New York based Ghanaian actress MaameYaa Boafo was in Accra a couple of months ago during the shooting of the web series, An African City. Mantse Aryeequaye took MaameYaa on a walk through the back roads of Dzorwulu, a suburb of Accra, for some photos capturing that “fly Ghana girl back home” vibe. Nana Osei Kwadwo chatted with her later on about An African City.
The first time I saw MaameYaa Boafo in Nicole Amarteifio’s An African City, I thought she was beautiful, fierce and versatile. She stars as one of five women characters, in the webisode, that returns to live in Accra after years of studying and working abroad. Debuting less than a couple months ago, the series has quickly gained a popular online following with major media shout-outs hailing via Ebony Magazine, BBC News, BET and NPR.
With comparisons being made to Sex in the City, the webisode is growing its audience by the day and captivating folks with African fashion, fly natural hairstyles and “awkward African girl” situations as the women support one another in acclimating to life in Ghana again.
MaameYaa has lived most of her life traveling around the globe but currently calls New York City home. She’s now working on a new project with renowned African American novelist and playwright, Walter Mosley, as well as a few new films.
Curious to know more about MaameYaa, I caught up with her recently to chat about acting, what it means to be Ghanaian, and her role in An African City.
A.D.A : How did you get into acting? Are you involved in any other form of art apart from acting?
MaameYaa: You know how in primary school you have to be in the school play? Well, that was me in kindergarten. I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world because I got to have one line as a sheep in our class production of Gingerbread Man. I also sang for a couple years until high school when I decided to focus on acting and also try out for the soccer team.
Can you believe I was goalie!? Chale, that’s why we lost a lot of our games but when I did catch the ball, those bruises on me sure looked like art. Does that count?
A.D.A : How does your Ghanaian background influence your acting?
MaameYaa: I have a very animated father who when I was a child was the best bedtime storyteller – I must say that hearing him do Kwaku Ananse played a part in that somehow.
A.D.A : Tell us what life is like in New York.
MaameYaa: This is my third year living in New York. What is that life like? It’s magical at times especially in the spring and fall. Everything is here – all sorts of exposure to different worlds and culture. There is no excuse for ignorance here. It’s also a tiny world in New York because everyone comes through here and it’s nice recognizing people or seeing classmates from years ago in the streets and on the subway. The subways, however, are not so magical.
A.D.A : What’s your favorite food? Favorite chill spot in Ghana?
MaameYaa: Kenkey with some grilled fish or crispy “one man thousand” [fingerlings] and lots of shito from this spot in my hometown in North Suntreso, Kumasi. However, I recently discovered the calamari at Republic [Bar + Grill in Osu] and I might just start eating that with kenkey as well, so it’s a win-win situation.
My favorite spot to chill is my Grandma Helena’s front porch in Dzorwulu.
A.D.A : What’s a cherished childhood memory about Ghana?
MaameYaa: Getting spoiled by my grandparents. One of my grandmothers owned a store that sells cloth and she’d always let me pick which one I wanted to get a dress made.
A.D.A : How did you the role in An African City come about?
MaameYaa: I saw the posting a few years ago on an actors’ group page on Facebook and thought, why not audition. I actually couldn’t stay long for the audition because I had a train to catch out of town, so Nicole was kind enough to allow me to send her taped audition.
A.D.A : You’ve lived most of your life abroad. How did that affect your portrayal of a returnee living in Ghana?
MaameYaa: I am Ghanaian. The character of Nana Yaa is “a different kind of Ghanaian, that’s all” and so am I. I was born in Pakistan and raised in Sudan, Ethiopia, Switzerland and Kenya. I came to the States for college then continued my studies into graduate school. Unlike Nana Yaa, I can and do speak Twi.
My parents only spoke to us in Twi when we were in the house. I’ve been told that I speak in a funny accent, so in that aspect I can definitely relate to Nana Yaa. Quite often I’m told that I don’t look Ghanaian just like Nana Yaa – I’m not sure why that is since I have the momapo [big forehead] to prove it. I didn’t grow up in Ghana even though Ghana is the only citizenship I have. It definitely has its challenges but nonetheless I’m proud to be an Ashanti girl and just like Nana Yaa, I continue to embrace my heritage. In episode 8, you see her with a Twi book and she starts taking classes!
A.D.A : Who’s on your top African designer list, especially since the clothes on the show are so fierce?
