Awards Daily’s talks to two-time Emmy award winner Uzo Aduba about filling the space as Shirley Chisholm on FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America.
When you look at Uzo Aduba, you don’t immediately see Shirley Chisholm. For one thing, Uzo Aduba is 5’7″ and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to United States Congress and later to run for president, was known for being shorter in build.
“She was a tiny woman,” said Aduba. “Big wigs. She wore these loud clothes. [It made you think] Why did she dress like that? Then you realize she has to have big hair, she has to wear these clothes, because if she doesn’t, she’s going to be invisible.”
Much of Aduba’s performance on FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America is about how Shirley manages this attempt to be seen, and while Shirley doesn’t become the first Black female president, the series has arrived at a time when her work has come through in real life in the form of a recent vice presidential candidate.
“It feels like a promise kept,” said Aduba. “You realize that another generation has been inspired, impacted, regardless of your race, regardless of your gender—you have been sparked by possibility, because you can see it.”
Crazy Eyes Versus Shirley
This is the first major TV role for Uzo Aduba since her breakout performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and while they are vastly different characters (one being real and one being “imagination,” as Aduba says), they do have some things in common.
“One was called ‘Crazy Eyes’ and the other was thought to be crazy,” said Aduba. “But I think these are two characters that are bold and unafraid to be themselves. From a performance aspect though, Suzanne is a broader character, and Shirley is more contained. She knows how to contain and control her power, whereas Suzanne does not.”
With Shirley, Aduba had to adjust her technique acting-wise to make this character targeted and more focused in her delivery, to demonstrate her quiet strength. She made it her goal to get to the root of the character without doing an impression of something she could find on YouTube and watched the documentary Unbought & Unbossed, which included a moment that would prove to be crucial to centering her performance.
“The part that I had never seen about her, was the end when she was releasing her delegates, and she just collapses into her hands and starts sobbing. And that was what I was most intrigued by, in terms of storytelling. You can almost feel the weight of everything she’s been shouldering, for goodness knows how long. It wasn’t just about a cry for releasing her delegates; it was so much bigger. The work for me was balancing the woman we’ve come to know publicly but knowing that there’s a whole person that we have not seen the closed-door side of, except for that one moment at the end of that doc. That’s the story I wanted to tell. That’s what I was interested in.”
Isolation and Intersectionality
One of the things that’s striking about Aduba’s performance is that she breezes in and out of the episodes, but still makes an impact. Often, each time we see her, with time that has passed, she looks a little more worn down by the political world.
“You see more and more of the blindspotting that she’s constantly being confronted with, from both the Black Caucus and the Women’s Caucus, which we’re obviously more focused on in this project, to intersectionality. The lack of belief from the Black Caucus in her because she’s a woman, and lack of belief from the Women’s Caucus in her because she was a Black woman. You start to see that erode from under her, and I think that’s really what helps you start to understand the weight of what she’s doing. It’s not ever called out specifically until you have that scene with her and Bella (Margot Martindale), Betty (Tracy Ullman), and Gloria (Rose Byrne). You get to feel what she’s up against, that undefinable cloud that has hovered over her.”
It’s a scary time to run for president as a black woman now (just look at what people tweet), but given the context of the time when Shirley first ran for Congress—Martin Luther King, Jr. was recently assassinated, Malcolm X was also assassinated, Jim Crow laws—it was even more of a dangerous territory back then.
“You start to understand the mettle and the ideas she had for herself, and those do not in any way, shape, or form align with the limited ideas that the world allowed her and attempted to shape for her.”
In many of the Shirley scenes in the series, she’s by herself, which also just goes to show the isolation she felt.
“You feel that otherness. She’s in the group, but not right in the group. Even when she made her announcement for the presidency, I’m paraphrasing, she said she wasn’t the candidate for Black America, even though she said she was black and proud. And then she said she wasn’t the candidate for Women’s Rights, although she was that, too. She said she was running for all of America. Where does she exist? And we feel that isolation that she’s not quite part of either group.”
“Ahead of Her Time”
With politics reaching its climax this year with the presidential election and the excitement around Kamala Harris being the first Black woman on a major presidential party ticket, Shirley’s name and reputation have been brought up again.
“In this season we’ve been in, from 2016 up until now, hearing some of the platforms from various candidates, a lot of these platforms she held back then in the ’70s. Education for young people, the LGBT community, Head Start—things she was piloting are pretty much talking points these days in politics. She was just ahead of her time. If there’s anything I could say categorically about Shirley Chisholm, it would be that she was ahead of her time.”
All episodes of Mrs. America are streaming on Hulu.