Nana Mensah became a Hollywood multi-hyphenate out of necessity. For the 32-year-old Ghanaian-American, writing, directing, and starring in her debut feature, Queens of Glory, “was a budgetary requirement.”
Mensah, who started acting in 2009, made the decision to focus more on screenwriting because she was struggling to book work. “And when I was booking work, it really was not fulfilling, or I couldn’t make ends meet financially,” she tells me from London.
“Those were the struggle years,” Mensah says of a period in 2011 and 2012. “Whenever a kid goes, ‘I want to be an actor’ and their parents are like, ‘Please, God, don’t,’ they are imagining these years.”
So Mensah started to write. Her first script was an extravagant $100 million biopic set in 1940s Ghana. Mensah’s filmmaking friend quickly shut it down, telling her, “No! You’re a baby screenwriter. You’ve never gotten anybody coffee. You need to put this on the back burner and reverse-engineer your debut. Write something that’s contained.”
Mensah got the message. She started “sourcing things around me that I could get for cheap or free.” In her resulting debut, which premiered earlier this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mensah plays Sarah Obeng, a doctoral candidate living in the Bronx who is stuck between student and adult life. When her mother dies unexpectedly, Sarah inherits the family bookstore, her estranged father appears from Ghana, and she learns elements of her parents’ lives that offer new insights into her family and, in turn, herself.
“I would say it is autobiographical in the general spirit of it,” says Mensah, whose parents moved from Ghana to New York before having her, “in terms of being a first-generation Ghanaian, having a foot in both cultures, and therefore never feeling completely American or completely Ghanaian.”
One thing Mensah knew from the start was exactly how she wanted to portray the African-immigrant experience. Bored of the sepia-toned depictions of suffering, hardship, and graft—“We’re so starved for an accurate representation of what that first-generation African experience is,” she says—Mensah wanted to make something that recognized the “humor and joy as well as the struggle.”
Mensah was also tired of her home borough’s reputation for guns and violence. “It’s not like that,” she says, and with Queens of Glory she evokes the Bronx in its entirety. “There are parts that are beautiful and peaceful.”
Next, Mensah acts alongside Sandra Oh and Bob Balaban in Netflix’s The Chair, a well-observed comedy about the idiosyncrasies of academic life at a stuffy New England college. She was also a staff writer on Season Two of Random Acts of Flyness for HBO, co-wrote and co-starred in the second season of Netflix’s Bonding, and is currently a staff writer for Amazon’s much-anticipated adaptation of the best-selling novel The Power.
Despite her brimming résumé, the success still feels fresh. “I’m definitely a new kid on the block.”
The Chair is available on Netflix now
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail