Meet the Tony Nominees: Uzo Aduba Feels Honored to Be Recognized, Since Theater Is Her First Love

Aduba is up for Best Featured Actress in a Play, for her turn in ”Clyde’s”.

Yes, Uzo Aduba has won three Emmy Awards for her television work (in Orange Is the New Black and Mrs. America) and only has a few New York theatrical credits under her belt, including Coram Boy and Godspell. But there's no question the ultra-talented Aduba will always be considered something of a Broadway baby.

Indeed, Broadway was thrilled to welcome Aduba back last fall in the title role of Lynn Nottage's comedy Clyde's, an outrageously dressed, seemingly mean-spirited and possibly devilish (in the literal sense) owner of a struggling truck stop sandwich shop. Her sublime performance has earned her both a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award in the same category.

TheaterMania recently spoke with Aduba about the importance of awards, her take on her character, performing during a Covid surge, and appearing in the upcoming film version of Clybourne Park.

Uzo Aduba in the title role of Lynn Nottage's Clyde's
Uzo Aduba in the title role of Lynn Nottage's Clyde's
(© Joan Marcus)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Instead of coming back to Broadway in a "star role," you chose a true ensemble piece. Why?
I think what matters most to me is what the project has to say, in terms of character and theme, rather than the size of the role. Lynn is one of my favorite playwrights, so when the email came and I was told I was being offered an original work by Lynn, I was close to just saying yes immediately. I basically read it just to read it. But when I did, I found the story and character so intriguing, both in who she was in the literal setting of the play and the larger themes of what she was meant to represent. I really became so interested in discovering how she came to be that way that I couldn't turn it down.

Did you discuss the play with Lynn?
No, I didn't discuss much with her; I created my own backstory for Clyde. To me, the world around her didn't seem to be of her own making, which is not to sidestep any responsibility for her actions. But a lot of me felt like she built all this armor to deal with the world. Clyde was someone who was probably the biggest dreamer in the room and had watched a lot of them stamped out. She had been tested every minute of her life. That's why, unlike Montrellous (played by Ron Cephas Jones), she believed in tough love – which is still love. I think Clyde was really trying to help her employees. I think her biggest issue was, because of her own experiences, that she looked at their dreaming as dangerous.

What was it like performing during the height of the Omicron surge?
It was hard. As a cast, we didn't get to hang out the way we wanted to. A lot of shows were shutting down, but because we were able to space out a lot, both onstage and backstage. we were mostly able to keep running. I didn't want to be out or have anyone else out. Luckily, we eventually found more time to spend together because I really love everyone in this cast.

How much did the costumes (by Jennifer Moeller) influence your performance?
A lot of my conversations with Jen going into the show were about who this woman is and what we learn from not just her clothes, but the nails, the jewelry, the shoes, the hair. And all of us ride who the subway know that woman. She is not functional, in terms of looks, but she has her reasons for those outfits. The audience had to understand how much armor Clyde put on every day just to survive. We don't see any real part of Clyde, and that way, we don't see into her soul. Clothes were her protection. Let's just say Jen understood the assignment.

How do you feel about being a part of a Broadway season that had so much representation by Black actors and playwrights?
Let's say Broadway understood the assignment. We always talk about the "community" and how it is a big part of who we are as theater people. So, I am glad to see most groups being heard or even being introduced to Broadway audiences. But to me, the important word is "season." I hope it's not just one season, but an evergreen thing that involves more stories, spaces, and experiences every year. As they say in fashion, I hope it becomes a "style" and not just a trend.

You're set to star in the upcoming film version of Clybourne Park, which won the Tony for Best Play in 2012. Do you think it feels even more relevant than it did a decade ago?
I don't know if it's more relevant, but the kind of racism the play discusses is possibly more apparent to people now. What once felt like theory now feels obvious as we've seen more present-day examples of how hard – and how important – it is for African Americans to be not only believed but accepted. In the past, the play may have felt more like a story, but now it feels more like truth.

Do awards still matter to you?
I would say yes and no. I am not going to pretend I haven't been recognized before for my work. Still, it's always humbling. And when I win, I don't put them in the trash bin. This Tony nomination, however, feels very honoring because theater is my first love. It's where I started my career. I remember my junior year of college I came to stay with my aunt here to see what I can do as an artist. My plan was then to do the next year in L.A. and see what I liked better. I don't know what it was – certainly not the air in July — but the minute I stepped off the bus in New York, I felt like I breathed for first time. I even wrote a song called "Mister Right." And I never made it to L.A. until many years later.