NANA MENSAH (ACTRESS, WRITER, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR): “I THINK PEOPLE WHOSE EGOS HAVEN’T TAKEN A BEATING. THEY’RE DUE”

CREATIVE EXPRESSION: ACTRESS

INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI FOR THE SUPERSTAR AGENDA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARYL GETMAN

Nana is an artist. Actress. Writer. Producer. Director. She developed a cult following for her prominent role in An African City (Africa’s answer to Sex and the City). Nana has also had starring roles in critically acclaimed plays in New York such as Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again and Tracy Letts’ Man from Nebraska. In her latter role, the New York Times raved that her performance was “marvelous.”

After attending the University of Pennsylvania, Nana moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. Her transition to acting in the Big Apple was not easy. “I had such a hard come up,” she would later say. “I was catering, I was babysitting, I was, I was, coat check girl…I did everything. I was a bartender in a women’s bathroom.” Nana is a talented storyteller and performer. She signs off her performances with a signature vibrato that her fans immediately recognize.

Darkness has just descended upon Manhattan. I wait for Nana outside Second Stage Theatre where she is starring in Man from Nebraska. She will be on stage in a little over an hour and is just coming out of rehearsal. She greets me warmly upon her arrival but something feels different about her. I point out that she is speaking in a British accent (her character in Nebraska is British). She cocks her head back in dramatic fashion and belts out an infectious chuckle. When she next speaks after the giggling has subsided, she no longer has a British accent. It happens just like that.

We settle down to chat at a nearby hotel lounge. I lob the question, “Are you a superstar?” Her reaction is immediate and sincere. “Absolutely not. No, not at all. Come on,” she says. After I speak to her various accomplishments, she adds, “No, it’s not that I’m not working. I’m happy to be working. It is such a blessing just to have a job that I would never want to be in a place where I would expect a job to come to me.”

Her transition to acting in New York City was a humbling experience that has made her grateful to a vigilant extent. She recounts an incident from her first couple of years in New York that left an impression on her, “I remember this one time, I bought premium dog food for my dog. He stopped eating it. He wasn’t eating it. And then one day I went to go move something in the closet and I moved his bag and some of it started coming out the bottom and I realized that mice had eaten through the bag and there were mice droppings in the food and that was why he wasn’t eating it. That was a $40-45 bag of dog food and I just started crying. I sat on the floor and cried. Because he wasn’t eating it because there was fucking mouse shit in his dog food. It was a rough year. And I didn’t have $45 to just throw on another bag of food.”

Nana further describes the challenges she endured when she first moved to New York City. “I did everything. I was a bartender in a women’s bathroom,” she says. What?! “Yeah, a bartender in a women’s bathroom. I worked in a club that had a bathroom in the…it was the lady’s lounge but it was the bathroom. And I poured champagne while women peed and I gave them free champagne in the bathroom.” Did she consider getting a full time job at any point during this tough initial period in New York? “Every once in a while, I would go out for a job and I could never get hired. I could never get hired. I don’t know. Maybe I have an unlikeable face.” She makes the last comment in an off-handed way as she picks at the fresh fruit on the table separating us. And just how much did her ego suffer as she was struggling to make ends meet? “I think people whose egos haven’t taken a beating, they’re due. I think we all need to approach everything with a little bit more humility. Starting at the highest office in the land and trickling down.”

Between her facial gestures and hand expressions, Nana can’t help but dramatize her memories and responses. And so I am curious about who she considers role models in the performance world. Is anyone out there a superstar in her eyes? “Superstars to me are, well, it’s funny, because the word star in general has a little bit of a negative connotation to me. For me there are actresses and then there’s stars. Like Meryl Streep to me for example is an actress. She’s not a star. Frances McDormand, Edie Falco is an actress, you know. Like Viola Davis is an actress, erm…Myra Lucretia Taylor, not very well known because she does more theatre than film, but Myra Lucretia Taylor is an actress not a star. Like I put my stock in actors more than I do in stardom because stardom requires a bunch of people knowing who you are,” she says.

And so Nana isn’t interested in fame? “You do what you do whether or not anyone’s going to see it and for me that’s like coming up and doing some stupid play that nobody comes to see. You walk out on stage and half the house is empty but you do it anyway. You do it for the people who showed up and you do it for yourself. I just think that’s so important and that generosity of spirit and wanting to share your artistic expression…to commune with other people in the commonality of the human experience.”

