For someone who is only 24 years old, Junior Nyong’o has already shouldered a remarkable range of roles: scholar, soccer player, political scion, international social media sensation, sibling to a superstar. (Yes, the Oscar-winning Lupita is his sister.) But when we met last month in Loch Haven Park, he was most excited to talk about his newest and proudest title, “working actor,” as he makes his professional stage debut this week by tackling the titular prince in Orlando Shakes’ new production of Hamlet.
Nyong’o’s journey to Central Florida’s arts community began in Nairobi, where he grew up as the son of professor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a former member of the Kenyan parliament and current governor of Kisumu County. An award-winning academic and democracy activist, the elder Nyong’o is also an ardent arts advocate who encouraged his children to pursue performing careers, having done some acting himself as a student. “He loves Shakespeare, he loves poetry, and so does my mom,” Nyong’o says. “They were always supportive of whatever venture I did. I had fleeting interests; one week I would love to play golf, the next week I’m not interested in golf anymore, now I wanted to join a choir or whatever. They fed that until I figured out where my heart took me. I’m very grateful for that.”
After graduating from high school in Kenya, Nyong’o attended Stetson University as a theater major and athlete. Why Central Florida out of all the world? Weather, for one. “I had experienced the New England winter, so I wasn’t particularly interested in that,” he says. “I got a scholarship for soccer … [and] I had family friends who were here, and so they took me in, kind of like my guardians.”
Nyong’o’s first experience with Orlando Shakes was as an acting intern during the 2017-2018 season, when he was seen in several productions, including Man of La Mancha and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Nyong’o’s initial encounter with the Bard proved eye-opening. “I didn’t really have any exposure to Shakespeare [or] any interest. We had a few lessons with Jim [Helsinger] and he completely opened my mind to the magic of the language. I also really love mathematics and physics, and I saw a scientific quality to the way Shakespeare works, which really piqued my interest.”
Beyond the intellectual appeal, Nyong’o was aurally enchanted. “I think before why I hadn’t taken an interest in Shakespeare was I had never heard it, I’d only read it,” he says. “I’m a musician myself as well, and I heard the music of Shakespeare completely. I was like, what have I been missing my whole life?”
Traditionally, the role of Hamlet goes to a more experienced actor, but Nyong’o isn’t allowing the challenge to intimidate him. “Very early on, when I was trying to prepare for the role by reading the text and breaking down the language, it dawned on me that when all is said and done, he’s a man just like I am, going through things that everyone can relate to: heartbreak, betrayal, loss, the yearning of a relationship,” he says. “It was important to me to recognize that as much as this is a mammoth role, if not the greatest piece of theater ever written, all in all [Hamlet] is just a man. … I need to approach him with a kind of respect, but not reverence; that only does you a disservice.”
Nyong’o is the only person of color in Hamlet’s royal family; his mother Gertrude (Paige Lindsey White), uncle Claudius (Gene Gillette) and ghostly father (Kenny Babel) are all portrayed by white performers. Nyong’o leaves the significance of that artistic choice up to the audiences’ interpretation, while saying that race is “not at the core of the story we’re telling.” But he does concede that he cuts “a striking image,” dressed all in black, as “the only black person on the stage.”
Still, snapshots of Junior in period garb are unlikely to grab as much attention as the Instagram of him wearing an Elizabethan gown, standing on the set of Shakes’ Twelfth Night with his sister Lupita, which went viral last March. While Nyong’o didn’t share with me any acting advice from his sibling (“her career is her career, and my career is mine”), he is expecting her to visit Orlando again to see him perform.
Before ending our interview and heading into rehearsal, Nyong’o was eager to emphasize how relevant this four-century-old tragedy still is. “Hamlet is an investigator of truth amidst so many lies,” he says. “I’m not saying we should all go and kill our uncle, but seeing someone so dedicated to finding out the truth is an important lesson to learn in our world of ‘fake news.'”