Jewish, Nigerian Brit Wins Tony, Sparking Twitter Storm
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Jewish, Nigerian Brit Wins Tony, Sparking Twitter Storm

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

At last night’s Tony Awards, British-Jewish actress Sophie Okonedo took home the award for best performance by an actress in a play with her Broadway debut in "A Raisin in the Sun." Okonedo is Jewish, the daughter of an Ashkenazi British woman and a Nigerian civil servant who abandoned the family when she was 5.

In her acceptance speech, Okonedo thanked the cast and crew of the play, singling out producer Scott Rudin for casting her in the very American role of Ruth Younger. "Scott Rudin had the vision to know that a Jewish Nigerian woman could play one of America's most iconic parts," said Okonedo.

Okonedo’s shout-out to her unique heritage prompted a Twitter storm. “Jewish Nigerian Brit” started trending under the hashtag #TonyAwards. "A Jewish Nigerian Brit." MAZEL TOV! #TonyAwards tweeted one viewer. “Wow, if my parents are playing ‘You know who's Jewish’ tonight, triple bonus points for Sophie Okonedo. #tonys,” tweeted another.

She is the second actress of African descent to win a major American award in the past year; Lupita Amondi Nyong’o’s won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2013 for her role in "12 Years a Slave." Nyong’o was subsequently named the “Most Beautiful Woman” by People Magazine.

Okonedo has spoken widely about her upbringing by her single mother, with active participation by her grandparents, who celebrated all the Jewish holidays and spoke Yiddish when they didn't want her to understand their conversation.

Of course, several Judaic-oriented groups in Nigeria would also claim to be Okonedo's people, from a slightly different angle. They say their practices result from hundreds of years of continuous practice of Judaic or Judaic-like customs. The Igbo Jews of Nigeria are one such group. One of the larger ethnic groups in modern Nigeria, with population estimates ranging from 20 to 50 million, Igbo Jews believe they are descendants of at least one of Israel's lost tribes. In the eighth century B.C. the Assyrians invaded Israel's northern kingdom forcing 10 tribes into exile. The recent film “Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” details the story of the Igbos.

hannah@jewishweek.org

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