Episode 3 of the new FX on Hulu limited series, Mrs. America, is titled, “Shirley” and focuses on Representative Shirley Chisholm’s landmark run for President in 1972, the first woman from the Democratic party to do so and the first woman to appear in a United States presidential debate. Folded into the larger story of the fight for women’s rights and the ERA, Chisholm’s battle was for not only respect and recognition, but simply for a seat at the table, one that had been denied to both women and black people in America. Being a black woman had double the challenges, and yet Chisholm stood strong and became a towering figure in black and women’s history, the first black candidate to run for the candidacy of a major American party. Playing Chisholm was an honor and a personal challenge for Uzo Aduba, an actress best-known for her Emmy-winning role of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Aduba sat down for a virtual press conference and gave us some insight as to how deeply she was affected by playing Chisholm, what she hopes people get from the series and the moment she knew she wanted to go into acting.
This is such a great show and so important at this time. Obviously with today’s news, it looks like Joe Biden will be the nominee for the Democratic Party. He has already declared that he will choose a woman as a running mate, and the general feeling is he most likely will pick a black woman like Stacey Abrams or Kamala Harris. If this happens, that woman would most definitely be standing on Shirley Chisholm’s shoulders. Her story is so important to know now more than ever. How does it feel to bring her to life in this moment in history?
It feels remarkable, honestly. And it’s truly an honor. The names that you just listed are two women whose careers I’ve tracked. And I think you’re 100% correct in saying that they would be remiss to not acknowledge those who came before them, on whose shoulders they stand. Miss Shirley Chisholm’s being absolutely one of them. But not only women in politics, but I think she was such a trailblazer for all women because she stood for possibility. I like to take on a question normally when I’m trying to investigate a character, and the question that I had when I was examining her was, how does she define herself versus how the world defines her? And I think that was really what was able to unlock for me where her strength and power come from and how she was able to serve as a role model, not only for the women of her time, but also to create space for the women you just listed and certainly any woman that Joe Biden might choose.
Did it ever factor in, the fact that even 50 years later, what you were doing felt so relatable to a 2020 audience?
Well, yeah, I think that’s what’s powerful about the piece as a whole, really. When you look back at history, we often think we’ve made so much more progress than perhaps we may actually have made, especially when you have all the details and the particulars of a time being reflected back at you. When you look at her story and you hear some of the similar language that’s being echoed today, like the electability conversation. In some of those real news footage clips from back then, you hear sharp echoes of the same thing today and it makes you wonder, wow, how far down the road have we actually come? And I hope that these stories of all of these real-life figures might awaken some of those conversations that we thought we’d put to bed, but maybe really haven’t.
What kind of research did you do for the part and how did you maintain continuity over nine episodes and a series that spanned 10 years of time?
That’s an interesting question. I did a lot of research. I think Shirley Chisholm was the first hope candidate. Everything she stood for and spoke about was possibility. When I would listen to that and hear her, what became interesting for me was to find that strength that she obviously believed she possessed. This isn’t a woman who was running in 2016. This is a woman who was running just after the Civil Rights Act had been enacted, people had just marched in Selma about a decade before. This is someone who’s running four years after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The climate that she’s coming out of to hold space is one very different from the world we live in today. I was very interested in landing that understanding of self, that power, but also understanding that she carried a lot on her shoulders. I’m interested in finding a space of vulnerability—even if you are holding space powerfully and strong, there are some moments where you feel a little bit beaten.
I wanted to hold onto something from my Mom. My family is from Nigeria, and my whole life my Mom would say, “I never knew there was anything wrong with being black until I moved to America.” When I asked her why, she would say, “Because in my neighborhood growing up, the richest person was black, the poorest person was black, the president is black, the least educated person is black, your lawyer is black, your doctor is black, your teacher is black – it wasn’t until I came here. I’m now seeing that I’m limited. And I never thought of myself that way.” And that’s the key to it. It struck me because I realized, oh, she’s never thought of herself as limited. Despite the limitations of the world, she has never felt that she is incapable of doing anything she puts her mind and work and spirit to. So that was a guiding force.
