Get “Familiar” With Ora Jones!

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Actress Ora Jones in the production of "Familiar" now playing at Steppenwolf Theater

Funny, fast-paced and filled with love, Familiar (written by Black Panther and The Walking Dead actress Danai Gurira) is a hilariously brilliant portrayal of a tight-knit family searching to preserve their past while building a new future.

It’s winter in Minnesota, and a Zimbabwean-American family is preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter. When an unexpected guest arrives and the bride surprises the family by insisting on a traditional African ceremony, pre-wedding stress explodes into a full-on family feud.

N’DIGO recently sat down with actress Ora Jones to learn more about the heavily buzzed-about production and what it’s like to finally work with long-time friends.

N’DIGO: What was it about this piece that drew you in when you first read the script?
Ora Jones:
Having grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from the Cape Verde Islands, growing up with that culture in the house, I always felt lucky to have that. And the chance to be with Jacqueline (Williams) and Cheryl (Lynn Bruce) together at long last, it was too much to resist.

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Cast members (from left): Jacqueline Williams, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and Ora Jones.

Keeping in mind how friends often become family, what’s it mean to take the stage with friends in a play about a close-knit family? Does that chemistry easily translate?
Great question! I would say that it’s a joy to be in a room with people you’ve known and loved for a long time, and the hope is that there will be that chemistry. However, you can’t count on it; and ultimately you are in the room to tell the stories of these particular characters. That’s the priority.

Do you remember your first impression upon meeting Cheryl Lynn and Jacqueline? 
Haha! I don’t know if I can reach that far back! I love their work, I love their sense of humor, and I have always felt blessed to have friends and colleagues like them.

What was that first day like when the three of you got together for this project?
Well, as far as the first day of rehearsal goes, it felt wonderful to walk in and see Jacqueline and Cheryl Lynn. There are so many questions that first day, and many of them were already answered by the presence of these two women. That’s not to say there was no journey to be had; it had been a long time since I’d worked with either, and this is the first time ever that the three of us are sharing a stage.

Familiar runs through January 13, 2019 at Steppenwolf Theatre, located at 1650 North Halsted, in the Downstairs Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit www.steppenwolf.org.

What do you want people to take away from Familiar after seeing it?
Of course we always want people to truly enjoy the experience, but I tend to steer away from telling people what they should think. One of the best things about any artistic endeavor is that every person who participates will have a different interpretation. I do hope that people come away feeling they’ve spent time with a real family, and that while it may not be completely representative of their own families, perhaps they will see glimpses of themselves here and there.

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Cast members (standing from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Jacqueline Williams and Ora Jones. (Seated from left) Celeste M. Cooper and Lanise Antoine Shelley.

As a Black woman in this industry, what are some of the unique challenges you’ve faced?
Well, I will say that when I first came to Chicago, I was told by everyone that I would never work here, either because I had brown skin, or because, as was said to me by several African Americans, “you’re not Black enough.” And there have been times when I got frustrated being cast as a woman of color who was always suffering, and always and only, because of her brown skin.

Having grown up as a military brat, learning about all sorts of people and cultures, it was like being stuck in a world built by other people’s ideas, and those ideas seemed tiny and myopic to me.

I will also say that I was lucky to come into this business at a time when theaters and unions were making a more concerted effort to bring diversity to the stage. I had opportunities to audition for anything and everything, and I did. It taught me that no matter what people wanted, I could show myself, and maybe surprise these people out of their preconceived ideas.

Do you see the fruits of some of the doors you’ve kicked down in the next generation of Black actresses?
I don’t think of myself as someone who has kicked down doors. If I did, I didn’t know it. Sometimes ignorance is helpful, haha! But it is wonderful to see so many women, from so many corners of the female experience, just out there having it, not just taking on roles, but creating their own content and definitions of who they are, how they see themselves, and putting their voices out there.

Best advice for those aspiring to make a mark in the world of theater?
I guess I would say, don’t think so much about making a mark. Think about what you’d like to see, to do; think about enjoying your life, your whole entire life. And no matter what the color of the face is that is telling you no, if you feel a yes inside you, go with that feeling.

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A scene from “Familiar” running at the Steppenwolf Theater through January 13, 2019.

Favorite quote or affirmation?
Life is not a matter of deciding what to do; it’s just a matter of deciding what to do first.

What’s next for Ora Jones?
My dreams are fluid; they change from day to day. I do see some sleeping in, in my future…haha!

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