Nana Mensah wants to conquer every aspect of the entertainment industry, and she’s already on a roll. The Ghanaian-American writer, director, producer, and actress is known for her performances in plays like Nollywood Dreams and The Man From Nebraska. She has also been flexing her talents behind the scenes in the writer’s rooms for shows like HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness, Amazon’s The Power, and Netflix’s The Bonding. However, her directorial debut, Queen of Glory, and a new Netflix series, The Chair, where she stars opposite Sandra Oh, have pushed her center stage in ways that she never expected.
Mensah wrote, starred in, and directed Queen of Glory, chronicling one woman’s journey to take charge of her life following her mother’s death. Set in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of The Bronx, Mensah’s character Sarah tries to wade through the messiness of her personal life as she prepares to bury her mother. The movie was a journey that Mensah never expected to embark on.
“My parents are Ghanaian immigrants,” Mensah told ESSENCE when reflecting on the idea that sparked Queen of Glory. “I wanted to tell a story that had that first-generation African immigrant pastiche, but it wasn’t about sorrow. And even though there’s a death at the center of the film, it’s not this very heavy, downtrodden story. These are just middle-class immigrants working through it. If there are ever African immigrants in a story, they’re always refugees, and it’s very fraught. I was going for a little bit of the normcore kind of thing of just letting African people be on camera and see what happens.”
It was vital to Mensah that her narrative centered on a Black woman who stood at the axis of Black American and Ghanian culture. Understanding and putting those nuances on screen is still almost unheard of. “My brother did not have my experience,” she explained. “The patriarchy is alive and well, and Black men and Black African men are not having the same experience that we are having as African women, as Black women, especially as dark-skinned Black women. I wanted to show how we live at this intersection of so much, including our familial expectations. We’re over here having to perform and do everything and nail it and stick the landing. Meanwhile, these men are out here getting a pass. I felt like I needed to tell the story from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen my friends experience.”
While writing Queen of Glory, The University of Pennsylvania graduate, never expected to sit in the director’s chair. However, Mensah quickly learned that she needed to take the reins or lose the opportunity altogether. “I only intended to write it and maybe act in it if Lupita [Nyong’o] said no,” she laughed. “But then, because of finances, it ended up being the best way forward. My producers Jamund Washington and Kelley Robins Hicks sat me down, and they were like, ‘Look, you being writer, director, and the star will help the film ultimately. And don’t worry, we’ll be here to support you.’ They were amazing; it was like I had cloned myself. It was really all hands on deck.”
Queen of Glory was shot in just 30 days, mostly on location at Mensah’s aunt’s Christian bookstore in The Bronx. This past June, the film won The Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best New Narrative Director and a Special Jury Prize for Artistic Expression. Shooting the film and earning such praise was nothing that the An African City star could have foreseen. “It’s thrilling, and it’s beyond my wildest expectations,” she said. “I did not see this coming at all. You toil away in obscurity, and then all of a sudden, you opened it up. It’s been unreal.”
Magnolia Pictures has picked up the rights to Queen Of Glory for distribution, and Mensah is already stepping into her next role. This time in Netflix’s The Chair. In the new dramedy, Mensah portrays Ivy League University academic Yasmin “Yaz” McKay, a popular, progressive English professor trying to transform the archaic department with her colleague, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman to chair the department.
“I did my undergrad in the Ivy League, so I know what that was like,” Mensah said. “I’m not an academic, but I have friends who are, and it’s tough, and it’s cutthroat. Everyone I know in academia is a little bit nuts, so it’s a perfect breeding ground for drama and comedy. I really liked the idea of Yaz. I love that she’s an academic superstar. I know that we’ve come so far, even in just the past couple of years, in terms of the appetite that people have to see dark-skinned women playing certain roles. But we’ve still got some ways to go.
“In some of my writing meetings, when I’m working on projects, a lot of times, they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, well, this character can be Black.’ But then, if it’s a Black woman, they are almost always biracial or very light skin,” she added. “Now, we’ve entered a new nuance of the conversation of light privilege and what that is —especially for women. I think a lot of times, dark-skinned women don’t get a lot of love.”
Mensah has also been sitting on a $100 million budget passion project for years. The film is set in the 1940s in Ghana. “I need to bring that back,” she laughed. “I need to dust off that script. I’m sure it’s terrible because I wrote it ages ago. I will say it’s loosely based on my grandparents’ life story. My grandfather was a political revolutionary, and he was out here orchestrating bombings and killings of British colonizers and stuff like that. So it’s a big sweeping drama.”
Amid the debut of The Chair and the recognition that Queen of Glory is receiving, Mensah is enjoying her creative freedom. “I want to do everything,” she said. “Obviously, we are still in a pandemic, and that has curbed our ability to gather. Even though I have worked as an actor during the pandemic, writing is the thing that I can do very freely. I think it’s been such a blessing to lean on this other skill set at this moment. But all things being equal, honestly, it’s a toss-up between acting and writing because I think they scratch different itches. Directing, I’m still getting my footing. I’m still understanding what kind of directing career I want for myself. I’ve just realized how you can do anything if you are in the trenches with the right people. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, we’re not literally saving lives, so it has to be about something. It can’t just be me punching in and punching out to say my lines and then go home. There has to be something that I’m getting out of this spiritually, and I think it’s definitely the people that I work with.”
The Chair is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photography: Stephanie Diani
Styling: Zadrian Smith and Sarah Edmiston
Hair: Cheryl Bergamy
Makeup: Billie Gene
Dress – Marchesa Notte
Shoes – Jennifer Chamandi
Earrings – Mejuri
Bangle – Giovanni Raspini
Rings – Thomas Sabo