And then in terms of continuity, I think that the anchor was that part of self I wanted to hold onto. Because where we’re walking into Shirley’s life – it’s a part of life that I haven’t yet lived. And I didn’t want to play up to that season of her life. I didn’t think that would feel real. I just wanted to live – just try, attempt to hold as much space and knowledge and maturity and experience throughout her journey that was true to her story throughout the series, as possible. And I think I let the continuity from that sort of — out of that — take care of itself, if that makes any sense.
How did it feel to wear those clothes which are so recognizable in history? And how did it help you sort of feel and get into your character?
Oh, it was amazing. [Costume Designer] Bina [Daigeler] was so brilliant, the whole crew was brilliant, from Anne Morgan, who did the wigs, to the entire hair and makeup team. I love Bina to the ground. She’s so detail-oriented. She’s so well-researched, so smart. I don’t even know where some of these places she would go to find these costumes, but I can still remember we did our first fitting here in New York and that’s when it suddenly just started to feel alive for me. Because Shirley and I do not dress the same. So, when you are seeing the prints and the fabric, and the unders that a lot of women had to wear at the time—Shirley was older, so she had a lot of carryover from the 50s. Bina was really passionate about maintaining that look. And it helps you to understand what it took— the amount of armor women had to walk out the door to start the day with. And Shirley is not wearing what Gloria might wear or what Brenda might wear. She’s coming from a different time. So, she had the girdle, she had the pantyhose, she had the slip, she had a particular bra, all these layers before you even put on your clothes. She had the wig, too. And it made me understand the weight of everything you have to carry as a woman. And I think that helps you to understand, oh, this isn’t just liberation from an economic and professional place. There were physical liberations that were happening as well, which were very powerful. And Bina helped to sort of layer that understanding through the costumes.
How do you feel the show portrayed the reality within the feminist movement in terms of Shirley Chisholm’s place in it?
I think they did a great job. I think it was honest, even if it meant being uncomfortable. The fact of the matter is, there was, and, at times remains, a blind spot when it comes to this point in history. There was a blind spot there for a lot of women in the movement. [Series creator and writer] Dahvi [Waller] did such a great job building into it with episode two, where Bria [Henderson]’s character is at Ms Magazine, and she’s talking about tokenism. She’s talking about how the idea of a person of color being in a work atmosphere and being held responsible for representing a single group. I remember reading that in the script and chuckling out loud, thinking, “oh wow, we’re doing that!” I’ve never heard that said out loud on television, but I’ve heard it said, and I thought that was really important and really powerful. And when it comes to Shirley, I know it sounds cliché to say, but if we don’t learn from our history – you know that expression – then we’re doomed to repeat it. And I think that by bringing it forward and portraying all of the women in the story, on both sides of the ERA debate, it hopefully reminds women in the fight today to consider all voices.
What was it like working with Amma Asante as your director on this episode?
Oh, awesome. It was awesome. It was wonderful because I’m pretty sure Amma might only be the second woman of color I’ve ever worked with in film and television. Not joking. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m not. It was wonderful also because our writer, Tanya [Barfield], also wrote the episode with black women. I want to make it super clear. I don’t mean to say I’ve had 900 experiences in a theater like that and two in film and television—it’s also very rare in theater. You may have that experience with one person, maybe just a director or just a writer, but to have the two women together was wonderful.
To have had that experience with Amma as director was wonderful because, like the story with my Mom, I didn’t have to wonder if she could relate to what I was saying. Not that I don’t think people who aren’t black are incapable of reaching that understanding. But I knew she herself knew inside of her own being what that experience felt like. So, there was that touchstone and shorthand already from minute one. I think also her own years of life experience walking into the storytelling and what was important for her to flag and see or be testing, was – it was enlightening and eye-opening. The little nuggets that she could sort of put into the space were helpful. I will also say just outside of this experience, but from maybe previous experiences, it was nice to come to work and see and not be the only one. This set was that way. And I really do want to applaud our producers, Stacey Sher and Coco Francini who really were passionate about having a fully inclusive set, from LGBTQ to race, to gender, to ability – all of it – a really truly intersectional environment. And that was wonderful to see such a cross section of people because it’s nice to feel like you’re not the only one.
As inspiring as Shirley was, she was also very underestimated even by her own friends and allies, which is also something that’s unfortunately very common for women and for women of color. So how do you think that affected her as a person and as a politician?
