It’s going to be a booked and busy fall for Nana Mensah, a rising star in the indie film and theater scenes. And the actor-writer-director-producer, who will take over the small screen this month when she appears in Netflix’s The Chair, isn’t slowing down. She lives by the motto, “if you’re bored, then you’re boring.”
Growing up in Connecticut, Mensah says her parents constantly debated whether or not their daughter would be a doctor or a lawyer—either that, or they argued over which Ivy League school she’d attend. “Those were things my parents debated at the dinner table,” she said over Zoom with a laugh. “It wasn’t like, ‘She’s going to be a writer-director, she’s going to be an auteur.’”
When she went to boarding school in her teen years, she fell in love with acting. “For being a New England private boarding school, it was weirdly creative, and had a very strong theater program,” she explained, citing Betty Gilpin, Katherine Waterston, and Jason Wu as some notable classmates from her time. Still, her parents weren’t jazzed about her creative ambitions eclipsing their expectations, so she studied French literature and history instead. Meanwhile, her mother and father told her they’d give her one year to try her hand at acting. “Whenever you’re listening to podcasts with famous actors, they’re always like, ‘And then in the 11th hour of the 30th day of the last month, I booked a show!’ That did not happen for me. That’s not how this story ends,” Mensah said through a fit of laughter. “It ends with my parents cutting me off and me doing every job under the sun to make ends meet and pay extortionate New York rent as a young 20-nothing. I babysat, I poured champagne in the bathroom of a nightclub, I worked in an illegal gambling den on the Upper East Side, I did everything—except act.”
The mix of odd jobs wasn’t for naught—the hodgepodge of surroundings and interactions at least gave Mensah plenty of stories. She wasn’t acting, but she started writing to diversify her portfolio. “I made it my business to read as many scripts as I could,” she said. “If I’m going to be alive, I need to be a storyteller. That’s integral to who I am and what I want to do with my life, and if it’s not going to be in front of a camera, there’s going to be another way.”
After taking writing classes and gobbling up every script she could find while getting small roles in indie films and Off-Broadway plays, Mensah eventually generated the idea for the film that would go on to be her feature debut (and earn her two awards at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival). She wrote, directed, and starred in Queen of Glory, a film about a professor who reluctantly takes over her family’s Christian bookstore in the Bronx when her mother passes away. The film is based, in part, on her aunt’s real shop, The King of Glory. “I love slice of life [films],” she said. “It’s not something that’s really afforded to the immigrant story. That’s always about the tragedy of coming to America or whatever. I personally was interested in giving the immigrant story the normcore treatment, it felt exciting to me.”
Queen of Glory is a film that revels in the sumptuousness of the fabrics and food on display as much as it does the relationships between the aunties and neighbors who push the protagonist in one direction or another. It’s clear how Mensah was inspired by Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love, films by the Duplass Brothers, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture—all influences the multi-hyphenate mentioned during our conversation.
Because Queen of Glory is an indie that peeks into a perspective less commonly seen on screen, giving a voice specifically to the Ghanaian-American child of immigrants, it’s a rare gem. “It’s like going to a public high school in New York. Everybody’s parents are from somewhere—Bangladesh, Russia, Georgia—and all of us are here speaking English because of colonization but then going home to this completely other universe where the food is different and the language is different,” she said. “That duality of having one foot in, one foot out of two cultures and sometimes more—I just don’t think we see enough of it.”
Funnily enough, not only does Mensah play an academic in Queen of Glory, but she will also play an academic in her next project, The Chair, a new Netflix series from Amanda Peet. Alongside Sandra Oh, who stars as the newly appointed chairwoman of a university’s English department, Mensah is Yaz, a young hot-shot professor whose fresh perspective on the material makes her so likable to the impressionable students that there’s a waitlist to get into her class—until an older professor (played by Bob Balaban) pushes her to the sidelines as his co-teacher to teach his take on the material. She got the part in a roundabout way, thanks to her performance in a Tracy Letts play that Peet had seen her act in years ago.
“It felt like my voice,” Mensah said of reading the script for the project that took her to Pittsburgh in the dead of last winter. “As I got to know Amanda through the process, I realized we have a lot in common despite our different exteriors and origin stories. She has worked across film and television, but she’s, at heart, a theater nerd. That collaborative spirit of theater-making is what she brought to this show.”
In addition to The Chair and a forthcoming reprisal of her role in Jocelyn Bioh’s Off-Broadway play Nollywood Dreams, Mensah also serves as a writer on boundary-pushing projects like Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness, Amazon’s The Power, and the second season of the Netflix series Bonding. While she waits for Queen of Glory to be distributed in theaters both internationally and in the U.S., she took a moment to reflect on the thematic threads between the projects that attract her. “A lot of times, I think maybe because of my experience, [I play] characters who need to prove themselves or who are really in the beginning of their self-actualization,” she said. “They’re trying to stake their claim and say, this is mine.”