Nana feels strongly about the distinction between artists who are “doing the work” and famous celebrities. “The best work is done behind the scenes and just like underground and whatever. I mean, like the play that I did before this one earlier in 2016. It was like a 70-seat theatre in Bushwick. Eight stops off the L in Bushwick. But it was a spiritual experience working on that play. It was a transcendent fucking experience and weirdly enough, it then got this crazy good review in The Times and we oversold. There were people sitting on the stairs violating fire code. People sitting on the stairs beginning to get a ticket for this thing,” she adds. And the play in question? “It was called I’ll Never Love Again. And it became this thing and they wanted to bring it into Manhattan. They wanted to transfer it. There was just all this hype around this piece because it was so true and it was not worried about stardom, it was just about the work and it came through. Mind you, we also had this genius at the helm, Clare Barron, fucking love her.”

At last, we stumble upon someone that Nana is happy to call a superstar. Clare Barron. “She’s a genius because, ugh, let me list the ways. I mean she is so vulnerable, she’s so open, and so vulnerable. And so as a writer and as a theatre maker she’s able to conceptualize and architect these experiences. And so, actually, Reed, my costar in Nebraska, also did a play with her called “You Got Older” that was also wonderful and this was a little bit more conceptual. She basically found her journals from when she was 15, 16 and she rendered them into a theatre piece. Basically, it was found text that she went back and found 10 – 15 years later. She’s 30, and she made this theatre piece that was based off of the text of her journals. It was 16 people in the cast…everybody played Clare. We were all Clare. And so, like, she’s just so smart. I just trust her implicitly. She was like, Nana, I have this crazy piece. It’s in the middle of nowhere Bushwick. I can pay you $200 a week, maybe less after taxes, and can you do it? And I was like, yes, because I just, I trust her. She’s a superstar because I can put myself in her hands and I know that she will serve up something true, and beautiful, and thoughtful, and provoking.”

Other than Clare Barron, what other experiences have left a deep impression on Nana as a performer and artist? “Meryl Streep was returning to Shakespeare in the Park to do “Mother Courage and Her Children” and there was a scene where they needed a bunch of non-equity, not-in-the-union actors to flood the stage as soldiers and then die and then she sings a song. And I was like me me me me me!!! And so, luckily, I was still at the point where I didn’t need the money because they weren’t paying and so they gave me this wonderful gift of dying at Meryl Streep’s feet,” she says.

“One of the things that was great about [working on the same production as Meryl Streep] was that I got to watch tech. And so tech when you are in the theatre is the time you have moved out of the rehearsal room and you have moved onto the stage, but you’re still working all the lights and all of the light cues. It’s a very technical process where it’s not really about the actors. You’re basically just puppets for the lighting designer or the scenic designer and they’re all working around you and that time is for them and that’s normally about a week. And that time is for them to get all the technical elements of the play together. So, you’ve had a month of rehearsal and now it’s about them and then you go into performance. So, I had access to sit and watch Meryl teching the show. So I would come outside of the times that I was called and just watch her. You know, and she would be there and I mean its Shakespeare in the Park, its outside, in the summer, hot, the woman is like 60 at the time.”

“I just watched her get everything right. Like, right. And I’m so inspired and grateful for that experience because it really spoke to me. I was just like oh, Meryl makes it look easy but none of this is easy. None of it is easy. There is so much thought that goes into every single decision that is made up there on stage and so I got this great little addition to my educational experience of you know watching it in practice and that was really amazing. So then I was like, I’m going to apply that thing, that obsession with minutia, and not minutia, just specificity. I’m going to apply it to everything.”

Nana asks what time it is. We have 10 minutes to go before she needs to leave for her show. It is enough time to squeeze in a couple of final questions. What about her parents, what role did they play in her early years? “They were very open minded. We were also not physically disciplined. My parents did not believe in corporal punishment. Which I think from what I hear from my African friends is also kind of rare. I was never spanked. Neither was my brother. What we were encouraged to do was articulate our positions. What we were doing. If we wanted anything we had to do formal presentations. Stand up in front of our parents at dinnertime and articulate,” she says. You can hear a tinge of a British accent return. She is already shifting into her “Man From Nebraska” role.

And any parting words of advice for anyone about to embark on a creative career or path? “The producer on the film that I wrote and directed, Queen of Glory…always says to me, “There’s good, there’s cheap, and there’s fast. Pick two.” That’s my advice. If it’s good and cheap it’s not going to be fast. If it’s fast and good, it’s not gonna be cheap. You know. So it’s like that idea. If it’s cheap and fast, it’s not gonna be good.”

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