Tinuade Oyelowo spends her days slinging soy lattes at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint and her late Saturday nights sweating on the dance floor at Bembe in Williamsburg. At Grumpy, she does double duty: after four months there, she was tapped to play a barista on HBO’s Girls. The 29-year-old Bed-Stuy resident appeared in two episodes last season and will appear in two more next season – “a very surreal New York experience.”
Tinu was born in Texas and raised in Florida (and named by her Nigerian father after he won a coin flip, she says). While she received some theater training at Cornish College of the Arts several years back, Tinu doesn’t consider herself a “New York actor.” three years ago she moved here to further her performance art career, getting a Masters in Fine Arts from Brooklyn College. It was partly her passion for personal expression and partly her desire to experience “real Brooklyn” that caused her to fall in love with Bembe when she discovered the unmarked, unassuming club a year ago.
We sat down with her there as a drummer banged along to the DJ, and she talked about her burning desire for diversity and dancing.
I forgot who told me about this place. We decided to go in a taxi. We come here and it was the first moment that I said, “This is what Brooklyn is. This is my idea of a New York experience.”
We got dropped off on a very secluded corner. We saw the wooden doors. We went through. All of a sudden, it was like a burst of sun but at three o’clock in the morning. You just felt warmth. You felt body heat. You felt sweat and it wasn’t always your own sweat. People were dancing. Literally, the rhythm of the room was so intense that you couldn’t help but dance because you can’t stand still if everybody else around you is dancing.
What’s beautiful about here is that it’s diverse. I think one of the hardest things is when you go to a bar or a club and you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb.
I’ve had situations where people will grab my hair and want to touch me. I get a lot of people who ask, “Oh my god! I love your hair! Is that real?” And you’re like, “First of all, it’s none of your business whether my hair is real or not. Second, who the fuck are you?” I can’t say that. But you’ve made an assumption about the way that you think you’re used to seeing a black person.
It feels like a reflection when I walk through the door. Not specifically skin color, but diversity like: queer, straight, white, black, Puerto Rican, Asian, South Pacific, West Indies, African. You’re seeing so many different cultures here. Even though we live in Brooklyn, a lot of times we kind of put up shutters to culture. And we’re like, okay, I go from this point to this point and I don’t really ever interact with the cultures that are in and around my neighborhood. It’s wonderful when you can come into a place and everybody’s experiencing different types of fusions of music and expression that is so unbelievably raw.
For Season 1, Girls came to Café Grumpy and asked them to do some scenes in their café. After Season 1, I was hired. My boss came up to me and was like, “Hey, they want to use you in an episode.” And I laughed. I was like, “Come on, really? Are you kidding me?” I hadn’t heard of Girls at the time.
Lena [Dunham] directed one of the scenes I was in. And then, the second time, for this season, she was in the scene I was in. It was amazing. She is an incredibly humble, sweet, down-to-earth person. Not that I was expecting otherwise. But you don’t know what to expect in these situations. You just go there and say, “I’m going to be myself and I hope that’s the best I can be.” Fortunately, it really has paid off for me: being honest and genuine. In the long run, being sincere and true to yourself is always going to pay off, in any way.
I told myself: You don’t need to go and lose a thousand pounds overnight. They selected you when you were chunky, and you can’t go there looking anorexic. Like with Bembe, you come and you’re true to yourself in the moment with the space and the music. Sometimes I’ve gone to amazing clubs, and there are people dancing, but they’re also looking to see who’s dancing. I think it’s wonderful when you can come some place and just forget about that.
Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Tinu received theater training at Brooklyn College.