This past Sunday’s episode of American Gods introduced us to Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), a smooth-talking African trickster god who manifests in the cargo hold of a slave ship making its way from Africa to America. It’s dark, foreboding, painful, and some of the best television I’ve seen in a number of years. I had to talk to Jones himself about it.
If you haven’t seen the scene I’m talking about (and you absolutely should), here’s how it plays out. As the sharply dressed god paces back and forth in front of the believers who summoned him, he lays out a terrifying vision of what the future holds for them and their descendants: slavery, torture, death, and hundreds of years of being screwed over by structural racism.
Nancy finally agrees to free the slaves once he’s certain that his prophecy has emboldened and enraged them all to the point of being ready to start a fiery uprising right there, choosing to go down in a blaze of bloody glory rather than live their lives out in captivity in the new world. The scene is both one of triumphant liberation and tragic bloodshed at at the center of the storm is Mr. Nancy, dapper as ever, basking in the chaos and sacrifice that, ironically, he’s feeding off of.
When I got Jones on the phone to talk about the scene and his role as American Gods’ Mr. Nancy, he sympathized with the fatigue some of us have when it comes to depictions of slavery in pop culture. But Jones is also resolute in his belief that speeches like Nancy’s are necessary, especially now, in a time when there are so many people ready erase the horrors of history rather than treating them as traumatic events that we, as a society, are still grappling with.
The key to understanding Nancy, Jones told me, is remembering that no matter how complicated a web of lies he might spin, on some level, he’s still trying to be honest with us.
io9: Anybody who follows you on Twitter knows how interactive you are with your fans. You’ve been that way since long before American Gods. What led you to wanting to talk with your fans like that?
Orlando Jones: I became acutely aware of how important it is to separate the difference between who you are and who the character you’re playing is.
People choose whatever projects they’ve seen that I’ve done over the years and whichever one is their favorite is the only one they care about. But I realized that none of those were my voice or representative of what my thoughts and feelings were. My children were going to be left with a legacy that was not my own; it was something that had been written by Hollywood based on characters that I had embodied.
Sleepy Hollow was really the first thing I’d done that that gave me the opportunity in the modern age to build an authentic relationship with an audience that was a lot more like what happens in theater.
You’ve spoken about how you grew up hearing Anansi stories as a kid. How do you see the show’s representation of him as Mr. Nancy?
Jones: I see Nancy as [Notes of a Native Son author] James Baldwin. I see Nancy as [South African anti-apartheid activist and politician] Oliver Tambo. I see a really clear correlation between those individuals in the sense they were unapologetic about things. They weren’t apologizing or asking for anyone to save them. They were asking for assistance [from their oppressors] for them to be able to stand on their own two feet.
Religion is a tool to stamp out oppression, repression, and tyranny. It’s to save the oppressed. That’s what religion is for. I wanted Nancy to have a real chip on his shoulder about that. Particularly because in the first scene, you meet him on a slave ship. He didn’t choose the meeting place, but that’s it.
As a performer, what’s going through your head during that first scene?
Jones: He’s meeting this brother on a slave ship that’s moving through the Middle Passage and we don’t know the circumstances of how he got there. [Mr. Nancy’s worshipper] could have been captured during a war with another tribe in Africa, but however he got there, rocking back and forth? Chained up? That’s something different. He doesn’t know his enemy, he can’t even fathom it.
So for me, the delivery in that first scene has to be impassioned, but it also has to be somewhat out there because everything is so utterly ridiculous, that it’s funny. If somebody were explaining to this man what was about to happen to him, he’d think it was a tall tale, a joke. Something that couldn’t be real.
There are a number of gods we meet with roots in Africa, but it feels like there’s a very particular kind of African-American blackness that you bring to Nancy.
Jones: I really wanted Nancy to resonate with people who feel a certain kind of way right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Patrice Cullors of Black Lives Matter; there are so many active conversations about race happening in the country right now, even though a lot of people thought a lot of these issues were finished.
I wanted Nancy to resonate with the people who’ve been told that either they’re too young to really know what [the history of slavery] really was or that they weren’t really in the struggle.
There’s an edge to Mr. Nancy’s speech. You can hear that he’s angry and mourning for his believers, but there’s also this hint of an ulterior motive there.
Jones: Whatever version of Nancy’s speech you’re hearing, I wanted it to ring true to the audience. I want it to be real. If you’re deep in it, living in a Bantu shack in Soweto, I want it to feel real to you. If you’re living in Chicago, I want it to feel real to you. If you’re living in Martha’s Vineyard, I want it to feel real to you and not because Nancy’s yelling at you. He’s just laying out what the fuck it is.
Ultimately, though, what does Mr. Nancy get out of his believers rioting and burning down the ship?
You don’t know what his purpose is. Whether it’s for good or evil, you just know that it’s for whatever Nancy wants to use it for.
His authenticity is so important because without it, he doesn’t resonate and if doesn’t resonate, he has no believers, and if he has no believers, he has no worship and that’s what American Gods is about.