Yetide Badaki in a scene from American Gods (Photo: Starz)


A most memorable goddess

Yetide Badaki, BA’02, studied theatre at McGill as an “act of rebellion.” Her role as an African love goddess on American Gods  has put her firmly in the spotlight.

Story by Benjamin Gleisser

March 2018

For Yetide Badaki, BA’02, playing the role of Bilquis, an African goddess, on the television series American Gods is a great opportunity to bring to life the stories she heard as a child about her cultural heritage.

Season 2 of the Starz Network series is set to start filming later this year. American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, centers on the clash of Old World mythology and American pop culture. Badaki was hired just for the show’s initial run, but audience reaction to her character was so great, she was written into the series’ return. That Badaki managed to make such an impression in a cast that also included the likes of Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson and Cloris Leachman, is no small feat.

What attracted her to the tough, emotionally charged character of Bilquis, an insatiable love goddess, was “she dealt with a lot of issues people are afraid to talk about, like women and their sexuality,” Badaki says. “A lot of things came up for me while reading for the character early on. And because it scared me, I wanted to be part of telling her story.”

Born in Nigeria, the first child of the first son of a tribal chieftain – which literally makes her a princess – Badaki fondly remembers the myths passed down to her by the family elders.

“I was fascinated at a young age by the stories of the gods, goddesses and incredible beings of my people,” she says. “I come from a large family – my grandfather had 10 wives – and just about every weekend, relatives dropped by and we’d go out in back of our compound, make a fire and sit around the fire telling stories. Instead of turning on the TV, we told stories.”

She carried this love of folklore through school, studying not just African mythology but Greek and Norse legends. As the youngster moved with her parents to England, to the United States and then back to Nigeria, her favourite reading became Shakespeare’s plays, and science fiction and fantasy, enjoying authors like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and, yes, Neil Gaiman.

Due to the differences in the Nigerian educational system, she was able to enrol at McGill University when she was 16 years old. Entering as an English major, she soon fell in love with theatre, a decision that was not encouraged by her family.

“I was bitten by the storyteller bug at an early age, and I always wanted to tell stories, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make a career out of it,” Badaki remembers. “My parents were concerned initially, because they felt there was a lot of mystery around the performing arts. Getting involved in theatre and Players Theatre productions was an act of rebellion for me.”

She credits Myrna Wyatt Selkirk, associate professor of English and a key member of the department’s drama and theatre stream, for encouraging her creative passion: “She’s an incredible human being who nurtured the storyteller in all of us,” Badaki says.

Selkirk remembers Badaki as an eager student, and directed her in a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Man is Man.

“Yetide didn’t have a super amount of confidence at the beginning, but then she just started to pop,” Selkirk says. “She did a lot of great work while she was here. She was mesmerizing to watch on stage. She had a beautiful energy, and was very generous with other actors.”

After graduation, Selkirk helped Badaki arrange auditions with regional theatre companies that led to her working with several Chicago-area troupes, including the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Steppenwolf Theatre and Goodman Theatre. Badaki later earned an MFA in Theatre from Illinois State University.

In 2016, Badaki earned a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination – the top prizes for Chicago theatre arts – for her role as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide in the play I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given to Me By A Young Lady From Rwanda. That performance also earned her a Black Theatre Alliance Award nomination, and a win from Gay Chicago Magazine’s After Dark Awards.

Badaki made guest appearances on several TV shows, including Masters of Sex, NCIS: New Orleans; and Aquarius, before taking on her highest profile role yet as Bilquis in American Gods. Entertainment Weekly described her as a “bold, poignant” presence on the show.

Selirk is not surprised by her former student’s success.

“She made a brave decision to pursue her goals,” Selkirk says. “And I love the fact that in the book American Gods, her character gets killed off, but they’re letting her live and come back for another season.”

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