An African City: Meet Cast Member Nana Mensah
The new web series An African City follows five beautiful African women, raised in the west, who return home to search for love in a continent quite different from the Africa of their childhood. Described by some as an African take on television classic Sex and the City, the show traces how modern African women reconcile tradition with the rapidly changing social landscape of fast-paced Accra. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to actress Nana Mensah, who stars as Sade in the soon-to-be hit series, about the glitz and glamour (and the hard work) behind the show.
Watch episodes here!
Akinyi: This show seems to embody the idea of “Afropolitanism” that Taiye Selasi coined. Can you tell me a little bit about how your personal Afropolitan journey and how it lead you to the show?
Nana: My parents are both Ghanaian. I was born and raised in the American Northeast, where I spent my entire life until this fall. I went to boarding school in Connecticut with the creator of the TV series, Nicole Amarteifio, who is also Ghanaian-American and lived in Ghana. She had an idea about a TV show that would be somewhat similar to Sex and the City in that it would profile a group of women who live in the same city and are exploring their sexuality. At its core, it’s really about five women who are from all over the continent (some are East African, but most are Ghanaian or Nigerian) and who return to the continent, to Ghana, to begin again. Various reasons from career to love have lead them back to Accra after being born or raised abroad.
I really identified with that story because Nicole and I have a similar upbringing in that sense. Our parents are Ghanaian but we were born and raised on American soil, so we have always had a little bit of a complex because we don’t feel American because America has various ways of making people who look “other” feel not welcome. It’s easy in that sense to not feel totally American but then again your Twi might not be on point or you might have to get your jollof game up so you might not be entirely African as well. Nicole wanted to capture the experiences of these people. There was a mass exodus from West Africa to America and Europe in 1970s and 1980s and now, all of the sudden the children of former immigrants are looking to return home. This is a special time for the diaspora—there are opportunities beyond just going for vacation. You can go to make money, you can go to find love—the possibilities are endless these days.
Akinyi: What do you think makes the show unique?
Nana: It is unique by default because nothing else like it is happening. Americans have Girls and Sex and the City re-runs, which depict women going through experiences and growing and learning. But Sex and the City was highly aspirational. Of course we all want a closet full of Manolo Blahnik’s and Jimmy Choo’s but these things simply aren’t possible on a newspaper columnist’s salary. That kind of life isn’t financially feasible. I know people in PR, music, and law and I also know wealthy socialites—none of those women live the way that the women on Sex and the City did.
If you’re going to draw a comparison between An African City, Sex and the City, and Girls, I would say it’s far closer to Girls because it at least shows how things can be really hard—especially when you’re going back to a city with very little infrastructure—to get a job or even an apartment. In Accra, because of the growing numbers of corporations, it can be hard to find an apartment because those companies can pay a year’s rent up-front. If you’re a regular Joe Schmoe who wants to move to Ghana, you might have to cough up quite a bit of money just to move into an apartment. On the show, we talk about those things, but with a humorous twist.
The show is a convergence of worlds: Europe and America meets West Africa. You have these women who have these expectations of things that should be working infrastructure-wise, bureaucracy-wise, but that isn’t always the case. There’s an episode where one character is trying to get her car out of customs—that’s an adventure in and of itself. It’s lampooning life in Africa as we know it right now but also showing how wonderful and promising life there can also be.
Akinyi: Can you tell me a little about your character Sade?
Nana: The easiest way to describe her is fun and footloose. She’s very smart—a recent graduate from Harvard Business School. She’s starting up a hedge fund in Accra. This particular season doesn’t go too much into her work life but subsequent seasons will. She’s very in touch with her sexuality and very unashamed about it. If there’s any character that will be getting some flak from conservative West African audiences, it will definitely be Sade. She’s vivacious—a person who loves to eat, laugh, and love.
Akinyi: What was the initial reception when you released the trailer?
Nana: The response to the initial trailer was incendiary, to say the least. When it first went up on YouTube, the comments were scathing at best. We learned a lot, so the creators and producers went back and re-tooled some stuff. When we went to Ghana to shoot, we made nine episodes which will be released over the course of the next few weeks and there seems to be a great deal of excitement from people as we prepare to show off the finished product.
Akinyi: How did you catch the acting bug and break into the world of theatre?
Nana: I would say that I haven’t broken into it, I’m still breaking. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to New York to do a year-long conservatory program. After that, I just hit the pavement. I was extremely ambitious and relentless. I didn’t take no for an answer. At one point, a friend of mine was interning for a famous casting director. I remember asking her how I could get closer to the director because he didn’t want to audition me for a role although I had sent him my headshot and resume and I had taken classes with him. We sat on a park bench and shot ideas back and forth and she told me that he loved his dog. Then I thought, “well, I love my dog.” So I went and bought my dog’s favorite gourmet dog treats and I wrapped them up and went to his office and dropped them off with a note and a headshot. The note was addressed to the dog and said “please tell your dad to call me in for an audition.” And he called me that very same week and I booked my first off-Broadway job. That gives you an idea of how tenacious I am.