Aba Arthur (PolSci, Thtr’05) of Atlanta is a performer, writer and owner of production company The Ohemaa Project. She caught her big break with her role as a naval engineer in charge of a ship in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Arthur filmed her role in October 2021 but shot into the spotlight a year later with the Nov. 11 release of the blockbuster, which spent five weeks at No. 1 in the box office and grossed more than $400 million in that time frame. Next year, catch her in the Oprah Winfrey-adapted film The Color Purple. Here she discusses her time at CU Boulder, choosing joy and, of course, Wakanda.
What brought you to CU Boulder?
I grew up in Colorado Springs, so I was a Colorado local. I have a sister [Ahoba Arthur (Comm’02)] who was a senior at the time. With that and in-state tuition, it seemed like the best idea. I didn't want to go to college, though, in general. I was ready to go to LA. So I was a little bit reluctant, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.
What were some of your favorite memories while at CU?
I lived in Farrand Hall, and I lived in Will Vill. And then I moved off campus my junior year. But there's so many memories — football games are some of my favorites. The gathering of friends and just going and having a blast. That's also where you get a chance to meet other students you wouldn't normally come in contact with. Also — welcome, Coach Prime! Can we throw that in there?
I served in the Black Student Alliance and the African Student Association. We used to have so many events. A lot of those memories have stayed with me.
Talk about BAM!, the dance group you started on campus.
A good girlfriend of mine, Stephanie King-Thompson (EthnSt, MA’07), and I were freshmen at the same time and we were both dancers. During our first semester, we were talking about what we wanted to do. We both had an itch to dance, but because that was not our field, we wanted it to be something that was extracurricular. We decided to start something on our own.
We didn't really know what to expect, but wow, it far exceeded our expectations. We had what I thought was going to be a random audition for a couple of people, and I ended up seeing the most talented people, some of whom I still know today. We performed at basketball games and so many other events — anywhere we had the opportunity to dance, we were there. We made our own outfits. It was so cool.
In addition to performing, you also love writing. What are your favorite aspects of writing?
I took a summer class at CU that actually changed my life — and probably changed my writing style. We were instructed to not take the pen off of the paper for an hour. So we would go outside into nature, and literally the instruction was just to write. Even if what you're writing is, ‘I think this is stupid, I hate this exercise, I don't wanna be here’ — which, I didn't want to be there, because, remember, I said it was summertime.
But what it did was start my exploration into parts of my imagination that I normally wouldn't tap into. Much like other writers, I have a very active imagination. I can make a story about anything. At the time, I was picking and choosing what I was gonna write about, which is what I think normal people do. What that class taught me was to just pick something and create a story about it, and then pick something else and create a story about it, and then pick something else. So it activated that storyteller in me, and it forced me to create stories out of regular, random situations.
What ultimately motivated you to start your own production company?
After I was writing on my own in my own house, I was collecting scripts and stories and ideas and concepts. I was finding that of the things I was writing and that spoke to me, I wasn't seeing [them] on TV or on film. I was raised in an African home and I'm African, but I've grown up in America. So I carry both cultures. I also am a feminist womanist and very proud of the female body and form. And there are a lot of ways in which I wanted to see myself represented on camera that I wasn't seeing. So it was like, ‘Wow, OK, if I'm going to do this professionally, then the part of myself that's the type A that likes things in order, I can use that to push myself forward.’ So that's exactly what I did.
I was encouraged not to start it so many times. I actually don't remember having a conversation with anybody who told me it was a good idea. That is very important because that's happened a number of times in my life. But I had all of this content that I was creating. So after I had the skeleton in place and the purpose, which is the most important thing, I just Googled everything else.
What role has meant the most to you personally?
It sounds so cliche, but seriously, it's all of them. It really is. I don't take anything for granted. Every time I get the call, I'm so grateful. I worked in casting, and I know how hard it is. Perfect roles are like a needle in a haystack. I know that for someone to not only call me back because they liked my tape or they liked my audition, but to send me to producers and directors and for everyone to agree that this role is supposed to be mine — it's like, ‘Wow!’ So every role I've played, I have cried over and I have been very grateful for. Obviously some of them are more visible than others. But they all honestly mean the world to me. Every single one.
How did the Wakanda Forever opportunity come up?
I have an agent whom I love, and she is magnificent. At the time, I was getting an audition for an untitled project. Then I got another one maybe a month later. Then I got another one. And because I've been in the industry for a while, when that happens, you know that it's something big. So I just did my best. It was at the first fitting that I found out what the movie was. I didn't really have a lot of time to react then because I was there and it was just go, go, go, go, go.
