with, as she has described in past interviews, “no agent, no manager and no experience.” She nevertheless secured an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series this year.
Soon, our conversation turns to the changing landscape of Hollywood, where directors — including Michaela Coel, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and, of course, Issa Rae, one of the creators of “Insecure” — seem to be spearheading a renaissance of sorts for Black creatives. Orji is hopeful but careful with her words. “We’re getting what we probably always should’ve been getting,” she says.