Sophie Okonedo wins a Tony Award for “Raisin in the Sun”
“I’m a North London, working-class, black, Jewish girl,” actress Sophie Okonedo said. “I love my upbringing because it had so many different colors; it’s given me the equipment to play lots of diverse roles.”
Okonedo was raised by her Ashkenazi mother and Yiddish-speaking grandparents after her father, a Nigerian civil servant, abandoned the family when Sophie was 5. She was the only black congregant at the liberal synagogue she attended with her grandparents. She spent her formative years in a dangerous housing project, notorious for drugs and criminal violence.
Eventually her mother Joan, a hairdresser and Pilates instructor, was able to afford a flat above a fish and chips shop. Joan infused young Sophie with the sense that she could accomplish anything, and her grandparents, who had been born to Russian and Polish immigrants in London’s East End (England’s equivalent of the Lower East Side), remained central figures in her life, regaling her with stories of her great-great-grandfather and other forbears depicted in old photographs.
“My grandparents kept a fairly Jewish household,” Okonedo said. “They celebrated all the holidays, and they spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand the conversation. “But culturally I’m still very Jewish,” Okonedo said. “It’s all in my blood.”
Though she dropped out of school when she was 16, her mother encouraged her to audition for and then attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She began working in British television series The Governor and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. Amongst Doctor Who fans, she is better known as Liz 10, but she is best known in America for her Oscar-nominated role in the film Hotel Rwanda in 2004. She also acted with Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) in Dirty Pretty Things in 2002. In A Raisin in the Sun, she plays Denzel Washington’s wife Ruth Younger.
In her Tony acceptance speech, she thanked the play's producer Scott Rudin, “who brought me over here, and had the vision that a Jewish, Nigerian Brit could come over the pond and play one of America's most iconic parts.”
Her next role is alongside actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the next series of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s Shakespeare adaptations, where she will play Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry VI, to Cumberbatch‘s evil Richard III.
On her heritage, Okonedo says, "I feel as proud to be Jewish as I feel to be black" and calls her daughter an "Irish, Nigerian Jew."
Sources: “Sophie Okonedo,” Tardis Wiki; “Jewish Actress Sophie Okonedo Explores Biracial Identity,” Jewish Journal.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Sophie Okonedo wins a Tony Award for “Raisin in the Sun”." (Viewed on December 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/08/2014/this-week-in-history-sophie-okonedo-wins-tony-award-for-raisin-in-sun>.