MaameYaa: Gosh all of them! I loved wearing all the designs on set. Each piece is a different personality. I love representing anything that has to do with my country – so proud to see these designers representing Ghana. I would also love to wear anything by Washington Roberts of Nigeria or Taibo Bacar of Angola.
A.D.A : What do you think about the reception of the show so far and comparisons to Sex in the City?
MaamYaa: The reception has overall been positive. People love the fashion, of course, and the topics that we talk about. The main complaint is that the series is too short but I like the fact that it leaves people wanting more. I believe Nicole Amarteifio [the show’s creator, executive producer and writer] achieved her goal but introducing the world to An African City. Now things will go into more depth – if we have a season 2 – which would also mean it would be longer than fifteen minutes.
Being compared to Sex and the City is only a thin layer. Yes we are businesswomen living in a metropolitan world. But the five of us are new to this city, and we are readjusting to culture shocks, traditions, finding our identity in that, learning about the double standards and what dating African men is like. Once you get to know the five of us, you see that we are our own brand.
A.D.A : Some critics of An African City say the series is not a true representation of Ghanaian life. Do you think the show represents the reality of most Ghanaians?
MaameYaa: An African City is about the chronicles of being a returnee and every returnee has a different experience that rings true to their circumstance. It’s not supposed to represent a large population of Ghanaians – that doesn’t even make sense because the five of us are learning about the culture as we settle.
As you can see, the main characters gather together to seek comfort, advice and share their baffled moments of what life is like being in your country of origin even though you didn’t live there. The thing that Nana Yaa, Sade, Zainab, Ngozi and Makena all have in common is that they CHOSE to come and make a life for themselves back home. The five of us are rediscovering the culture of Ghana and as our days turn into weeks and our weeks into months, we discover more about it.
Be patient ooh, this is only season 1! I think the reason why this show is so successful is because other returnees, not just Ghanaian returnees, can relate to our struggles and achievements. The characters are discovering Ghanaian culture, taboos and all, and that takes time.
A.D.A : How has being involved in An African City shaped how you perceive the film industry in Ghana and Africa?
MaameYaa: An African City is groundbreaking. As some of the reviews have noted, it was my first time working home on a set and our crew team was so passionate, enthusiastic and professional. Making a film is making a film. The collaboration becomes beautiful when people who believe in what they do surround you. I believe the industry is international despite what people say about the African films. That hasn’t been my experience and even if it was, I wouldn’t let that deter me from doing my job as an actress and bringing the truth of my character to the story.
A.D.A : What are your thoughts on the webisode genre vs. TV or film? Is it the wave of the future?
MaameYaa: I think webisodes are smart mediums because it’s a new and exciting territory that is definitely a new wave and catching on very quickly. Since everything is becoming digital, it’s more accessible.
A.D.A : You’re working on a project with Walter Mosley. Tell us about that.
MaameYaa: I’m met Walter Mosley at my callback audition for his new play Lift. He was sitting there with the producers, director and the casting director. He’s such a cool cat with the best sense of humor. During rehearsals he would commute to New Jersey from New York just to see us and then he’d take the cast out to dinner and just share things about his life and all his adventures. This is a world premiere play so the fact that we get to originate these roles is pretty cool. We could just call him up and ask questions about our characters.
Our show is currently running at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. It’s about two strangers who get stuck in an elevator and it’s a nonstop ride, which happens for the next two hours. The response from the audience is really great. It’s been a blessing to be a part of this cast.
A.D.A : What are your long-term goals as an African actress in the States?
MaameYaa: To acquaint people to the idea of who Africans are. It baffles me to this day when someone says I speak English really well for an African, or ask if I came on a boat to college. When I was in graduate school studying acting, people couldn’t understand why as an African I wasn’t in Law School, Med School or studying Economics. I had an unconventional upbringing according to the opinions of others. If being an African actor is unconventional, then God help us.
I want to contribute to the world with what I know, what I went to school for, what makes me, me. As an African actor, my job is to be truthful in whatever circumstances my character is in whether she is African or not. My goal is to be a universal actor.
A.D.A : What other projects do you have coming up?
MaameYaa: I’m set to shoot a few films this year so stay tuned! And a few films that I shot are being screened soon. A short that I did called When It All Falls Down screens the day after Lift closes. I also currently play Cassie in another web series called Thru25 – A comedy about how a group of friends deal with life after the death of our mutual friend. And of course, we are also waiting for the announcement of season two of An African City.