Nyambi Nyambi portrait
After finding his calling at Bucknell, Nyambi Nyambi ’01 takes his talents to stage and screen
by Lori Ferguson

photograph by Shayan Asgharnia

Mention the name of first-generation Nigerian American Nyambi Nyambi ’01 these days and many people envision the actor in his current role as Jay Dipersia, the quick-thinking law-firm investigator in the CBS All Access legal drama The Good Fight, or in his previous turn as Samuel, the wise-cracking Senegalese waiter/café owner on the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly. But while turning in a finely tuned performance is important, so is the message he’s conveying through his portrayal. His Good Fight character allows Nyambi to dig more deeply into contemporary social issues, and he credits show creators Robert and Michelle King with making this possible.
“They allow me to explore the ideology of my character and give the cast the space and opportunity to address issues like the #MeToo movement and fake news from a variety of perspectives,” he says. “I’m still trying to find my way in expressing my own views, and what better way to explore social justice than through art?”

Nyambi expresses himself through a variety of art forms. “Television and theatre work improve my abilities to inhabit a character, drawing enhances my ability to tap the well of my imagination, and writing sharpens my storytelling skills,” he says. With energy to spare, he frequently works on several projects simultaneously and makes no secret of the delight he feels in having landed a series-regular role on
The Good Fight.

Sharing The Good Fight set with acclaimed actors such as Christine Baranski, Delroy Lindo and Audra McDonald has been exhilarating. “They’re all so talented and accomplished. I remember looking around the set at one point during a scene and realizing, ‘Oh man, there are 10-time Tony award-winners standing here.’ ”

Live theatre is another passion. Nyambi appeared alongside Al Pacino and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the New York City Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale and has starred in productions for the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. “When you’re in a live theatre production, discoveries can be made every day — it always feels new,” he says. “Once you go live with the audience, it’s on. It’s a dance, and you can’t stop — everything is so present.”

If he has his way, there will be a Broadway musical in his future as well. “I’d love to appear in the life of Thelonious Monk or KRS-One, a dope rapper from the ’80s,” he says with a soft chuckle.

Nyambi has showcased his acting range on the big screen as well as the stage and TV. He recently completed production of Here Today — a new film directed by Billy Crystal — as well as the indie production Sleepless, which is being circulated at festivals. And he provided the voice of Martian Manhunter in the Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment animated features The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen, a gig that dovetailed beautifully with his long-standing love of comic books. An accomplished artist and author, Nyambi has collaborated with his sisters to publish an issue for the award-winning American comic book series Bitch Planet and contributed a poem to the graphic novel Love is Love.

“English professor Glyne Griffith P’04 walked up and said, ‘Nyambi, you’re an actor.’ And that’s when I realized, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”
In spite of the diverse accomplishments Nyambi has achieved by his early 40s, he’s quick to admit he’s had his share of disappointments and false starts. A major one was the serious injury he suffered in a summer-league basketball game just before his first year at Bucknell. Knocked off balance in midair while attempting a reverse dunk, he hit the court mouth first, knocking out one front tooth, chipping the other and shifting all the teeth in his mouth. The incident, he recalls, was life changing.

“Before that fall, I felt invincible, but afterward, my whole psyche was off, and I really began to question if the basketball court was where I was supposed to be,” Nyambi says. However, he stayed on the court, playing four years for the Bison and landing on the ESPN Dick Vitale All-Name Team, a group representing the most interesting names in college basketball.

His experience as an athlete still resonates today. “I was always trying to please my coaches and, then as an actor, always working to please my directors,” he says. “But I’ve come to understand that’s not good, because you end up only doing what they want instead of what they need and what you’re capable of. If you succumb to people-pleasing, you just do what’s expected, when you could do so much more. So now, I tell myself to let go, and I trust that the results will be glorious.”

Yet Nyambi insists he wouldn’t be an actor were it not for his time at Bucknell. “I showed up at Bucknell as a computer science major, but I quickly realized that wasn’t for me,” he recalls. “Then, since I love comics and drawing, I tried to major in art, but that wasn’t a good fit either.” A brief flirtation with an English major followed before Nyambi ultimately settled on a major in management. Along the way, however, he discovered another passion: acting.

“I decided to enroll in a summer theatre course with Gary Grant and had a great experience,” Nyambi recalls. During his senior year, he performed a favorite speech — Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” — as a monologue at Bucknell’s multicultural gala. “The gala’s organizer expressed surprise that I wanted to perform because I was known as a quiet kid,” he says. “Her reaction spurred me to take my performance to new heights.”

Nyambi memorized the speech and studied King’s vocal cadence and previous speeches to fully absorb the ethos of the address. “I didn’t call it acting, but when I came to do the speech, it was as if I was channeling MLK,” he says. “It felt like a spiritual experience, and when I finished, I got a standing ovation.” After the speech, Nyambi continues, English professor Glyne Griffith P’04 walked up and said, “ ‘Nyambi, you’re an actor.’ And that’s when I realized, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”

With his newfound confidence, Nyambi started the Bucknell Multicultural Ensemble Theatre Company. After graduation, he attended the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Public Theater Shakespeare Lab, then earned an MFA from the Graduate Acting Program at New York University. These days, in addition to his myriad projects, Nyambi dedicates time to sharing the joys of creative expression with children from Chicago, the setting for both The Good Fight and Mike & Molly.

“Many kids in the inner city don’t believe in the possibility of opportunity — they simply have no avenue for their dreams to become reality,” he explains. Determined to change the calculus, Nyambi has joined forces with Cush Jumbo, a fellow Good Fight castmate, to offer workshops for these children through the One for One foundation.

“Last year we gave 15 kids the opportunity to experience ‘a day in the life of an actor,’ ” Nyambi says. “We brought in actors, directors, camera operators, and hair and makeup artists and helped the kids re-create a scene from the show. It was a fantastic experience for everyone, and we’re hoping to do more in the future.

“I want to do more to get people involved in their communities,” Nyambi says. “It’s important for people to understand the issues that are affecting their lives and to know how to use their voices to effect change.”