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In playing Shirley Chisholm, Uzo Aduba looked to another woman who could not be deterred

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in "Mrs. America."
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in "Mrs. America."

In playing the pioneering Black politician and women’s rights activist Shirley Chisholm in the new FX on Hulu series “Mrs. America,” Medfield native Uzo Aduba didn’t have to look far for inspiration. The actress, who first rose to fame as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the groundbreaking women-in-prison drama series “Orange Is the New Black,” says she saw the same fearlessness and determination in her Nigerian immigrant mother as she did in Chisholm, who made a historic run for the presidency in 1972.

“I could anchor this woman in a lot of parallels with my mom, because Shirley did not feel hindered by her gender or her race. She did not view those as obstacles to what she could achieve,” says Aduba, 39, over the phone from her home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. “She knew she was intelligent and that she could do the job, at least equally as well as any other political candidates.”

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Aduba’s mother, Nonyem, became a social worker and earned two graduate degrees. The barrier-breaking Chisholm, a talented debater and speechmaker whose parents were immigrants from the West Indies, went on to become the first Black woman elected to Congress (serving for 14 years in New York’s 12th District) and the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s presidential nomination.

“When we were little, my mom would say to us, ‘I never knew there was anything wrong with being Black — until I moved America. I never thought something was impossible for me to be or do,’ ” she says. “How she perceived herself versus how this new world perceived her was entirely different. So I understood why my mother connected with Shirley because she could see herself and her own struggle in Shirley.”

“Mrs. America,” premiering Wednesday, dramatizes the 1970s fight by the women’s liberation movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The story centers on conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and the movement she led to stop the ERA as she faced off against feminist trailblazers like Chisholm, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), and “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman). (The cast also includes Massachusetts natives Ari Graynor, Elizabeth Banks, and John Slattery.)

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“[The show] tells the stories of these giants whose shoulders we all stand on. I will never forget that first table-read. You could really see the scope of womanhood and female identity,” says Aduba, whose next project, a television adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel “Americanah,” has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After reading Chisholm’s autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed,” a slogan from her presidential run, Aduba said it reaffirmed something she already felt. “You realize this woman has such a sure sense of self and such strength, she cannot be deterred. That’s what conviction looks like. Regardless of how a campaign ends, you can end with your head held high and your dignity intact if you stood by something you really believe in. That’s where your power lies — in standing on your beliefs.”

With the renewed push to enshrine the ERA into law (the required 38 states have now ratified the amendment and the House has voted retroactively to remove the 1982 deadline), the historical series feels especially relevant right now. “It’s crazy that the timing has lined up in this way,” Aduba remarks. Still, she adds, “People will learn a lot and maybe start to think we haven’t made as much progress in certain areas as we thought we had.”

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Dahvi Waller, the creator and showrunner of “Mrs. America,” says Aduba brought the “charisma and intellectual heft” that was required for the role. “You just can’t stop watching her. She’s such a powerhouse, and she has this maverick wildness to her that Shirley had. I think we tend to sometimes paint our heroes as being perfect, and so I love how Uzo could play the messiness of Shirley.”

Still, Aduba’s path to stardom wasn’t always ordained. After graduating from Boston University, she at first focused on theater because she “saw more people from the Island of Misfit Toys like myself there.” She landed on Broadway in “Coram Boy” and “Godspell” and turned heads as the anguished maiden Io in the rock musical “Prometheus Bound” at the American Repertory Theater in 2011. But when her film and TV prospects foundered, she nearly ditched acting for the law.

Indeed, the exact date and time (5:43 p.m., Sept. 14, 2012) when Aduba’s life changed forever remains seared in her mind. She wouldn’t have to quit acting after all.

That morning, she’d been late for an audition and was certain she wouldn’t get the part. Heading back to her apartment in Queens, she ordered sushi, picked up a bottle of wine, and texted her sister to come over after work. “I cried all the way home,” she recalls. “I just thought it was God or the universe telling me you’re not supposed to be doing this and you’re not getting the hint. I just thought, you know, maybe I am supposed to be a lawyer. I had questions and doubts before, but never wanted to quit, until then.”

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As she sat watching “Oprah’s Master Class,” she got a call from her agent. But instead of hearing bad news, she was told she’d been cast in “Orange Is the New Black,” a show she’d auditioned for weeks earlier and had all but forgotten about. “It was a topsy-turvy day, to say the least,” she says. “But that started the ball rolling.”

She went on to star as Crazy Eyes for seven seasons on “Orange,” winning two Emmy awards for her full-bodied portrayal of an emotionally volatile, mentally unstable inmate, with bulging peepers and a tendency toward blunt truth-telling.

“I had always wanted to do something in this realm [of acting], but the truth is that I was never sure if there was a place for me, because I’d never really seen somebody like me onscreen before or seen my own story reflected,” she says. “Now I’ve made it a mission of mine to tell stories of the missing people whose voices we almost never get to hear — and Shirley is one of those.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.