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Yvonne Orji knows it’s hard to laugh right now. But ‘black joy is an act of defiance’

Yvonne Orji celebrates her Nigerian roots in her first stand-up special.
Yvonne Orji celebrates her Nigerian roots in her first stand-up special, HBO’s “Momma, I Made It!”
(Baffo / HBO)

Yvonne Orji didn’t intend for her first stand-up special to be so interactive.

Onstage at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. — which has the third-largest population of Nigerian immigrants among U.S. cities — she circled back to a bit about Nigerians’ distinct haggling strategy: being visibly insulted by outlandish prices. She repeatedly reenacted such shock — widening her eyes, dropping her jaw and placing her hand dramatically on her chest — and said, with great emphasis, “Me? A whole me?”

The phrase, which the audience was saying along with her by the end of her set, is “such a personal affront, like, ‘How dare you talk to me, the entirety of who I am, like that?’” Orji explained to The Times.

“Disrespect is probably the biggest insult you can give to a Nigerian, especially an elder Nigerian. I love how the crowd got so into it. That’s what comedy is supposed to be: rallying people together to actively participate in your joy.”

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“Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!,” premiering Saturday on HBO, encapsulates the entirety of who Orji is: a breakout star of “Insecure,” a seasoned stand-up comedian and a 36-year-old Nigerian American woman, who is in real life a far cry from her very sexually active character, Molly.

The special is airing during the fourth season of “Insecure,” which finds Molly’s close friendship with Issa (creator and star Issa Rae) seriously fractured.

“People have been extremely upset by Molly and some of her decisions this season, and I personally have been getting some of that heat on Twitter. And I’m like, ‘I come in peace, I mean no harm!’” said Orji with a laugh. “I hope this helps fans separate Yvonne, the person, from Molly, the character, and appreciate the different forms of storytelling I can do.”

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Orji, right, rose to fame on "Insecure," starring alongside Issa Rae.
Orji, right, rose to fame on “Insecure,” starring alongside Issa Rae.
(Merie W. Wallace / HBO)

Much of her special pokes fun at quirks of Nigerian culture and splices her stand-up set with footage of a visit to Nigeria in January. Wearing a “Nigerian Is the New Cool” T-shirt, she shows viewers around the city of Lagos as well as her hometown of Ihiala.

“To be able to take the cameras to this village, which is in a very rural part of Nigeria and doesn’t get a lot of international attention, was everything. Because for me, this is home,” she recalled. “It’s not flashy, but look at the vibrancy and richness of the people and the culture, our way of life.”

Each on-the-ground segment is designed to bring to life the material Orji describes onstage. Her opening jokes about bartering for goods are seconded by clips of a stroll through a Nigerian marketplace. Quips about prioritizing educational and professional success are followed by a casual chat with DJ Obi, tech pioneer Tosin Durotoye and comedian Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah about grappling with their parents’ high expectations.

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Jokes about Nigerians’ particularly vague navigation tactics are proved true with a “man on the street” segment in which Orji asks half a dozen locals for directions — with mixed results. “That was an experiment and completely off-the-cuff,” she said. “I’ve had the joke in my set and thought, ‘Well, let’s see if it’ll really happen,’ and it was literally the joke in front of me. It just showed, you can’t make this up!”

And whenever Orji jests about being unmarried, or scrapping her plans to pursue medicine and pivoting to comedy, she turns the cameras to her parents, who openly air their disappointment with their daughter’s decisions — lightheartedly, of course.

“A lot of times, we can use our parents as the backdrop to some of our jokes, but I wanted them to have their say, not just for them but for all the parents who don’t always get a chance to speak,” she said. “They were tickled by it, but they also were heartfelt in a lot of those moments.”

L.A. has always been key to Issa Rae’s “Insecure.” But now, with the city hunkered down amid the coronavirus outbreak, that love feels more vital than ever.

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Yvonne Orji performs stand-up comedy.
Orji, wearing a Laurence Basse outfit and Balenciaga boots, recorded her set at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
(Jessica Dao / HBO)

As funny as “Momma, I Made It!” is, Orji understands if some audiences, specifically black viewers in America, do not immediately tune in.

“If people are like, ‘We don’t have time for this, this is not the weekend,’ I completely get it,” she said, in reference to the ongoing protests against police brutality against black people. “I’m with everyone in this fight that we’re in to be seen as human beings.

“But in the midst of all the trauma and oppression and injustice, we still need a moment to take off the cape when we get home, because it’s exhausting,” she continued. “We need that moment of levity, because if not, you will just be in a constant state of rage. I hope to provide 65 minutes of healing through humor, of collective exhaling through laughter.”

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“Black joy is an act of defiance. I am here to be an archer of joy and happiness, and I will use my weapon.”

‘Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!’

Where: HBO
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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