One cliché about actors — that their sense of identity can be slippery — doesn’t bother Chukwudi Iwuji. Having established himself in just a few years as one of New York’s most vibrant classical performers, Iwuji, 43, relishes his status as a product of many nations. Born to Nigerian parents who worked for the United Nations, he lived for a time in Ethiopia before attending boarding school in England. Iwuji studied economics at Yale University, but, lured by the siren stage, trained at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. A stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company put him on the map, and now he’s conquering local audiences, mainly through the Public Theater. This past spring he burned brightly in Bruce Norris’s The Low Road as John Blanke, an African slave adopted by an English aristocrat, stymied by proto-capitalists and nouveau riche boobs in Colonial America. Beginning May 29, Iwuji undertakes the titanic role of Othello for Shakespeare in the Park. So he has little time for musing about roots or belonging. Anyway, speaking to the Voice on Monday prior to the Obie awards, he was quite interested in matters sartorial. “I’m rather excited about this awesome double-breasted jacket that they’ve dressed me in,” he said. “It’s a very subtle checkered gray, nice weave. I just like my clothes. I really do.”
You’re rehearsing Othello for Central Park, your fifth job for the Public, and your second this year, after The Low Road. How did this relationship come about?
It started with Antony and Cleopatra in 2014. I was about to move from London to New York, and just before I left, the RSC mentioned this project, an English-American collaboration, their version of the Bridge Project. Then I got here, and the wonderful Heidi Griffiths brought me in. They were trying to find their Enobarbus. They made the offer and I thought, “This is a good way to start a relationship in maybe the single most important theater in the country.” They really took to my work, and I remember on opening night for Antony and Cleopatra, Oskar [Eustis, the Public’s artistic director] taking me aside and saying, “I just want to do big things with you.” That summer, they gave me Edgar in King Lear in the Park. It’s not just about giving you a job. It’s saying they invested in developing you as an artist. In that sense, I feel one of the luckiest actors in the city.
John Blanke in The Low Road seems like it was written for you.
I was in London when I got the email about it. In the middle of filming something. I just did Hedda Gabler and Obsession back-to-back with Ivo van Hove, and I’m like, “I just want to make some money for a while.” So I got home about midnight and thought, let me glance at the first, you know, twenty pages. I read it straight through to three in the morning. I’m finishing it up, laughing hard. I laughed so much, giggled, doubled back, underlined, penciled stuff.
What appealed to you about the script?
It’s a difficult thing to preach but make it not seem like preaching. What made me laugh is that when you can look at yourself and your society, and laugh and yet go, “I’m laughing, but we really need to deal with this” — those are the really great writers. Those are the great teachers. I’ve lived all over the world — in Ethiopia; Lesotho, South Africa — so I’ve lived in countries where there’s been deep oppression. I’ve known people from Russia who grew up during the Cold War under Stalin. When they talk about pain and tragedy, they say it laughing to each other. The tonic is humor.
While reading the script at three in the morning, were you flashing back to your days studying economics at Yale University?
Absolutely. I mean: Keynesian theory, Adam Smith’s invisible hand. You don’t have to be an economist to lean into those ways of thinking. Is it every man for himself, or are we actually born wanting to be good? Or are we born Machiavellian and society makes us behave? Which version is it? Then you throw in the need to make money — or not make money. What Bruce’s play brought to me is: This is the bedrock of the country. And not just America. Tectonic shifts in culture are all geared to economics. There’s nothing that’s purely moral or not. The abolition of slavery wasn’t a moral choice. It was the economics of it.
John Blanke was an African slave, then an English aristocrat’s heir, then a slave again in America. Who was he to you?
It’s interesting to have all these awards nominations for John Blanke. Not to take anything away from him, but I just understood him. He’s the outsider. I grew up in Nigeria. I’ve been an outsider my whole life. My parents worked for the U.N. We left Nigeria, and later Ethiopia, and then I’m one of a handful of black kids in boarding school in England. Then I was made head boy of my school in England. You know: first black head boy. Then I come to America, to Yale. The whole thing of being an outsider has always been part of my makeup. Of course, there’s a side of me that understands social inequality and the frustration of it, so I really didn’t have to think.
Every now and then you get a character that fits you like a well-tailored suit, and your job is to make sure you do justice to the argument within the piece. I never once consciously thought about how John would stand or where he would get emotional. It flowed through the writing.
If roles can be like tailored suits, how does it feel wearing Othello?
Othello’s been more about having to get the suit custom-made for you. Not slipping into it. I mean, there’s a history of Othello for me. It was the last show I played in Yale undergrad. I cannot remember what I did. It’s so weird because normally I remember every production. Then, fast-forward: I hadn’t been thinking about Othello. I won’t lie to you. When I did Henry VI at the RSC in 2006, everyone came up and said, “Now you’re ready to think about Othello.” I was like, “Actually, no, I want to do Hamlet and Macbeth.”
I was filming a BBC TV adaptation of King Lear in London with Richard Eyre, with Tony Hopkins as Lear. And Tony looked at me and went, “You must be ready for your Othello now.” I was like, “Ah…I was just thinking about it.” I’m at that age when you can have a dynamic Othello, where Othello doesn’t have to be that much older than Desdemona. He just has to feel like he’s in his prime. I started thinking about themes, because it is ultimately a love story, and I recently got engaged. I’m at a point in my career where I’m interested in exploring that guy. But it is the hardest role I’ve played. Hamlet will reach peaks of angst or despair, and he has these wonderful soliloquies to share with the audience, to literally ask for help. I realized that Othello, from Act III to the end, doesn’t have that release valve. I’ve never played a character that lives so entirely at such a pitch, in which you have to find the modulation. It’s really brutal, as a piece.
You talk positively about being an outsider. But I imagine the downside can be —
Yes, being vulnerable to prejudice or deception, like Othello. Is that feeding your sense of the character?
If you ask my siblings, they always thought I was a bit of a strange kid. I was always a bit of an outsider even living in Nigeria. I remember thinking, “God. No one understands me.” I’m lucky to say that I always embraced the fact that I was the other. I never felt it was a detriment to me at all. I like the fact that people wanted to know what it was like in Ethiopia. I like the fact that just because I went to an American school in Ethiopia for a couple of years before coming to England, the English thought I sounded slightly American. I love the fact that when I came to America, they thought I sounded really British. I’ve never had a problem with being the other because I’m a very functional introvert. I’ve always liked the escape route of being embraced as much as I want and being able to step aside, without feeling that I’m breaking any social norms.