Jubilation was written all over the faces of the cast, crew, writers and directors of the Oscar Best Picture winner “12 Years A Slave” as they stood on the Dolby Theatre stage in Los Angeles on Sunday night, March 2.
But as Sunset Park’s Julie Stein Brockway will attest, that excitement was also felt in spades here in Brooklyn, where Brockway and alumni from the Center for Family Life (CFL) were cheering for “12 Years A Slave” actress Adepero Oduye, 35—herself a CFL alum and former employee.
“I am so thrilled for her. She is not only a superb performer but also a superb person. She has a smile that lights up the room and I can’t help but smile when I talk about her because her energy is just so positive and hopeful,” said Brockway, CFL’s program director. “We feel privileged to be a small part of her journey.”
The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-raised actress grew up the third of seven children in a close-knit family living on the border between Sunset Park and Borough Park.
Her pursuit of a medical degree ended in college following her father’s death, after which she decided to enroll in a few acting classes. Since then, she has performed off-Broadway, on Broadway, and in films such as “Fela!,” Half Nelson,” “The Bluest Eye,” the remake of “Steel Magnolias,” Sundance hit “Pariah,” and “The Trip To Bountiful.”
Her latest role as anguished mother Eliza in the Oscar-winning film “12 Years A Slave,” which was based on the book/memoir of the same name, published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was lured to Washington D.C. with the promise of a job and then kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years.
Oduye has said in numerous interviews that CFL played no small part in her journey as a person and as an actress. She credits its performing arts program, Life Lines, with helping her to find her voice as a performer. She got her first improv and acting experience through the program and worked her way up from a summer youth employee and intern to serving as assistant camp director during summers away from Cornell University.
During one of her most recent visits home, in 2011, Oduye was honored with CFL’s “Celebrating Community” award and was greeted by several of her former students, who credit her with paying it forward and impacting their futures for the better.
“One of her first group members was a young lady named Carla who came here from Venezuela in seventh grade and didn’t speak English,” said Brockway. “But she worked with Adepero, applied to high schools and when she didn’t get into her first choice, Adepero wrote a letter and got her in. Now, Carla will graduate college this year with a degree in social work. Carla feels like Adepero personally transformed her future.”
Continuing to give back to the community and neighborhood that helped raise her is just who she is, explained Brockway.
“When she’s come back to visit since, people will stay that she’s still so real,” she said.
The kids imagine that if you become a successful star, you become different. So they’re so impressed that she stays very real and very humble.”