By Jade Solomon
Produced by Chuck Lorre and Al Higgins, Bob Hearts Abishola follows a middle-aged, Detroit businessman who suffers a heart attack and unexpectedly falls for his cardiac nurse, a Nigerian immigrant. Despite their cultural differences and Bob’s rejected advances, he sets his sights on winning her over.
Bob’s love interest, Abishola, is played by Nigerian American immigrant Folake Olowofoyeku. The youngest of nineteen children, raised between Nigeria and London, Folake studied theater at the City College of New York, as well as Audio Engineering at the Institute of Audio Research. The award winning actress and afro-rock musician acknowledges just how groundbreaking her role, and the show itself, is to accurately portraying the immigrant experience.
What was your initial reaction and thoughts when you were first approached for this role?
As a working actor we go through tons and tons of auditions on a weekly basis, and the ratio of booking to actual auditions is extremely low. Whenever I’m given an audition I focus on the materials I’m presented with and do the best rendition. I do the audition and leave it in the room. It was the same case with the show. I didn’t know who Chuck Lorre was. I kind of went into the room with the work I’d done on the character to the best of my ability. And lucky for me, it fell into the lap of a genius.
Lorre and Higgins acknowledged that they did not have the personal background to accurately represent the Nigerian immigrant experience in America, so they approached comedian Gina Yashere, who grew up the child of Nigerian immigrants in Britain, and brought her on as a producer. How important is it to have writers and executives behind the scenes who can truly identify with the characters being portrayed?
I think it’s paramount if you’re going to portray someone of an ethnic background or any background to have people in the room filling in on what is realistic or not. Having Gina in the room was extremely smart on their part. Our writers room is half women and almost a third of people who are African descent. And on the same note, we have actors who are of the same ethnic group as the characters they’re portraying. I think that’s why our show has been so successful, because people see the authenticity of the characters and that’s a huge result of having writers in the room, and Nigerian actors in the room, who can interject and say this is authentic and this is not.
It was very important to your production team and cast to accurately portray “what it looks like to be an immigrant in America.” Why is this so?
I think some of the pitfalls that we fall into when portraying folks of different backgrounds is sometimes we try to focus only on what we see in the news. And a lot of the stuff in the news is negative, so if you base your characters on the news it’s one dimensional. It needs to be balanced with positive images. In any part of the world you have folks who are ignorant, and folks who lean on love and acceptance, and you have folks who push what they don’t know away from them. I think in art, especially when it’s the first introduction to a group of people, you have a responsibility to make it balanced in its portrayals.
What has been something that you’ve learned since joining the show?
This is my first full time job, so I’m learning how to be in a full time job. This is the longest gig I’ve ever had. This is the first time that I haven’t had my time as my own. I’m learning how to time manage, prioritize and set agendas for my free time.
The show has been renewed for a third season, which is no surprise, as according to Nielsen ratings the show averaged 6.7 million viewers in its second season. How does it feel to be a part of a show that’s not only entertaining viewers but resonating with them?
I’m so proud of the show. I remember when I saw the pilot… I just remember being so proud of the work; the images, the quality, the professionalism, and that was the first time I felt all of those things. I feel very proud of the work we’re doing. At first I was just engulfed with work and press, but during the lockdown I had to sit down and reflect on the last year and a half, and I feel immensely grateful to be a part of this. I think it’s a groundbreaking show – it will go down in history as the first time a Nigerian is on television portraying a Nigerian, speaking the native language of Yoruba. I think it will go down in history as being the first of its kind.