I can’t imagine that it had no effect. I know it had to hurt the most to feel doubted by those closest to you. These weren’t anti-ERA women who were in her ear saying, you can’t do this. These were women she built a caucus with who ultimately felt, when push came to shove, they couldn’t pull the trigger. Yet she’d already proven herself capable in being elected to Congress. And I think that’s why in that scene with her husband where she says, I don’t understand, why am I the only one who believes it’s possible for a black woman to be the President? I don’t want to speak for Miss Chisholm, but, having watched the documentary on her and, seeing at the end when she’s backstage and she’s conceding and giving up her delegates. That was another piece for me that I hung my hat on. She folds into her hands and it’s the first time you, for me, anyway, saw the crack and the weight of it all and the hurt of feeling let down and that sob she lets out. It had to hurt. And not hurt just because, oh, I wasn’t able to do it, but in a, you know, sort of “Et tu, Brute” kind of way.
My colleague was speaking to the wig designer on Mrs. America and she mentioned that unlike some other wigs on the show, Shirley’s wig is actually designed to look like a wig. And I know that you spoke a lot about how Shirley’s more traditional clothing choices have to do with her age at the time or her past experiences. Do you think that there’s something to the idea that as a black woman she has to work twice as hard to be presentable?
Absolutely. And I think there are two things there that I would add on. Number one, there was a piece of it that has to do with the era from which she’s coming out of. She’s coming out of a very, Diana Ross Supreme, early Motown styling, with that bouffant kind of hair. The second piece is how do you, at that time, in ’72, when we first meet Shirley, we’re moving into the Black Panther, Angela Davis’, Afro natural hair phase. She lived in this in-between where, how do you get to be radical and black? And the answer is not by wearing a full natural Afro because you’re supposed to still be thought of as a “professional woman” and have a well-kept look. That’s still a conversation that happens today. So, regarding the wig she’s wearing—it’s this cross section between, it’s big enough for it to be an Afro, but it’s smooth enough to be tolerated. And I don’t think that was by accident that she was wearing her hair that way. I think that was 100% intentional. I do think that her hair was political. I think it was to sort of live between both worlds, hopefully, of acceptance between the political world where she had to go work and be elected, but also her constituents who were rocking natural hair and it was loud and it was proud and it was big.
How much did you feel a responsibility to adhere to real history? Were you able to take creative license in your portrayal of Chisholm?
As far as a responsibility to history, there are some lines in the script that are actual quotes of Shirley Chisholm that I didn’t feel like could be fudged or toyed with. But I’d also try to find the way that she said it. Any time she was on television, for example, I felt that I could play with her voice and her speech pattern a bit, because she had a cheeky way of doing interviews. She always had way of looking at the camera, directly down the barrel, as if she was saying, “this is for you and me.” Those little touches were important to me. Her bags were a big thing, too, and the way she was always fixing her glasses and straightening herself. But I was mostly interested in capturing the strength and grace of Shirley Chisolm. Along with the vulnerability. This idea of the strong black woman never, never, ever hurting is a falsehood. To think that she never cries, never hurts, never breaks, is never wounded is wrong. I just tried to find moments where her heart was broken, whether that be by her fellow caucus women, whether that’s when she’s talking to Gloria. Whether that was when she’s talking to Conrad and her husband—just finding moments where the human being, the woman maybe we didn’t get to see on TV all the time, looks like. Shirley without the wig. I was interested in that woman.
How do you feel the show captured the different natures of relationships between the women, especially the conflicts?
My takeaway when I was reading the scripts was, women need to bet on themselves. Shirley has a line to Gloria where she says, real power concedes nothing. And if we don’t stop, we’ll always be asking the men for the few crumbs from the pie, because we can see the power – even if it was a grain of it – and still end up with nothing. I would rather hold my ground and my core belief and lose than make a choice for something that I halfway believe in and lose. And I think that, to me, was the greatest takeaway. I’m curious, had these women stuck it out and linked arms, unbudgingly, what would have actually happened?
This show will hopefully bring Shirley’s story to a new generation or even an audience that’s been around for a while who unfortunately haven’t heard much about Shirley’s social or political impact. What would you like people to get from her story?
