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Typecast? In Netflix’s ‘Away,’ Ato Essandoh again plays a Black Jew with a twist

14 4 10

JTA — Ato Essandoh isn’t Jewish, or British, or an astronaut — but he plays an African-British-Jewish astronaut on TV.

In Netflix’s new hit drama “Away,” about an international crew of astronauts who set out on a critical near-future mission to Mars, Essandoh plays botanist Kwesi Weisberg-Annan, an orphan who is raised by a white Jewish mother and an African Jewish father in England after his parents are killed in his native Africa. Kwesi prays in Hebrew when the going gets tough on the spacecraft — it happens often during the crew’s multi-year journey — and early on he notes that he brought aboard a Torah.

Luckily for Essandoh, he already had the Jewish side of his role down, as he put it, since he had previously portrayed a Black Jewish character — Dr. Isidore Latham on “Chicago Med.”

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“The British part was the problem — I was like, now I have to learn a dialect! But I said, ‘OK, I have the Jewish thing down,’” he said with a laugh on the phone from his home in Brooklyn.

He also had a head start on learning Jewish culture from his childhood in upstate New York, where he said he was surrounded by Jewish friends and brought up by parents who encouraged him to explore different histories and belief systems — ranging from Norse mythology to the New Testament to the fairy tale stories of West Africa.

The role of Kwesi is just the latest in a wide-ranging career that kicked into high gear after a supporting part as Natalie Portman’s adopted brother in Zach Braff’s 2004 indie hit “Garden State.” Essandoh, now 48, spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Black-Jewish representation on screen, his favorite Jewish prayer and his family’s obsession with bagels.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

JTA: This isn’t giving much away for viewers, but there is a virus plot in this show. I have to know: Was the entire thing written and filmed before the COVID-19 crisis?

Essandoh: Yes. At Netflix they practice witchcraft, so I think that’s what happened. [laughs]

When you saw this role, did you say to yourself: “Again with the Black-Jewish character?”

Where I grew up, when we moved from Schenectady to New Rochelle in like sixth grade, most of my friends were Jewish, so I got sort of a primer on a little bit of Hebrew, I got the Yiddish curses. I tasted bagels for the first time.

I have a funny story about that. We’re African kids living up in Schenectady, and my dad would do business down in New York City sometimes. One time he brought back bagels. And we had never seen bagels, we were probably 7- and 8-year-old kids. We were like, “What is that round bread with a whole in it?!” And my dad is like, “Trust us, eat it.” We’re kids, so we said, “No, we don’t know what it is!” Then he pulled out cream cheese and he’s like, “You spread this stuff on it.” And he’s coming........

© The Times of Israel

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