Why you should care
Because the Tony Awards are the antidote to the lily-white Oscars.
When your high school has produced the likes of Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, Saturday Night Live stalwart Kenan Thompson and Grammy-winning songsmith turned Real Housewives of Atlanta franchise sweetheart Kandi Burruss, expectations are high.
“Everybody was beasting,” says 38-year-old Saycon Sengbloh of Tri-States, the legendary East Point, Georgia learning institution. Count her among them, not least for her performance in Eclipsed, the Broadway stage drama set in civil war–torn Liberia. No matter that she didn’t snatch the Tony on Sunday — the theater community has taken notice of Sengbloh’s intoxicating pull. She knows how to embody her character but also makes sure she has the audience with her all the way,” glows Jesse Green, theater critic at New York Magazine. Sengbloh acts alongside Oscar-winning superstar and fellow Tony nominee Lupita Nyong’o — and while much of the buzz has centered, inevitably, around her more famous costar, Sengbloh herself more than earns the audience’s attention as Helena, a no-nonsense den mother struggling to make life bearable in a horrifying Liberian compound for her and her husband’s three other abducted wives.
There hasn’t been much art about Liberia, the small country of some 4.5 million led by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (and from where Sengbloh’s late father hailed). But the country was torn apart by civil war twice in the past two decades — in the 1990s and then again at the turn of the century. Eclipsed takes place in 2003, two years before Sirleaf became Africa’s first female president. In the same year in which Hamilton has thoroughly dominated the box office and cultural zeitgeist, Broadway — highlighted by such standouts as the aforementioned Eclipsed, Shuffle Along, Get on Your Feet! and a revitalized The Color Purple — has become fertile ground for unapologetic diversity. Of this year’s 40 acting Tony nominations, an impressive 14 went to Black, Asian-American and Hispanic talents. And for the first time in its storied history, four people of color picked up Tony’s in the hotly-contested musical acting award categories. Hollywood, please take note.
How often does one see a cast heavy on strong Black women?
Before the gregarious, honey-brown bombshell earned this season’s rave reviews, she was trapped in backup purgatory as a standby for Toni Braxton, Deborah Cox and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams. She broke through, eventually, as the first African-American Elphaba, the misunderstood green-skinned witch in blockbuster Wicked. There were other plum roles: the original Atlanta run of The Color Purple, the Tony-winning Fela!, Motown: The Musical and Marley. (In the latter, Sengbloh played the reggae legend’s two-fisted wife, Rita Marley.)Eclipsed director Liesl Tommy says she “absolutely blew us away.… She was specific, grounded and heartbreaking. She just got to the heart of the character.”
She wasn’t an obvious choice: Her heavy songbook background might have made her seem better fit for lighter fare. But Sengbloh wanted the career-shifting role. Indeed, it’s perhaps an industry-shifting play: How often does one see a cast heavy on strong Black women? “It’s really an ensemble piece. We all have great, juicy roles in this play.” Of course, there is one star more conspicuous than them all. “Lupita could have chosen any other vehicle,” Sengbloh says. (OZY reached out to Nyong’o, who was unavailable for comment.) Sengbloh says she is still emotionally shaken up after diving headfirst into the civil war of a fractured African nation where gun-toting child soldiers, female rape, mass murder and political upheaval were an everyday occurrence.
“Doing the research for Eclipsed and learning the history of Liberia was very painful,” Sengbloh admits. “It was heartbreaking to see the lives of these young men and young women who basically didn’t get a chance to have a childhood. However, my character couldn’t sit around constantly feeling sorry for herself. She’s more concerned with what will we eat today than the sadness of the war.” (There are moments of levity, like incongruous references to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.)
And the show isn’t perfect. “When I first saw Eclipsed, I felt particularly in the second act, the characters stopped being human so much as sign posts for an argument that the playwright, Danai Gurira, was making about the lives of women during war,” Green recalls. “But the production got deeper.”
Sengbloh is an unabashed stage nerd. Born and raised in Atlanta, “I never felt like [my parents] wanted me to choose something else,” a grateful Sengbloh adds. “I know a lot of African parents want their kids to have traditional jobs. So I’m really thankful that I was able to have that level of support even after my parents split up.” Sengbloh attended the women’s liberal arts school Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, where she studied music and Spanish. By the time she landed a role in Tyler Perry’s I Know I’ve Been Changed, it was a wrap. She left college during her junior year to go all in on the acting front. Her big break came when she scored the coveted role of Mimi in the national tour of Rent. Never mind that the part was usually reserved for a Latina or biracial actress.
Sengbloh thrives working outside the box. While fans are hailing the actress for her stunning work in Eclipsed, Sengbloh is already on to the next. She just finished shooting the Ernest Dickerson–directed Caribbean-based film Double Play, due out early next year. “It’s set in Curacao,” Sengbloh describes excitedly. “I play Nora, who is very popular. She’s an island MILF from the ’70s. I can’t wait for people to see me play that character!” From that appellation, we can’t either.