Workin' Moms is a Canadian television comedy series that premiered on CBC Television in 2017. It is created, written, and produced by Catherine Reitman, exploring careers, motherhood, and balancing the two. Okuma is excited to be its newest member. “It’s a great character, and I’m honoured to play her. Sloane is a force to be reckoned with. She knows what she wants, and goes after it. She’s powerful and also a little bit mysterious.”
She adds, “Sloane Mitchell, my character, comes across a certain way. You may make up your mind about her when you first see her, but if you keep watching, you will see that people are not as they seem, especially Sloane. So we definitely get to see some layers of hers peeled away as the show goes on. And people will be surprised by what they find.”
She is also happy to play this role because “You don't see Black actors playing such roles. So that’s great. There’s also a freedom in playing a character like Sloane.”
She further explained, “The great thing about the show is the characters are not perfect. In this season, we see them lose themselves a little bit. They stray from themselves, do unexpected things, and make questionable decisions. You are going to laugh and cry with them.”
For Okuma, art is life. “Acting was something I always wanted to do. I’m blessed that I was born with the talent and I was able to pursue it. When I think about all the blessings in my life, most of them have come because of acting. The friends I have, the places I’ve been. It all relates back to being an actor,” she says.
Okuma is a five-time Gemini Award-nominee. She has done over 70 films and television shows and some theatre. Her prominent roles include Global’s long-running hit, Rookie Blue, which she co-wrote with Adriana Maggs. Okuma wrote, directed, and produced a short film, Cookie, which premiered at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films and 20 film festivals worldwide.
She is also best known for playing in shows like Madison and Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye. She also had guest appearances in Grey’s Anatomy, and Masters of Sex among others.
Okuma says she is a proud Nigerian-Canadian and loves Black History Month. “It's always surprising to me how much I still don't know. Every year, Black History Month comes and I inevitably learn something new, something incredible about our community.” She believes it is important for Black people to see that they’ve been here all along, doing great things.
Growing up, Okuma knew very few Black people, “There were only one or two Black families in the town I grew up in. So, I definitely stood out and didn't see myself reflected in media.” Despite the differences, she remembers having a happy childhood.
Her family used to watch TV together. As a child, she loved all types of movies-comedy and drama. She suspects that’s where her interest in acting developed. “I used to turn everything in the house into a stage. I definitely liked to perform early on,” she says.
Okuma competed in numerous drama festivals in high school and was approached by a woman, Carole Tarlington, who ran the Vancouver Youth Theatre and invited Okuma to join her agency.
“I was ecstatic about that and my parents were very supportive. So I thought this is something I could do on the side.” Despite her love for acting, she didn't necessarily think of it as a career until she finished high school.
She did theatre work in school before switching to television and film. While studying theatre, she started working on a teen television drama. Okuma says, genres don’t matter to her as long as the script is good and the character is complex. She also enjoys collaborating with different people. “I do love the solitary work of creating. But, I enjoy healthy collaborations and am happy to work with anybody.”
She loves a lot of actors but Viola Davis is her number one. Philip Seymour Hoffman was also one of her favourites.
Her Biggest Challenge
Okuma says, “I was lucky in the beginning because there weren't many Black actresses, and I ended up working quite a bit. However, it also became limiting after a while. When you graduate to adult roles, you are stuck with best friends of the lead, cops, lawyers, and doctors.”
She believes that is the biggest challenge in the industry. “I've had lots of opportunities. But they haven’t been as many as other non-Black people who have been acting.” She likes all the roles she has played but is always striving for more. She wants to play interesting people who are flawed and complex.
“I have been doing this for over 25 years, and the landscape is different now, but it’s still challenging when you know you can play the lead, but they’re not looking at you as one.”
Given the challenges, Okuma came up with a solution. "At this point in my life, I'm trying to create my own rules. I’ve begun writing, which lets me have a little bit more control as to where things go. But you still have to have somebody believe in your idea and believe in you to be able to execute that.”
Her message to would-be-Black actors and actresses is, “You’re not going to have the same journey as your white counterparts. You have to work extra hard. And, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, then create it yourself.”
She generally advises all actors to use their downtime in a constructive way. “As an actor, you're waiting for your phone to ring. But when you create a story yourself, you take back that creative power.”
Meanwhile, Okuma is looking forward to seeing more stories told by people of colour and more stories told by women in the Canadian film industry.
Of course, she emphasized that one has to find what they’re interested in, “I like storytelling but that may not be the case for everybody.”
Her Strengths and Weaknesses as an Actor
Speaking of her strengths, she says, “I feel like I have come to a place where I trust the work and the fact that I’ve been doing it so long. Even when I think it sucks, it probably doesn’t.” She has also improved at auditioning. Being able to audition is something you need to improve on, and I’m glad I have.”
Okuma is a five-time Canadian Screen Awards nominee but believes her biggest achievement is yet to come. “Because I'm still driving,” she says, “You never reach a point where you want it to end, keep pushing yourself over and over. That’s all anyone can do.”
Between Theatre, Film and TV
For Okuma acting in film or theatre is largely the same. “Acting in a movie and a play is not that different because your job is still to convey your character’s truth. With theatre, it’s mainly making sure that what you’re conveying reaches everyone in the audience. In theatre, you go to them, and in film, they come to you.”
She further says, “I have spent a bulk of my career in television. But I wouldn’t say that I prefer one medium over the other because it’s all acting to me, and I love to do all of it.”
The Good and the Bad in Acting
One thing Okuma loves about acting is that “You bring your own unique experience to the role. You are hired for what only you can do.” However, Okuma believes, art is not for everybody. “I would not recommend it unless it’s something you couldn’t live without.” Not knowing if you’re going to have another job when one ends is immensely hard. There are no guarantees, so one has to be very fluid. And as they say, don’t get into this if you just want to become famous. You have to love the actual craft. I’m fortunate that I do love it, and that’s what sustains me.”
She also says, "The flip side is when you actually get a job, it pays well, and you can travel. You need to be prepared for the ride and take the good with the bad.” Most of all, Okuma emphasizes, one should work hard and be prepared and trust that their uniqueness is what will carry them through.
Current and Future Plans
Reflecting on the new restrictions in place because of COVID19 Okuma says, “A lot has changed. We do what we’re supposed to do and retreat to our corners. It also takes longer to wrap everything up, and you need to spend a lot of money on testing and providing personal protective equipment. It’s definitely harder but not impossible.” But she is glad that television has continued because people are consuming content like never before.
She also feels lucky. “I’m so fortunate to be working in this time when so many people can’t.”
She had a movie, Fear of Rain, come out this month, and Workin’ Moms is the next big thing.
“Tune into Workin' Moms new season every Tuesday at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC or stream anytime for free on CBC Gem,” she says, as she signs off.