Following is the full transcript of actress MaameYaa Boafo’s TEDx Talk: Being the Real Me Without Apology at TEDxAccra conference. This event occurred on April 11, 2015. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.
So, once upon a time there was a little African girl who traveled the seas. She lived all over the world: she saw the statues; she saw the sculptures; learned different languages and knew all about cultures. But no matter where she would go, how near or far, there was always one thing that remained in her heart: to be a storyteller on stage and on screen; to be an actor. Yes! This was her dream, to entertain and educate. How hard could it be as Joan of Arc, a spy named Kate. Oh, the possibilities! But, little did she know that for this career, she’d have to do a lot of work to overcome her fears.
She’d have to grow a layer of skin so thick that she would not break her heart, and later recognize that she was set apart. “You’re not that tall, and you’re not slim. Now about your hair, and that skin,” were often things that she would hear in subtle ways, year after year.
So what’s this little girl to do? What will she do to make it through? How can she turn frowns into nods? How does one go and beat the odds? For what she’s longed and dreamed to be was seen as an anomaly. Well, clearly this is not a fairy tale. My name is MaameYaa Boafo and I am an actor. Honestly, it hasn’t been that long ago since I started introducing myself as one.
Being an artist from an African upbringing you know how it goes when you approach family to say you want to pursue this. For me, some of the responses I would get were, “Oh, okay. Umm, so what are you really studying in school, though? We hear about the acting, but what is your real degree?” Or I would get, “Oh! MaameYaa! Eh? Naa de! How? Why? Are you trying to tell me that you went to America to study acting, theater?! Oh oh, eh?! Uh, lawyer, doctor. This is hobby hobby!”
So, needless to say, I would then respond with, “Well, I have a degree in journalism and I know French.”
My upbringing, most of my childhood was spent in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We came right after the Civil War and we went to a little American missionary school called Bingham Academy. So I was exposed to American culture for the first time. And I was mesmerized by all these movies that we would see, and our teachers were American, and they had all the stuff, and I was just so enthralled by it. There was one TV channel in Addis, and they would show some American TV shows. So, a different world! I was like, “Wow! What would it be like to be a student at Hillman College? How fun it would be to have ice-cream and sing with your friends like on ‘Kids Inc.’?”
But my favorite thing to do at school was — well except for, you know, studying because I was a hardworking student — I liked the library. And I was introduced to all these books. My favorite was “The Baby-Sitters Club“. I loved “The Baby-Sitter’s Club”, it was like my Bible. I loved it so much… Yes! Okay, you know what I’m talking about. I loved it so much I created a song about all the characters for a book report. I was the only one who wrote a song. I stood there and sang in front of my classmates, I felt so comfortable and I was like, “This is what I want to do!” So I was always excited about class plays that would come up. But I never got any of the parts I desired. Kindergarten, “Gingerbread Man”. I wanted to be the Gingerbread Man. I got the role of Sheep Number 2. “Baaaa,” that was my line. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. I wanted to be Joseph. I didn’t care if it was for a guy or a girl. I was a guy, I played one of the brothers and this was my line: “Now what do we do?”
Fifth grade was “Queen Esther”. Now, it’s a play on a historical, Biblical character, this beautiful queen who saved her people, had God’s favor on her. I got the narrator. I was at the beginning, the end and in the middle to say, “What happens next.” Well, what happened next was this pattern all throughout high school. But I still had this desire in my heart. So much so, even though the odds were against me, but I didn’t have the guts to approach my parents and tell them I wanted to study acting for college. It didn’t even make sense based on my reality.
So, I went to a liberal art school called Hood College. I studied broadcast journalism in French, there was no theater there. But I still had this desire in my heart, I was like, “I will take it upon myself to learn as much as I can.” I’m in the States and I have all these resources where I can watch films that I had heard about, that are now at the library. I went to community theater and watched those plays, I read books, I read plays. There was a Shakespeare company where I volunteered, and they gave me my first professional role. Now, my character came at the end of the play, but I had a whole monologue as the courtesan in “Comedy of Errors”. And I learned so much by watching the professional actors that were on stage and took all in, and I was like, “If I’m going to do postgraduate studies, it has to be acting.”