I had read a book called The African-American Century a decade ago that had a section on her. A lot of the things we’re watching on the political landscape today, whether that’s universal health care, equal pay, decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, affordable education. These were things that were huge tentpoles in the Shirley Chisholm campaign. And again, I can’t say it enough. We’re not talking about somebody who was running in 2016 on that Democratic stage of 12 candidates. I’m talking about this woman running 50 plus years ago. Things that we call progressive today, she stood for then. She was a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community. I would like people to know that, because what sounds like new ideas now was just a starting point then. I think it’s also important to give credit where credit is due. We are not just seeing for the first time a woman run for President of the United States. We’re not just seeing for the first time a black person run for President of the United States. That started some years ago in our nation’s history. And I think it’s important to really recognize that, particularly for the time that she was doing it. That’s one.
Two, I would also say there’s sometimes a strange tradition to write out some pretty remarkable figures in this country’s history who don’t satisfy the traditional standard of how we’ve accounted for history – namely people of color and women. If I’m to read the story of history, it’s how Betsy Ross, Amelia Earhart and Florence Nightingale did something like never before. Occasionally, we add one more person, like Sojourner Truth. It’s like those are the only women who ever did anything. And I think there have been countless women – women of color – who have played a huge, huge part of the forward progression of this country. And I would like for her to hold the space that I believe she deserves because these names like Stacey Abrams or Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Geraldine Ferraro, all of these women—and Nancy Pelosi—all of these women, regardless of party, have a thank you to owe. They stand on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm.
You are so multi-talented and smart. Why did you choose acting?
I loved it. And I felt free. Still to this day, the most free I feel is in rehearsal. In the space inhabiting a character, I feel free. I feel loose. Performance feels like flying. Music’s the same. I don’t even have the words to fully articulate what I’m trying to say other than there is a freedom from the world of having to think, especially when you really know the material, when you’ve worked on it, you know, it backwards and forwards. You’ve sat in it, you know this person and how they think and feel through life. There is just a freedom there.
I thought I was going to be a lawyer, growing up. In fact, I thought I would live in DC, become a lawyer and work in government. Because I love — and this is why I love this part and this project to much — history and political science. And my Mom and Dad thought that I would be a good lawyer because I can talk a lot, which all of you on this call have probably already learned! [laughs] I wound up getting into the arts because my creative writing teacher in high school pulled me aside one day in class and asked me what I was going to do, where I was applying to school or thinking of applying the next year. She said, have you ever given any thought of going into the arts? And I said, not really. As a child of immigrant parents, we all thought acting was just a hobby, I just don’t think any of us ever considered it as a thing to do. Not because they were against it. It just was not a part of their upbringing and their vocabulary in that sense. And she said, you have a real passion for it, and you seem to be good at and I think this is something you might be able to do. I must have looked so blank and wildly surprised like she was speaking another language and all I remember is she said, you know, you can go to school for this, right? And I had absolutely no idea that you could. And then I do remember a light bulb going off at that exact moment and I knew that’s what I’m supposed to do. And that was really how it started. I just remember going home and scrapping all of the schools I thought I wanted to go to, and I started looking at schools that had strong performing arts colleges within them.
We’ve never seen a character like Suzanne [from Orange is the New Black] before. Was it hard to let her go?
Yes, it was. Getting the part was so exciting and scrolling back, I remember working on it in my apartment and thinking to myself, okay, this is how I hear it. I think she’s big, I think she’s quick. I feel like she conducts herself in this very intense way, whereas I feel Shirley is like a low flame in the stomach versus a fire in the eye that Suzanne has. I held on to that in my mind throughout the making of that show and it was hard to let it go. I’ll tell you, because, that was the longest I ever played a part in my life. And she had taught me a lot. She had given me a lot. And so, yes, I – it was hard to say goodbye. She had given me a lot artistically, but she had also given me a lot personally.
Did you speak to anyone who knew Shirley to prepare for the role or did anyone who knew her reach out to you after finding out you would be playing her?
No and no.
Is there anything you hope viewers will glean about her from the show, that they might not get from a textbook or a documentary.
That strong women have feelings, too.
The first three episodes of the nine-part limited series Mrs. America are currently streaming exclusively at FX on Hulu with subsequent episodes airing every Wednesday.