From what I suspect, my role was supposed to be for a man. In the script, they referred to my character as ‘he’ a number of times. I take a lot of pride in that because I don't know the logistics of what happened in between. All I know is, I showed up!
What was your first day on set like?
Oh my gosh. My fitting was with Oscar-award-winner Ruth Carter. I feel very fortunate for that because I know she didn't fit everybody. When I showed up, I was in the waiting room and the woman said to me, ‘Are you ready to meet with Ruth?’ And my knees gave out. She was such a dream — very professional and very kind. She knew that it was a lot for me to take in. I'm standing there and there's people swarming all over doing their thing. She would whisper in my ear, ‘Relax your knees.’ Because obviously I'm standing at attention, and when you stand at attention for that long, you're gonna pass out. So you have to relax your knees. I will always be grateful for that.
The second person I met was Lupita [Nyong'o]. She was so kind and lovely from the beginning. As you can imagine, for someone like me coming into the second installment of this massive film, I'm walking in with all of my nerves. You won't see it on my face or my body, but inside, I was freaking out. So to have a veteran like Lupita welcome me meant the world, and it allowed me to exhale and relax a little bit before I entered the world of Wakanda.
By the time I got to set, I have a very clear memory of walking up onto the platform and it was Wakanda: all the characters, all the people doing their thing. And that was a lot to take in. I certainly got teary-eyed in that moment.
What was the experience like?
I'm still processing it. The logistical part of being on set I was familiar with and I was comfortable with. I had my own trailer. I knew how it worked. But, again, we're talking about Wakanda. Ryan Coogler is my director. He is a special human being. So being directed by him and him welcoming me to the set was really important and helpful for me to be able to process what was happening as it was happening. He didn't feel daunting at all. I was able to really hear what he was saying and take it in as he was giving direction in, say, a massive battle scene.
What has been the reception by those around you now that the film is out?
I knew that the movie was gonna be massive because, hello, obviously. But the way people have received me has been such a lovely surprise. I went and shot my little lines and did my little stunts, and I was thrilled. I didn't realize that the rest of the world, including my family and friends, were going to be so excited about this.
Right after I shot Black Panther, I booked a television show called Bad Monkey, which is coming to Apple TV next year and stars Vince Vaughn! Oh my gosh. And then right after that I booked The Color Purple!
Early this year, I was taking a lot of deep breaths throughout the day because there was a lot happening in my personal orbit. So certainly for me, during that period of time, there were a couple of days where I sat and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. We're here. This is it. It's happening.’ So now it's been exciting to watch the people around me catch up to what I've been feeling for this whole year.
What brings you the most joy in your work?
When someone can relate. That's the point. Acting is empathy. So when someone is able to connect to my character or something about the project that I'm in, I feel like I've done a good job. That means the most, and it's funny because when I write things on my own, people close to me always think what I’ve written is about them. I take it as a compliment because it means that it was so personal that they felt like I was telling their story specifically.
What do you do outside of your work?
I'm such a film nerd. I'm watching movies. That's what I do. Everybody that knows me, knows that's what I do. I watch movies and I watch television with 90% of my downtime.
Do you have a classic go-to movie or show that you've watched over and over?
Oh gosh, I'm so glad you asked. I have so many. On my birthday, I always watch Sister Act II. This is the most random thing I've ever told anyone. My Best Friend’s Wedding is a classic favorite of mine, but I have a really good reason for it too: It's not just that I love the movie, but specifically because it was the first film I saw where the protagonist and antagonist were the same person, and we were rooting for the villain. We love Julia Roberts’ character, but she was making very bad decisions. But we still wanted her to win. And then she didn't win in the end, and we were okay with it. I've recently added Schitt’s Creek to my favorites too. The comedy, it's just brilliant.
When I'm having a bad day, I watch the Care Bears. I like the colors and that everything is soft and fluffy. Oh! This will be my last one or I’ll keep going and going. I love Mahogany. I'm a huge Diana Ross fan. I watch Mahogany on my birthday too.
What else should we know about you?
I'm so silly. I know when to take things seriously, but I prefer to laugh, always. I have a lot of jokes in my mind all the time. I just know when it is appropriate to bring them out of my mouth. But I like to laugh through life. I like joy a lot, and I will always choose that.
Photos courtesy Aba Arthur